After two impressive wins over high-end opponents, Leafs Nation can exhale.
The Maple Leafs, 13 games into an up-and-down season, currently sit with a .615 points percentage, good enough for fourth in their division at the time of writing.
How is the rest of the Atlantic stacking up?
The Bruins are off to a scorching start and currently sit atop the division with a 10-2-0 record. They are 6-0 at home, own the best goal differential in the league, lead the league in goals per game, and rank fifth best in goals against per game. Their underlying numbers are more good than great, though, including a ranking of 11th in 5v5 corsi and sixth in expected goals.
The Bruins also have the third-highest 5v5 PDO in the league. Linus Ullmark is on a heater (.929 save percentage) and so is Hampus Lindholm (13 points in 12 games). On one hand, they are still missing stud defenseman Charlie McAvoy, but even when he returns, they are bound to return to earth a little bit.
The Detroit Red Wings sit second in the division so far but have all the markers of a paper tiger. Their 5v5 corsi is 29th in the league at 42.84%. They sit 28th in 5v5 scoring chance percentage and expected goals. Dominik Kubalik has racked up 15 points in 12 games, the same stat line as Dylan Larkin (who is in a contract year). Ville Husso is sporting a .941 save percentage. Tyler Bertuzzi has also only appeared in two games, but until they aren’t getting completely dominated at 5v5, it’s hard to take Detroit too seriously.
On the other hand, Tampa Bay can be taken seriously with their .625 points percentage. Their underlying numbers are actually middle-of-the-pack and their 5v5 save percentage sits 23rd, but they are afforded some benefit of the doubt. Nikita Kucherov has 20 points in 12 games and really is that good. Will they aggressively buy at the trade deadline yet again?
The Sabres have the fifth-best points percentage at .588. They are tied for third in 5v5 PDO, are 13th in 5v5 corsi, and sit 20th in expected goals at 5v5. Their power play ranks 12th and their penalty kill 21st. Rasmus Dahlin has been playing out of his mind with 15 points in 12 games, and Victor Olofsson(!) has nine goals in 12 games. We have seen the Sabres get off to a number of hot starts over the years only to fall off a cliff. I think they are a better team than those past versions, but it remains to be seen if they are good enough to be an actual playoff club.
And then there is last year’s President’s Trophy winner, the Florida Panthers, sitting in sixth in points percentage. Aaron Ekblad has only played three games. Matthew Tkachuk is off to a hot start but just got slapped with a two-game suspension. They currently sit 22nd in 5v5 save percentage as both of their goalies have struggled (they are also 22nd in PDO). Their power play has clicked at 13 percent – good enough for 30th in the league. Some of this should normalize, and the Panthers are third in 5v5 team corsi. They are playing below a playoff pace, but there are more than a few signs that they should improve going forward.
The Canadiens sit second last in the division, and while they are perhaps a little more fun to watch than expected, they are going through a full-fledged rebuild. There isn’t much else to say here. They will be sellers at the deadline.
The Senators sit in the last spot. To the surprise of nobody outside of Ottawa, the summer of Pierre Dorion was greatly exaggerated. The Josh Norris season-ending injury effectively put an end to their hopes for this season, but even with Norris in the lineup, their potential was way overblown.
All in all, this is looking like a fun, competitive division to duke it out in this year, and the Leafs’ three-game winning streak — including a regulation victory over Boston – was critical in avoiding too big of an early hole in the title race.
– With the Leafs’ top two – arguably top three – goalies in the organization now injured, it is nice to see them adapt their game and lock it down defensively. It might sound obvious, but we have not always seen the Leafs do this. When Michael Hutchinson couldn’t win a game, while a good chunk of it was because of his below-average play, part of it was that the Leafs refused to alter their game given who was in net. They largely still played run and gun as if Frederik Andersen was back there. It was something they were publicly clear about: They wanted to play the same way no matter who was in net. It didn’t make any sense and wasn’t feasible.
The Leafs are not in an ideal situation right now with their goalies. They do have to adjust their game a little bit, and they have so far. They held Carolina to 30 shots on net – the Hurricanes are third in the league in shots per game with 37. The Bruins mustered only seven shots in a third period in which they were trailing and the Leafs put Erik Källgren in net due to Ilya Samsonov’s injury.
Granted, against Carolina, the Leafs only mustered 21 shots themselves. It’s not sustainable to win that way, but it’s important to show the team can win in different ways. Come playoff time, games, series, and opponents can go all sorts of ways. Can’t make a long run if you’re a one-trick pony.
– The Leafs also sit sixth in 5v5 team save percentage, which is something we should refer to as more of a team stat than an individual one. The Leafs make life very simple for their goalies.
– Morgan Rielly has rather quietly put up nine points in 13 games to start the season. It’s probably a little more under the radar than usual on account of the fact that they’re all assists.
The one area he really separates himself from the rest of the defense: his skating along with his willingness to join the rush. At the very start of Auston Matthews’ first goal against the Bruins, he activated up the ice as an outlet and ended up grabbing the puck, gaining the blue line, and chipping it into the corner. It’s a small thing, but because Rielly was entering the zone, it allowed the Leafs to forecheck with numbers – in this case, Matthews and Michael Bunting – which helped create the turnover leading to the goal.
Look at where Rielly was on the ice as the Leafs were breaking out from the corner of their end before the goal:
– The Leafs try to activate the far-side defenseman on breakouts, but it’s not the quickest group. Rasmus Sandin and Mark Giordano are not fleet of foot. Neither is Jake Muzzin when he plays. Justin Holl can move around out there, but he can’t do anything with the puck on his stick, so it’s a moot point. Morgan Rielly and Timothy Liljegren bring speed. TJ Brodie can do it as well, but usually, he hangs back and plays it safe.
– Even when his skating is suspect, there are few players in the league that are better bets to finish a scoring chance in the slot than John Tavares. Linemates who can create for him is going to be essential as he ages. Right now, though, he is still able to create for himself, and his goal against the Flyers was a great reminder.
If you go through Tavares’ highlights in his Islanders days, it stands out that he was a force off the rush. He was going around defenders and creating for himself and his teammates. He loves to attack the triangle (the area between a defender’s stick, the ice and their skates/shinpads).
Of note: Tavares is currently launching 3.75 shots on net per game. That would be a career high for him.
– I mentioned going into the season that the Leafs would like four lines and to keep the ice time of their stars more manageable (something Keefe admitted was the case as well). That hasn’t exactly panned out, though, as Mitch Marner is fifth among all forwards in average time on ice per game. He did play a season low 17:01 against Carolina. By my count, he only had three games last season where he played less than that 17:01 figure, and those three games were all against bottom feeders. Carolina certainly isn’t a bottom feeder. Alex Kerfoot actually led all Leafs forwards in ice time at 18:53. You don’t need to load up your stars with huge minutes in order to beat good teams.
“I think everyone was aware of where we were heading. We weren’t playing awful but we weren’t playing great. There was a conversation in the locker room.”
– Zach Aston-Reese on the Leafs’ slow start
For all the talk about the hysteria in this market and it just being a slow start, the players – and I’m sure the organization at large – knew it was concerning, too.
“You guys chuck darts at him because you want some results. I guess, it is, it’s always the coach that gets the darts chucked at him. From watching him and coaching against him, he’s a terrific coach. I hope he jams it to you all, quite honestly. Not tonight, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for him… he’s a really good coach and you guys don’t have a clue what he does for that team.
– John Tortorella on Sheldon Keefe and the heat the Leafs coach has been facing
John Tortorella has complimented Sheldon Keefe a few times now, and Keefe at one time played for him. Ultimately, I got a chuckle out of the whole quote, and it reads to me like a coach sticking up for a coach. It also came to mind that if a team or organization constantly beats you, you maybe aren’t praising them with quotes in the media quite so readily.
In fact, this was the first time the pair have coached against each other in the regular season; the Leafs had already played Columbus twice before Keefe was hired, and then there was the Canadian division season. Tortorella was then fired and out of the league for a year before Philadelphia hired him. Long story short, Tortorella had only coached against Keefe in one series and beat him.
“I thought our players responded extremely well to the changes in the lines through the second period there [Kerfoot – Matthews – Nylander / Robertson – Tavares – Marner / Bunting – Engvall – Jarnkrok]. That is a pivotal moment in the game where I look at it as, “maybe this game or the clock could get away on us. I tried to change it up a little bit.”
– Sheldon Keefe on changing the lines in the win over Caroina
It was nice to finally see the lines shaken up a bit. Many of the conversations about changing the lines really seem to miss the point. When players play together all the time, it does become stale at times no matter. You sometimes have to make a change for the sake of change simply to freshen things up.
Of course, what happened in the second half of the game against Carolina? Tavares scored a goal assisted by Mitch Marner, and then William Nylander scored a goal assisted by Auston Matthews. These pairings should be interchangeable, and it’s frustrating when they’re set and forget for so long.
Tweets of the Week
The Leafs made Aubé-Kubel a priority and signed him almost immediately after free agency opened. He played six games, in which the entire team looked bad, and now he’s on waivers.
— Nick Richard (@_NickRichard) November 4, 2022
Nicolas Aube-Kubel certainly isn’t the first – nor will he be the last – player to win a Cup and struggle at the start of the next season. Sheldon Keefe acknowledged as much after they lost him to a waiver claim. I wouldn’t have been so quick to give up on him, but it did end up working out from a contract perspective as they wouldn’t have had room to sign Keith Petruzzelli (pretty good last name, by the way!) had they not shed a contract one way or another.
🎥 I CANT WITH THIS…. ⬇️⬇️⬇️! Not a good sign for TOR pic.twitter.com/DVpclvXFHc
— Mike Rupp (@Rupper17) November 3, 2022
This went viral, so I felt the need to include it here. Sometimes these conversations are polarized too far to both extremes, especially on Twitter. Of course, Auston Matthews shouldn’t be looking for fights or fighting in general. Of course, it’s great that his teammates jumped to his defense. But it’s fair to question why the player who started the scrum couldn’t be bothered to engage in it – and then when it ended, why he started a second one and still couldn’t be bothered.
A lot of skilled players simply don’t engage. Matthews has said he wants to be more physical – and has been – and while Konecny made the first hit, the play was all but over until Matthews decided to get in a little shot of his own. If he continues to do that, he’ll eventually have to answer for it.
Two years ago Morgan Rielly averaged 0:24 per game in shorthanded TOI. Last year 1:41. This year 1:48, and he's been on for 4:30 of SH TOI so far tonight, with a period to go.
Muzzin's absence hurts him quite a bit, I think. (To say nothing of losing Brodie for Mete.)
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) November 3, 2022
It’s amazing to think about how much Morgan Rielly’s role has changed over the years. Overall, the coaching staff is doing a good job of managing his minutes; he is 24th among all defensemen in average time on ice per game.
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. With the defense getting healthy, I would keep TJ Brodie – Justin Holl together. We saw this movie last year: The Muzzin – Holl pairing struggled, and in the second half of the season when Muzzin went down hurt, they paired up Brodie – Holl. They rather quietly turned in a really solid stretch of hockey for about two months.
We are seeing a similar story play out right now, only it’s happening earlier in the season. There is nothing flashy or spectacular about this pairing. They are not going to make highlights or leap off the ice, but they are steady and can reliably handle tough matchups.
Brodie serving as the main puck mover seems to steady Holl’s game. Whenever Holl is second-best on the pairing, he has generally been solid. For now, given what they have, I think this is a good shutdown pairing.
2. For what it’s worth, I think I really like the Morgan Rielly – Timothy Liljegren pairing. It’s nice to see Rielly playing with a right-handed shot, which has rarely happened in his career.
Over the years, Rielly’s partners have included Roman Polak, Matt Hunwick, Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, Cody Ceci, briefly Tyson Barrie, and Brodie. The best right-handed partner Rielly has had in his career is a contest between Polak, Zaitsev, Ceci, and maybe Barrie (they played about 300 minutes together). Liljegren moves the puck better than three of those defensemen, and the other is a complete adventure on his own half of the ice (Barrie).
Give this pairing at least a month to play together, allow Liljegren to work his way into shape, and then take a hard look at whether they have something permanent there.
3. I think I really like this Zach – Aston Reese – David Kampf – Denis Malgin fourth line. ZAR and Kampf has always made sense to me (and most onlookers) as a combination of two checkers who know their role and are good at it. They do need someone who can do at least a little something with the puck, though.
I like Pierre Engvall here as well, and I think Kampf – Engvall will ultimately be reunited (I advocated just last week for keeping them together), but Malgin seems to be thriving alongside them as the primary puck carrier who is shielded defensively. Keep rolling with it.
4. If you set the fourth line for a bit, I think the third line should be a revolving door until something clicks, whether it’s Nicholas Robertson in there or Pontus Holmberg at center. The latter would bump Engvall to the wing, where he is better off.
That third line is really struggling to provide much of anything for the Leafs. Their top six will make it moot for most of the regular season, but down the stretch and into playoff time, they are going to need some sort of role or identity and will have to contribute consistently. I think the other three lines have a direction and purpose. This one is still up in the air.
5. I think I hope one of Ilya Samsonov or Matt Murray are back by the weekend when the Leafs have a back-to-back. Otherwise, Keith Petruzzelli will go from just starting to get his feet wet in the AHL to his first start in the NHL.