The Maple Leafs have been a little inconsistent lately, going 5-4-1 in their last 10. It comes at a time when the schedule is ramping up and the trade deadline is just two weeks away.
The Leafs play seven games over the next 13 days followed by a bit of a break with only one game in the next six days (the trade deadline falls in here), followed by 19 games in 35 days to end the season.
The race to the finish of the regular season is always hectic, but it’s on another level this year. Almost every team is facing a similar situation, though, so the Leafs are not alone.
That’s why having two goalies – and using both – is going to be so important. It’s also why a few extra bodies on defense is valuable, in addition to a stable of forwards they can pick and choose from in case of injuries.
The rest of the season is not just going to be about ramping up for playoffs as per usual; it’s also about attempting to emerge on the other side of it healthy so that they have a full roster ready to go for the second season.
With all of that said, here are some extended notes as we enter the stretch drive.
– The Leafs‘ power play went seven games without scoring until the loss to the Canucks, but even then, they scored on a broken play off the rush that was a little lucky (how often do you get a 3v1 off the rush on the power play?).
Now, usually, we chalk it up to a slump that happens to every team in the league. The Leafs do not get the benefit of the doubt based on their track record over the past few years, though.
Last season, the Leafs rocketed out to a hot start on the power play. In the final 20 games of the season, their power play clicked at 10 percent and then proceeded to convert at 13 percent in the playoffs.
In the final 20 games of the season before, the Leafs posted a respectable 20 percent, but that was below their season average, and they carried it through to the playoffs, where they clicked at under 16 percent.
– Sheldon Keefe mentioned that the opposition has made adjustments to the Leafs’ power play. Two things stand out to me.
The first is that opposition PKs are pressuring the half-wall more. Simply put, if the Leafs are allowed to set it up and snap the puck around, good things are going to happen. When the opposition pressures them into rushing their puck movement, it gets more challenging; the Leafs don’t really have the type of one-timer play to make teams pay.
Matthews has been trying to take more one-timers of late, and they seem to have shifted him to his one-timer side a bit more consistently recently.
Second, there has been an adjustment in the way the PKs pressure their breakout. They are striking more of a balance around pressuring the initial puck carrier (Morgan Rielly) who is dropping the puck, making the play a little more difficult on the Leafs. If the Leafs are allowed to wind up with speed in possession through the neutral zone, it’s a pretty easy entry for them.
– Justin Holl started the season playing a ton of minutes and producing about zero offensively, but rather quietly, he has eight points in his last 12 games while playing 20 minutes per night. Since February 1, he actually leads all Leafs defensemen in scoring.
– Updated Jack Campbell stats by month so far:
|Month||Games Played||Save Percentage|
– He has already surpassed his previous career-high in the NHL (31) with 39 games this season. That 31 number is even a little misleading knowing he only started 25 of those games. This season, he has started 38.
We’ll see if he can bounce back, but this is why workloads — and the big difference between a workhorse starter vs. a platoon goalie — get brought up all the time. It is a crazy position, and the number of games played in a season takes its toll.
– Entering the Saturday night game against the Canucks. the Leafs framed it as a big game (Wayne Simmonds’ 1000th game, coming off a bad loss, HNIC at home in a full capacity arena, etc.), but they didn’t really come out and impose their will on the game or set much of a tone.
That has been a consistent pattern come playoff time as well: coming out in big games and not getting off to big starts that get the crowd into it and built some momentum within the game. It often feels like they are easing into the game instead.
That’s also true during pivotal moments within a game. At the end of the first period, with about a minute and a half left, Keefe sent out the top line with Ilya Lyubushkin and Travis Dermott for a faceoff at the offside dot outside their zone against the Canucks fourth line. The Canucks fourth line got the puck in deep, forechecked, won some battles, and created an offensive-zone faceoff. Bruce Boudreau sent out the Bo Horvat line in response while Keefe kept his top line on and replaced the defense pair with TJ Brodie and Justin Holl. The Canucks hemmed them in throughout the next shift and won some battles along the wall, eventually leading to a goal.
The period wasn’t over yet, so Keefe tried playing it safe by sending out his second line with Alex Kerfoot on the left wing to close out the period. Kerfoot iced it right before center for another offensive zone faceoff for the Canucks (although nothing came of it).
The coach is leaning on his top players there to close out a period and take a tie into the intermission, and they didn’t deliver. It’s going to happen throughout the season, but at home in a game with some meaning and coming off a bad loss, you’d like to see more awareness and engagement there.
– To start the third period, the Leafs’ third line was on the ice, and Pierre Engvall didn’t win a battle to get the puck out. The Canucks tied the game a minute into the period. There is never a good time to lose puck battles in the defensive zone, but those key moments to start and close periods — where you’re attempting to take a tie to intermission or protecting a lead in the third — are times to really dig in.
– Nick Robertson scored in his fourth game of the season while playing on a line with John Tavares and William Nylander. His ice time has been modest to this point: 11:16 in the game against the Canucks after 11:29, 5:28, and 9:19 in his first three games.
It’s clear that if he is going to be on the NHL roster, he needs to play with top talent in a scoring role with some steady minutes. Even though Jason Spezza is obviously skilled and still a good player, playing limited minutes on the fourth line was not doing him or the team any favours.
“No, not at this time. You are always trying to make the team better, but at this time, it will be more on defense.”
– Kyle Dubas on if he is more inclined to add a forward now than a few weeks ago
In the Leafs’ last three playoff appearances, they have averaged 2.57, 2.0, and 2.43 goals per game. We all see the struggles on defense, but they have struggled to score in three straight playoffs, and they only really have one forward line rolling at the moment.
Maybe they have the pieces in-house to turn the forwards around – it’s understandable to believe this – but the lack of scoring over the first-round exits, and the current makeup of the forward group, should not be understated.
“He wasn’t low maintenance for me, he was no maintenance. I gave him a job to do and he did it. He stuck up for his teammates. He was great on the power play. We could move him up and down the lineup, wherever needed. And he had an understanding of the game he had to play to be successful
– Joey Mullen, former Flyers assistant coach, on coaching Wayne Simmonds
Congrats to Wayne Simmonds on an amazing accomplishment. He’s truly earned everything he’s gotten in this league, and playing 1,000 games in this league is a true testament to his character and determination. He should be damn proud of his career.
“Right now, with the way it is going, we have done a good job of defending against the rush. The odd-man rushes and things of that nature have been cut down significantly. As a result, we are getting teams that are relying on the low-to-high passes and throwing pucks at the net.
In a lot of cases, if you asked any coach in the NHL, that is what you would like to give up if you are going to give up anything. They are really low-percentage shots. Right now, we are allowing some tips and traffic to make those shots more dangerous. That is what we need to do a better job of.”
– Sheldon Keefe on the team’s defense
This is a fair and noteworthy point: The Leafs have cut down on the odd-man rushes after a stretch of play where they hung their goalies out to dry.
You can only clean up so many things at once, and that was a good first step. The next is one everyone can identify right now: They need to box out in front of their net. Attacking players are winning too many battles and getting too many sticks on pucks in the slot against the Leafs.
Tweets of the Week
If Alex Kerfoot isn't going to play in the top six, I'd play him at centre.
If you don't like him in the top six, and you don't like him at centre, trade him.
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) March 4, 2022
I feel like we have this conversation every year at this point. Alex Kerfoot is best used on the wing, but if he’s not in the top six as a complementary scorer, he’s unable to drive a line in the bottom six, and he’s not really a centerman… At his cap hit, you can get more bang for the buck than this, even if he is enjoying a career year production-wise.
One thing worth noting: The Leafs have many options here, but Kerfoot is a very good penalty killer, which isn’t nothing.
Leafs .876 save percentage ranks last in the NHL since January 9th.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) March 6, 2022
I think it’s too simple to blame the goalies and dust our hands. Most of their lines outside the top line have struggled to create offense. The defense has been leaky. But the goaltending has not been good, and when that’s the case, mistakes across the board are magnified.
“Buffalo comes in to shock the Leafs” is in accurate statement by Cuthbert. No one is shocked. This is the least shocking outcome possible.
— Andreychuk Mangione (@LeBronMaclean) March 3, 2022
Even though the Leafs beat Buffalo in eight of their last 10 matchups, it’s never surprising to see them lose to the Sabres. The standings and the talent gap on the rosters can be thrown out the window, particularly if the game is in Buffalo. I can’t believe people still think otherwise when they see the Sabres coming up on the schedule.
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think it’s important to be honest about where this team stands right now at the forward position. They essentially have one line they can trust to consistently create offense. I think they want to add a forward in an ideal world, but the cap situation is complicating matters. That’s almost certainly the reason why Nick Robertson is up with the team.
Maybe it works out and there’s nothing to worry about here, but for the rest of the regular season, setting the top line in stone is crazy to me. I don’t want to take anything away from Michael Bunting, who is having a great season, is a great player, and brings something to the line, beyond question. But Auston Matthews will be able to produce with or without him, and so will Mitch Marner. They are elite players.
We’ve seen this movie from the Leafs before where they tear up the regular season and then are bottled up come playoff time. To not build in contingency plans is a wasted opportunity. To not ask yourself the question, “What’s the best way to build four forward lines that net us the best possible offensive advantage?” is a strange way to do business.
Sheldon Keefe split up the top line for 1.5 games where he had William Nylander take shifts with David Kampf. That was never going to work out. He then scrapped it and said the current lines are the optimal ones. It just seems like a rigid approach to take when there is time to experiment between now and the do-or-die playoff games.
2. I think it was clear against Vancouver — and any other time it’s happened over the years — that Pierre Engvall can’t play right wing. Playing the off-wing is hard to do. There’s a reason it’s usually only done by highly-skilled players, which Engvall is not.
He really struggled to pick up pucks along the wall on his off-wing, and it neutered one of his strengths, which is driving wide in the offensive zone while using his reach to hold onto the puck on his forehand. Even though he isn’t particularly skilled, I’ve always thought Ilya Mikheyev is at least respectable on his off-wing, mostly due to his tenacity and work ethic when getting pucks out.
3. If the goal is to simply have a solid third pairing that the team can trust to take a semi-regular shift and not get burned, I think I quite like the Travis Dermott – Ilya Lyubushkin pair. They are completely no-frills, but they don’t make many glaring errors, and they can move the puck up the ice just well enough within reason. It’s not sexy or flashy, but over the years, the Leafs have iced third pairings in the playoffs that were complete liabilities, and I think this one has the tools to be trusted to not get scored on very much.
4. I think I’ve liked Justin Holl alongside TJ Brodie, and while they will likely have to reunite the Rielly – Brodie pairing, it is a good demonstration that Holl can still be a solid player when he is the second-best player on his pairing.
This is basically what happened with him and Jake Muzzin the past two years. With Muzzin, he did a good job of complementing and supporting him. When Muzzin fell injured in the playoffs, Holl had to lead the pairing, and it didn’t go well. When Muzzin struggled this season, it was the same story. But Holl can support a good defenseman quite capably.
5. I understand the cap implications to Jake Muzzin returning before the playoffs, but I think the Leafs must prioritize getting Muzzin into some games before the postseason. By and large, he struggled this season. While I give veterans the benefit of the doubt in most cases, I don’t think we can look at his body of work this year and feel even remotely okay about him missing the rest of the regular season before airdropping him into the lineup come playoff time.
It might make sense if they can bring in a really good defenseman that allows them to play Muzzin on the third pairing to start with. Short of that, if they are counting on him to play big minutes from the start of the playoffs, he needs reps before the playoffs to be ready.