With the Maple Leafs season on a COVID-induced pause heading into the holiday break, Maple Leafs Hot Stove’s Kevin Papetti joined Sportsnet Tonight to discuss his impressions on the team’s first 30 games, whether the NHL withdrawing from the Olympics helps the Leafs, and possible needs looking ahead to the March trade deadline.
Impressions at the 30-game mark:
They’re tied for third in save percentage with the Rangers. It is tough to complain too much about 20 wins in 30 games. Even beyond the points, they are top five in expected goals percentage, top 10 in goal differential, their power play is much better than last year and looks much more balanced with more shooting threats.
The big four have played well — Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander. There are plenty of bright spots elsewhere, whether it is a Bunting or Kase — who has really filled the Kasperi Kapanen hole from last season — or if it is a Wayne Simmonds bouncing back at the age 33, or their young defensemen in Sandin and Liljegren. Jack Campbell is probably the biggest bright spot of them all.
So far, so good so far. It is not a surprise they are having success — we all had high expectations — but it is one thing to have a good team on paper and another thing to get the wins, bank the points, and position yourself for home-ice advantage come playoff time.
On the Leafs ranking higher in goals against than goals for:
I think it is mostly down to Jack Campbell — he has a .937 save percentage. If he keeps that up, they are peak Dominik Hasek, Hall-of-Fame type numbers. I would expect a little bit of regression there.
I do think the defense group has taken a little bit of a step backward, in particular the Muzzin-Holl pairing. But going back two years with the addition of Muzzin and then of Brodie, it is a huge step forward from where they are.
There are a few holes on the roster: The Muzzin-Holl pairing has struggled, and I think it is something you either fix internally — maybe it’s Muzzin – Liljegren — or something you fix at the deadline. Nick Ritchie’s one goal in 29 games has been a bit of a hole.
The Rielly-Brodie pairing has been strong. The third pairing, whether Sandin-Dermott or Sandin-Liljegren, has delivered terrific results. The eyes are on the Muzzin-Holl pairing knowing it’s the one that would be up against the Barkovs and Kucherovs come playoff time. A big shutdown line is a key to playoff success.
They have a real clear path to getting even better by fixing those problems. If they’re a good team with those problems — imagine them without?
On whether the Leafs have the capital to make a significant move at the deadline:
They have their first-round pick, and Kyle Dubas has not been hesitant to move it in previous years. The last time the Leafs used their own first-round pick was back in 2017 with Timothy Liljegren. I still don’t think Dubas is afraid to trade it.
The prospects we’ll see at the World Juniors — Topi Niemela, Roni Hirvonen, Matthew Knies has been outstanding at the University of Minnesota this year — will be seen by other teams and they’ll be interested. All three of them can play.
You also have Nick Roberston and Rodion Amirov, the 15th overall pick in his draft year. They have the capital.
Whether it is a forward or a defenseman is a question that is going to be answered in the next few months. The deadline is not until March 21. They have some time to evaluate. If Muzzin-Liljegren works, maybe you look for a forward rather than a defenseman. If you really can’t solve the defense in the next three months, maybe it becomes a defenseman.
Looking at the market right now, I do think there are going to be more forwards available than defensemen in terms of impact players. It is hard to find those top-four right-shooting defensemen come deadline time. They had been looking for that for years. They could use one more, whether it is a Damon Severson in New Jersey or a cheaper player like a Colin Miller in Buffalo.
Up front, maybe they can add a difference maker like a Tomas Hertl out of San Jose who could make them more of a clear favourite come playoff time. Whether it is Tampa, Florida, or Boston, it is going to be a good opponent in the first round. I do think they are going to want a difference maker to help get them out of the first round.