Photo: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

We’re halfway through January yet still five games short of the midway point of the season.

Due to COVID-19 and the NHL opting out of the Olympics, it’s a little difficult to wrap your head around the fact that the Maple Leafs still have 46 games left to play in their 2021-22 regular season.

The NHL trade deadline, which would traditionally fall a month or so from now in the schedule, isn’t taking place until March 21 this season. If all goes according to plan with the schedule, that means the Leafs still have 17 games to go before the deadline arrives – a stretch of games in which they’re going to need to seriously evaluate their needs.

As things stand, the team has three draft picks for the 2022 draft – their first, second, and seventh-round selections. Last season, the Leafs drafted in only the second, fifth, and sixth rounds. The front office obviously can’t blow through all of its draft picks and essentially punt on the draft two years in a row.

At the same time, it’s tough to judge much value the Leafs’ top prospects carry as trade assets around the league. 2020 first-round pick Rodion Amirov has played in 10 games this season. Their top selection in 2019, Nick Robertson, has played in two. Their two highest draft picks in 2018 and 2017, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, are both contributing in the NHL right now, and it would make little sense for a cap-crunched team like the Leafs to move out good, young, cost-controlled players unless it was part of an absolute homerun of a deal.

Their current deadline cap space projection, according to CapFriendly, is $928,275.

That is not a lot of draft picks, prized prospects, or cap space for Kyle Dubas to work with, and the Leafs are in arguably the most top heavy division. We could reasonably suggest all four of the playoff teams in the Atlantic are elite. That makes the prospect of doing nothing — or very little — at the trade deadline a tough pill to swallow.

To make matters more interesting, given the overall lack of assets and cap space, the Leafs can probably only accomplish one move of note to move the needle. The big decision for the Leafs will come down to whether it’s for a top-six forward or a top-four defenseman.

Again, it’s worth stressing that the Leafs are only 36 games into the season. They have at least 10 more games to go before they really have to dial in on a final decision (and I’m sure we’ll revisit this discussion at that time).

As things currently stand, the Leafs are seventh in goals per game in the league and sixth in goals against. Their power play rates second in efficiency. Their penalty kill ranks eighth.

For many, the answer is a top-four defenseman, and there is some sense in that. Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl’s Corsi together in 391 minutes at 5v5 is 48.92 and their goals for percentage is 43.24 — although, interestingly enough, their expected goals for is 52.40%. If it evens out in the second half – a big if here, obviously – is that really the need?

The Morgan Rielly – TJ Brodie pairing has been steady, while Sandin and Liljegren continue to get better. Travis Dermott can play in the league.

Offensively, the Leafs are humming along as per usual. Michael Bunting has fit in seamlessly on the top line. Ondrej Kase gives the team the type of X-factor on the third line they’ve sorely lacked over the years. Spezza is still capable of chipping on the fourth line as well.

However, we’ve seen this movie before from the Leafs – the offense looks great in the regular season only to dry right up in the playoffs, resulting in a first-round loss where we all look at their shooting percentage and declare, “Surely, this can’t happen again!” And then it does the following year.

At this point, I think it’s a bit too early to make a true determination. There is still time to bide and games to be played. A legitimate top-four defenseman would be a big boost for this roster, but I can’t fully shake the struggles offensively in the playoffs over the years quite yet.

Between trying to find cap space, managing a limited stock of trade assets, and figuring out where to concentrate their time, Leafs management has a lot to sort through in the next few months.


Jake Muzzin of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Canadian Press

–  With all the debate about a top-four defenseman vs. a top-six forward, it should be noted it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore Jake Muzzin’s struggles. I can’t stress enough that we’re only 36 games into the season and Muzzin is a proven veteran, but the puzzling mistakes continue.

Against Vegas, he left his man — with the team shorthanded — to chase a puck carrier Holl had completely angled off, leading to an easy goal. Against the Blues, he had a second to make a play on the breakout and turned it over, followed by a second touch that he flipped through the middle back to the Blues again, leading to Ryan O’Reilly’s second goal of the night.

The 19:46 he played in St. Louis was his sixth-lowest TOI of the season. Against Vegas, he played just 19:48. It has become easy to blame Justin Holl for the struggles of the second pairing, but it’s not just on him – Muzzin is struggling, too. Considering he’s the player that’s supposed to carry the second pairing, it makes it far more concerning.

– I had been wondering if refs – and other teams – would wise up to Michael Bunting’s antics. It was a missed call against the Blues when Torey Krug hit him and then basically jumped him, but I wonder if that’s the type of reputation non-call we used to see with Nazem Kadri back in the day.

–  After a tough third period against Vegas where they recorded just two shots on net, it was nice to see the Leafs put up 13 (and only give up four) in the third against the Blues in another tight game. Against the three strong teams they played on the road trip, the Leafs were handily outplayed in the third period in the first two games. It had the potential to go that way again against the Blues, but they dug in and showed some resolve to right the ship a bit.

–  Ondrej Kase only played a limited amount of time alongside Michael Bunting and Auston Matthews (roughly 55 minutes at 5v5 this season), but for what it’s worth, the possession numbers and expected goals numbers are both notably higher when Mitch Marner is there compared to Kase. It’s a nice backup option to have — in the case of injuries or a need to mix things up — but it’s still far better to have Marner on that line, which only makes sense — he’s a high-end winger.

–  It’s going to be interesting to monitor how the shorthanded time on ice shakes out among the forwards once all of the team’s penalty killers return. Against the Blues, with Pierre Engvall and Mitch Marner back, the order of ice time went David Kampf, Alex Kerfoot, Marner, Engvall, William Nylander, and Ilya Mikheyev.


Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers

“Each game has been a different animal. Today’s game — I don’t know when the last time, if ever, that Jack Campbell has given up five on 22 shots. I don’t think it was indicative of how we were playing as a group. I thought we were actually playing quite well tonight even all the way through the third period.”

– Sheldon Keefe on the Leafs surrendering a number of leads on their road trip

I don’t think Sheldon Keefe was calling out Jack Campbell here, but he did generally struggle on the night and has given up 13 goals in three games on the road trip. To this point in the season, Campbell has given them Vezina-calibre goaltending, but he’s now approaching his career-high in games played in an NHL season (it’s 31 and he’s currently at 28). It’ll be the next big test for him as he starts surpassing games-played milestones.

“It was a great play by him. It was really smart. When I’m going hard backhand like that, he made a great play. I’ve got to give him credit. He made a good play, and it was a tough one to eat.”

– Ryan O’Reilly on the Matthews shot off the faceoff that led to a Bunting goal

“I know their guy [O’Reilly] draws inside on his backhand, so I just told Bunts to go to the net and see what happens. Was able to get some pretty good wood on it and he made a really nice play to corral the puck and put it in.”

– Matthews on his shot off the faceoff that led to a Bunting goal

It’s cool to hear both players describe what happened on the goal. We haven’t really seen this type of play from Auston Matthews before, so that’s an interesting wrinkle he’s added. His faceoff percentage so far this season is 55.89%, which would be a career-high. He’s 15th among all players who have taken at least 300 faceoffs. John Tavares is fourth.

“I’m actually, to be honest, really excited with my game. Before the season, I didn’t know what’s going on with my body and now I’m still in the show. I enjoy every moment.”

– Ondrej Kase on his game so far this season

The only pleasant “surprise” with Ondrej Kase is that he has stayed healthy – most people who followed him over the years were aware that he’s a good player. Kase is tied for fourth in goals on the team, handles defensive zone starts, and has carved a role as a penalty killer. As long as he stays healthy, he is a valuable chess piece for Sheldon Keefe.

Tweets of the Week

Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

I think the discourse on Mitch Marner has really gone too far the other way. Yes, he does need to work on his shot, and no, the half-wall of the top power-play unit is not the best place for him, but he’s a legitimate top-line player and difference maker. The Leafs are a better team with him in the lineup, and Matthew is a better player when he plays with Marner. It was nice to see Marner back and making a difference against the Blues.

To be clear, this is among defensemen, but it’s again worth pointing out what a fantastic season Morgan Rielly is having so far. He picked up another two points against the Blues and played nearly 28 minutes (27:41) as a number of other Leafs defensemen struggled.

Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to a guy for a hell of a game.

5 Things I Think I’d Do

Pierre Engvall, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: USA Today Sports

1.  I think Mitch Marner down low on the power play is exactly where he should be. That leaves Auston Matthews and William Nylander on either half-wall, John Tavares in the bumper, and Morgan Rielly up top. Marner set up the Matthews winner, but in the second period, they almost connected on a tic-tac-toe goal where Matthews froze the defender and went low to Marner, who one-touched it to Tavares in the slot for a one-timer attempt. It didn’t work, but that’s a great play for the Leafs to keep in their bag.

I didn’t mind the odd occasion where Marner switched with Nylander just to create confusion, but all-in-all, that’s the right solution vs. taking Marner off the top power play completely.

2.  I still think the Leafs need a countermove to opposing penalty kills playing the drop pass on the power play. Sure, it generally works, but when teams completely overcommit, they need a play where Morgan Rielly skates it in himself. He’s more than capable and used to do it for many years on the power play. It’s a shame to see that part of his game completely neutered.

3.  If the Leafs want to look more closely at Ondrej Kase in the top six, I think the interesting move would be playing him with John Tavares and William Nylander rather than with Michael Bunting and Auston Matthews. The Kerfoot – Tavares – Nylander line has been productive (12 goals for, five against at 5v5), but their Corsi so far through over 200 minutes is 50.25% and their expected goals for percentage is 53%. They aren’t exactly crushing it, even though they are nicely set up by Matthews taking on the top matchup and Kampf handling defensive zone draws (generally speaking).

4.  I think Pierre Engvall is making the top-nine discussion a lot more interesting than people realize. He had two points against the Blues and was very noticeable in his return – his speed, size, and ability to carry the puck can make a difference. When everyone is healthy, it’s a hard top nine for Engvall to crack, but he’s been a plus player this season. Even if he doesn’t take line rushes in the top nine, he should at least be moved up there throughout the course of a game.

5.  I do think the fourth line is worth discussing, especially as the season progresses. I’m not really sure what the aim of the line is – Jason Spezza is a skilled player, while Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds are grinders (although Simmonds can also contribute offensively, of course). Against the Blues, they each played under eight minutes.

Simmonds has only played over 10 minutes once in his last five games. Spezza has hit that mark in three of his last five but still only played 10:03 and 10:43 in two of the three. I think the Leafs can get more out of the unit, but as currently constructed, I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be a depth scoring line or an energy line.  At the moment, they aren’t doing much of either.

Perhaps Pierre Engvall with Spezza and Simmonds makes them a bit more of a credible depth scoring line.