The final stretch of the season is here, and it’s going to be crazy.
For the Leafs, April will feature 15 games in 30 days before heading right into the playoffs. Performing well in those games will be just as important as managing the players, the ice time, and the rest levels.
As we head into the final stretch, here are some extended notes on the early returns of Mark Giordano, the power play, two players improving their shots, and more.
– The early returns on Mark Giordano are as to be expected so far, which is a great thing. His minutes are safe — if not boring — but the puck also doesn’t die on his stick. He’s capable of moving it up ice cleanly.
Leading up to the deadline, we discussed the need for a top-four defenseman that wouldn’t force the Leafs to rely on Jake Muzzin‘s return in order to give the Leafs a legitimate top four. The need for a forward is still clear, but you can see how they can get to where they need to be with their forward group — they have four stars up front.
On defense, they don’t have that luxury. Even on the now-infamous “William Nylander should have backchecked harder” goal (which is still true), Timothy Liljegren played it poorly all the way through – a giveaway in the neutral zone, turning away from the play instead of gapping up after, and not taking away the passing lane properly. They couldn’t rely on the young defensemen to play in the top four if they have any hope of going deep (and sure, other things also need to go well for them — such as goaltending — but this was the most fixable).
Giordano is playing just under 20 minutes so far as a Leaf. So far, so good.
– Interestingly enough, when it comes to Mark Giordano — who has been a really good defenseman in the league for quite some time and has played over 1,000 games — he has only played 23 playoff games in total. That included a couple of really good regular seasons from the Calgary Flames before they became first-round casualties.
The only “playoff” series he has ever won in the NHL was a play-in round in the bubble. They never got to a Game 7 in the first round in his time with Calgary, either. All in all, he has seven points (one goal) in 23 career playoff games. There’s no history of playoff success or even really playoff experience to bank on here.
That doesn’t mean he can’t go on to have success – Ron Hainsey had the record for most games played in the league before making his playoff debut at the tender age of 36. He played top-pairing minutes in that run (because Kris Letang was injured), and the Penguins won the Cup.
All of that is to say, like many Leafs, Giordano has a lot to prove still come playoff time.
– In past seasons, we discussed Mitch Marner’s shot (or lack thereof) and how it impacted his ability to play the half-wall. Against Florida, we could see why having a shot — or at least the threat of one — is necessary.
On their first power-play goal of the night, Marner put a good shot through that was tippable for John Tavares, and even though he didn’t get a stick on it, it was hard enough to create a rebound he could easily put home.
On Tavares’ second power-play goal, the threat of Marner’s shot — especially because he held it out wide and wound up like he would shoot — created the lane for an easy pass and goal.
That is precisely why you need to have a good shot there: it gives you options. Marner is launching a career-high 3.02 shots on net per game. His previous career-high was 2.84. He is producing a career .48 goals per game over a career average of .36. In just 56 games, he has a new career-high in goals with 27.
Marner has, very obviously, put the time in when it comes to working on his shot. He has no hesitation to shoot, and if a one-timer presents itself as an option, he will gladly take it. In years past, I’m not sure we’d ever say that about him.
There has been so much discussion in previous seasons about needing to put William Nylander on the half-wall — which is fair because he has a bomb — but with Marner shooting like this, to go along with his elite vision, there truly is no need.
– I will be curious to see how the Panthers adjust to the Leafs‘ power play now that they have seen it once. It is ridiculous that division rivals — two of the league’s best teams — had to wait until the very end of March to play each other for the first time.
In 11 March games prior to the Panthers game, the Leafs’ power play had cooled off a tad – clicking at 24 percent, which was 14th in the league in that time period before the game on Sunday. The reason I note this is that the Leafs’ power play has cooled off in the second half of the last two seasons — after teams had been burned by it and were able to make adjustments after a game or two.
– It’s nice to see Petr Mrazek starting to string together some solid games. I thought he was solid if unspectacular against the Devils, and I thought he was legitimately good against the Panthers.
I am not even going to remotely pretend to be a goalie guru, but two fairly obvious things stand out: he isn’t swimming out of his net as much or getting caught out in really awkward positions, and his rebound control was particularly excellent against the Panthers. He caught a lot of pucks and mitigated any rebound opportunities.
By no means is he out of the woods, but the Leafs have to feel like he’s settling down a little bit here finally, and maybe he can get into a groove. It was nice to see the fans give him the ovation, too.
– I think everyone was curious as to what Ilya Mikheyev would look like if he could just add some finish to his game. This season, we’re seeing it play out. After a hot start, he has leveled off and is shooting a fairly sustainable 13.2 percent. His 14 goals in 36 games is a 32-goal pace despite largely playing on the third line and averaging under 15 minutes per night. He’s averaging a shot more per game on net than he did last season.
Against the Florida Panthers, Mikheyev broke in and beat Spencer Knight cleanly with a gorgeous move. A few nights earlier, he did roughly the same thing against the New Jersey Devils.
I went back and watched every single one of his NHL goals prior to this season, and he never scored once on a backhand move like that before. He had one goal on the backhand that was simply banging in a rebound in the slot.
For a player who really struggled on breakaways – despite getting so many – that’s a nice little move to add to his repertoire.
On William Nylander mentioning his missed backcheck on the David Savard goal:
Sheldon Keefe: That is a tough one to give up, but to me, that was the third or fourth play like that for Will. That is why I thought it was time. Obviously, things have been piling up for that line for a while. It was overdue.
On whether he is satisfied with Nylander’s play over the last month:
Keefe: No, not close.
On where Nylander needs to improve:
Keefe: I am not even going to answer the questions. I am not going to pile on Will here. He knows what makes him great. He knows what he needs to get back to.
There always seems to be these players in Leafs-land around whom you can’t really have an honest conversation. It’s either zero or a hundred, and no in-between. William Nylander has had a productive season, but he has not been particularly engaged for at least a month now.
At the end of the day, to me, he was able to elevate his game in the playoffs last season. If he does that again, I’ll happily take what will roughly be a 30 goal, 70+ point season with some… not so great months of engagement (which is what we’re calling it) provided he dials it right up come playoff time.
If he plays like this through spring and then rides that right into the playoffs, I think a very different conversation is on the table for discussion.
Tweets of the Week
When John Tavares and William Nylander are on the ice together at even-strength, the Maple Leafs have been outscored 45-36.
When neither Tavares nor Nylander are on the ice at even-strength, the Maple Leafs are outscoring opponents 109-89.
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) March 27, 2022
To me, three of the Leafs’ best games of the season were against Carolina, Dallas, and Florida, all three in which the Tavares-Nylander duo were not playing together. Sure, it’s just three games, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence. ??They haven’t been great together.
There are some similarities to last season when the Leafs crushed the Oilers in three straight games, in large part due to a strong third line that had Zach Hyman on it. We didn’t see much of that for the rest of that season from the Leafs, but they have to see what’s happening here and make the appropriate adjustments.
Leafs rank in power play opportunities by season:
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) March 27, 2022
I’m sure it’ll bother people, but I don’t think this is some massive conspiracy against the Leafs. I rarely find myself watching them and thinking they are being completely hard done by. Sure, there are missed calls here and there, but every single team in the league would tell you they feel the same.
When you go this many years in a row generating that few calls, I don’t think it’s telling the truth that many fans want it to. I think it means they aren’t doing enough to generate calls as a team. Nazem Kadri was a league leader in drawn penalties, and Michael Bunting is right up there this season. If players are able to generate penalties, they generally are called. The Leafs have many players that don’t.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say again:
Tampa Bay doesn’t scare me, Florida doesn’t scare me, Boston doesn’t scare me. I am, however, fucking terrified of the Leafs.
— Nick Richard (@_NickRichard) March 25, 2022
I think many fans can handle the team playing their best and losing. Hockey is a game of bounces, and things happen. Even against the Washington Capitals in the playoffs back in 2017, fans were disappointed as to be expected, but there wasn’t much in the way of anger. They were a growing team that gave the Capitals a serious run for their money.
Over the last few years, it hasn’t felt like they played their best, though. They are in an elite division and there are any number of problems their opponents present, but until further notice, they really are their own worst enemy.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think the defense pairings make sense right now given the available personnel. You want players to play their natural side – that means Ilya Lyubushkin, Justin Holl, and Timothy Liljegren all have to play the right.
If anything, ironically, I don’t think TJ Brodie looks more comfortable on the left than he would on the right, which is where he normally plays. He got walked pretty badly Saturday night by Nick Suzuki, which is not something we ever really see from Brodie off the rush like that.
For the time being, this arrangement is fine, but in the future, I would like to see him back with Morgan Rielly, which means one of Jake Muzzin or Mark Giordano should be playing with Holl when it’s all said and done, while the other plays with Lyubushkin.
2. I think we can now see and appreciate how deep and versatile this defense is. Regardless of what happens moving forward, solidifying this unit was something that had to happen.
Whether the forwards/goaltending holds up will be a different discussion altogether (which will inevitably focus on whether they can win with the four core forwards locked in), but this unit is really good. They have four legitimately good defense pairings.
If you write down the top three left defensemen and the top three right defensemen (I’m putting Brodie on this side, for the record), you can make a fair case for any combination possible. That is a very nice situation to find yourself in.
3. I don’t think this is the time, but I do think eventually there should be a self-reflection on what happened with Travis Dermott in Toronto. On one hand, two coaches really couldn’t be bothered to trust him with notable minutes. On the other hand, I think there was more potential to be gleaned there.
Maybe he ultimately accomplishes nothing in Vancouver, but if he does, there should be some thought as to why more didn’t happen here. It was absolutely time for a change of scenery at this point, but he was once one of their most promising prospects and broke into the league reasonably well. It just never quite went where most people thought it was going to go.
Ultimately, the player is truly responsible for that. There were a number of times, though, where there were opportunities for the team to move him up the lineup and see if they can get more from him. They rarely gave him that chance. Ultimately, I get why the trade had to happen, but it’s disappointing that it got to this point in the first place.
4. I don’t think I would look to 19 and 22-year-old rookies with zero professional hockey experience to save my fourth line. I have no idea how we get to this point every single season with this team right before playoffs – Nick Robertson, Rasmus Sandin, or Andreas Johnsson back in the day. It is shiny toy syndrome.
The fourth line needs professionals who can play their role night-in and night-out. I would be much more likely to call up a player like Alex Steeves — who is also a rookie but has played professional hockey all season — or Brett Seney — who has played in the league before and is 25 — to form some sort of energy line alongside Colin Blackwell. I don’t think they can score much, but the puck won’t be a dead-end when it gets to them, and they can all skate and make hustle plays.
The fit of Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds together on the fourth line has always been awkward and, to be blunt, purposeless. They are caught between being a scoring line and a physical line. I am at least willing to give Spezza the benefit of the doubt for his struggles — he has been legitimately good in two straight playoffs. If only one is going to dress at the end of the day, the first man up seems obvious.
5. With Petr Mrazek starting to show signs of life, I think I would try to play him as much as possible. Ultimately, I want the veteran who has been good in this league before to feel good about his game heading into the playoffs. It’s more likely that would set them up for success than a 25-year-old rookie with little pedigree (who I do like, for what it’s worth).