With the All-Star break over, the stretch drive has officially begun.
There is no playoff race to speak of in the East at the moment. The top four teams in each division are basically set (unless the Islanders can cash in on their eight games in hand with a big winning streak) and the rest of the season will basically be about fine-tuning, getting to the playoffs healthy, firing on all cylinders, and jockeying for position in the standings.
The division is just so good up top for the Leafs that the margin for error is insanely thin. At the moment, the Leafs are on a five-game winning streak and 7-2-1 in their last 10. That ties them with Tampa Bay for best record through their last 10. Florida is 7-3-0 in that time and Boston is 6-3-1. No one is giving each other an inch at this point.
The Leafs have seven games remaining against those three teams (Florida three times, Tampa and Boston twice each), and the combination of everyone playing each other will likely decide who finishes where within the division.
Note: Again, this is worth repeating – it’s criminal the Leafs don’t play the Panthers before the trade deadline. That is beyond bad scheduling.
In the meantime, what can we look for? Sheldon Keefe has already noted what he believes the team’s optimal lineup to be at forward. On defense, it will be about the continued growth of Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, as well as a hopeful return for Jake Muzzin and him finding his form. Obviously, the trade deadline will be of significant interest; once it concludes, we’ll pivot to how the roster changes to accommodate whatever move(s) are made.
A lot of the hockey left to be played is really going to be about staying the course. The Leafs have high-end power-play and penalty-killing units. They are a top-10 possession team in the league. With so much time left to ponder about the team before judgement day really comes, it almost feels like a college football player who goes back for another season instead of declaring for the draft and then proceeds to get his game completely picked apart by scouts.
Every loss turns into a referendum on the team instead of it simply being a case of a club losing some games over an 82-game season just like the rest of the league (and yes, sometimes there is cause for concern, but most times, it’s not really an indication of some fatal flaw with the team).
With that in mind, it would be nice if the Leafs weren’t done experimenting with their lines and defense pairings. The team did not look good against Detroit after shaking it up and the coaching staff was quick to return the lines back to their regular trios. The defense only shifts around if there is injury or someone is playing so poorly mid-game that it can’t go on any longer.
It’s seemingly a conversation we have every year at this point, but we’ll see if this is truly the one where we see tinkering for extended periods of time, and whether players are properly load managed, particularly the veterans.
We know who the playoff teams are at this point. We know this is a very good Leafs team in a very good division. They are going to need to have versatility in their lineup to get through the grind of the playoffs. Now is the time to prepare for that.
– Last season, Mitch Marner averaged a career-high 22:26 per game, which led the league among forwards. The Leafs have clearly put some effort towards reducing that number; it is down so far as he’s currently averaging 20:49 per night. For most of January, though, that number has started to trend back up.
Marner averaged 21:34 over the month which was the fifth most among all forwards in January. The player just above him? Auston Matthews. Kyle Connor, Connor McDavid, and Leon Draisaitl were the only forwards that averaged more TOI per game.
With the schedule about to be super condensed followed by the playoffs, it should be interesting to see if the coaching staff continues to play those two so much – which has been their modus operandi the past few seasons as the season goes along.
– On the other end of the spectrum, Wayne Simmonds averaged 8:14 per night in 11 games and had two assists in that time to go along with nine shots on goal. Jason Spezza averaged 9:38 and had three points to go along with 10 shots on net.
– It was nice to see the Leafs come out and put the Devils away so quickly in the second half of the back-to-back. They were coming off two poor starts in a row and it was a clear point of emphasis for the coaching staff. The team responded accordingly. David Kampf ended up leading all forwards in ice time with 18:13 and nobody else even played 16 minutes. That’s a tidy game.
– I know that Mitch Marner’s goal-scoring streak is getting all the attention, but a play of his that stood out was the battle he won against Andreas Johnsson on the wall before getting the puck to the Matthews for an easy goal. It was a really impressive effort in the trenches to create offense.
– Rasmus Sandin has seen his ice time go up in Jake Muzzin’s absence. He has played over 20 minutes in four of the team’s last five; in the other game, he played over 19 minutes.
His offensive craftiness gets a lot of attention, but where he really separates himself is his puck movement to break the puck out cleanly. He has a series of head fakes, shoulder dips, and shot deceptions to manipulate forechecks into going one way before he moves it the other.
Against the Devils, Sandin had one play where he faked a slapshot (as if he was going to rim it all the way to the far side winger), then simply bumped it to the center in the middle of the ice. He is putting together a nice first full-time season as a Leaf.
“For us, I want to take as much time as we possibly have to find out what exactly it is that we need. I have my opinions, and they change all of the time. I am sure everyone here has one as well. Teams around the league probably have their opinions of us when they look at it… Injury, ineffective play, or whatever it may be — or something that just glaringly stands out as a need — may also enter into the fray. That is again how we will have to adjust course. We probably don’t have a whole lot of bullets in the chamber here. We are going to have to pick and choose as we set our sights.”
– Kyle Dubas on navigating the salary cap
In previous columns, we have discussed how the Leafs really don’t have the cap space — or trade assets for that matter — to acquire a number of top-of-the-lineup difference makers.
The decision to acquire a top-six forward or a top-four defenseman is not as cut and dry as some have framed it, either. It’s a fair stance to take as much time as possible to make a decision here. They have 11 games in the final 22 games of this month. After that, a clearer picture should emerge.
“We like that our team has lots of fight in it and keeps pushing. It had confidence in its ability to come back in the game and score enough goals to win. Obviously, the start is not even close to good enough. It is the kind of start where you deserve to lose games when you play like that, start that way, and spot them three.
Fortunately for us, there was enough time for us to chip away at it and push back. I loved our finding a way to tie the game, and when we got the adversity of a late penalty kill, we turned it into a game-winning goal. You love to see that.”
– Sheldon Keefe on coming back against the Devils
I think the moral of the story is that the Leafs are searching for a 60-minute recipe. It won’t be sustainable to be alternating good/bad starts and good/bad finishes when they are playing top opponents every single night. In the meantime, it’s nice to see them battle back in a game and rebound from a bad start.
“I’m getting into spots and I’m not afraid to shoot it. I think before maybe I’d hold onto it for an extra second.”
– Mitch Marner on his goal scoring streak
Right now, Mitch Marner is shooting a career-high 15.6 percent and he shot more per game last season (2.84) than this season (2.73). In his first three seasons in the league, he put up 19, 22, and 26 goals; in the following two shortened seasons, he played to 22 and 30-goal paces. He’s probably a better goal scorer than he’s given credit for.
Tweets of the Week
The Leafs have 55.3% of the expected goals (xGF%) when Justin Holl is on the ice at 5-on-5 this season.
That's up from 53.9% last season. pic.twitter.com/gXiLJdeTjM
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) February 3, 2022
Now, I’m not sitting here and arguing Justin Holl has actually been good this season and everyone just doesn’t know it – nor do I think that’s the point of this tweet – but the level of criticism he has faced has blown it a bit out of proportion.
At 5v5, he and Jake Muzzin have generally taken the toughest matchups and they have been outscored by two overall. The defenseman Holl has played with the most other than Muzzin is Rasmus Sandin, and they have outscored opponents by six while paired up together.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) February 1, 2022
I feel like we are seeing a ton of these lately from Auston Matthews, every single one is worth pointing out. Mats Sundin holds the record for goals and points by a Leaf with 420 and 987, respectively. Matthews is already at 228 and 402, so provided he plays in Toronto and stays healthy through the prime of his career, there’s no reason to think he won’t be the leader in both categories when it’s all said and done.
Borje Salming is the assist leader with 620, which Matthews is far back of with 174. The player who has a real shot at breaking that one is unsurprisingly Marner, who is at 278 as of this writing.
The foundation of a rebuild. Leafs closed out 2016 with a loss in New Jersey prior to drafting Auston Matthews 2 months later. Fast forward 6 years later to last night’s game in Newark. #Leafsforever pic.twitter.com/dyU6O7z486
— Paul Hendrick (@HennyTweets) February 2, 2022
Amazing to see how far this team has come since drafting Matthews. The only two players still remaining from this roster, William Nylander and especially Morgan Rielly, really have been through it all on this journey from league-worst to contender.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think if I was the Leafs, the question I would be asking more than anything is why the Alex Kerfoot – John Tavares – William Nylander line only breaks even at 50.7 corsi-for percentage, with a 52.23 expected goals percentage, and whether that’s good enough.
They do have 60.87 goals for percentage — they are reasonably outscoring opponents so far — but is that papering over the reality here or can you simply bank on the talent to overcome any issues? In the regular season, they will come out ahead, but in the playoffs against top teams, will that still be the case?
2. If Sheldon Keefe is going to shake up the top three lines again, I think the truth is that David Kampf would have to drop to what would be the fourth line on paper. He’s a nice player for his role, but he’s not good enough offensively to pair him up with a player like William Nylander and expect it to work as even a short-term solution.
They’d have to move Kerfoot to center Nylander as they did in the playoffs last year, which would then also open up a left-wing spot for Pierre Engvall in the top nine. Overall, not the worst idea.
3. I think Justin Holl is coming off of a quietly good month and is showing why the Leafs should stick with him (whether that’s on the second or third pairing is to be determined, and it’s also based on how Jake Muzzin performs when he returns). Holl played 21:31 per game in January and had four points in eight games. It was helpful for him to play with Rasmus Sandin and relinquish some of the puck-carrying duties.
He has a role on this team and is a good contributor, one way or another. It should be noted he also led all defensemen in shorthanded time on ice per game in January and is second to Muzzin for the season.
4. I think I’d really be looking for opportunities to load manage Wayne Simmonds and Jason Spezza where possible. When this was happening early in the season, they were staying fresh, and they’d come back in and play well. Now, they are playing every night, their minutes are dipping, and they aren’t producing much.
5. With so many games coming up in a tight stretch of time, I think I would be planning on basically alternating Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek pretty well no matter how they are playing. Even if they are struggling, they need to play through it. It doesn’t do any good to have either sitting on the bench for a lengthy period of time.