Toronto Maple Leafs, Sheldon Keefe, Michael Bunting, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner
Photo: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
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The Maple Leafs are now 16 games into the 2022-23 NHL season, or about 20 percent of the way through the schedule.

It’s not enough of a sample to talk in certainties about the team, but it is enough to identify early trends and arrive at a general sense of where things stand.

Let’s compare the 2022-23 Leafs to last season’s team by the numbers:

 2021-22 (league rank)2022-23 (league rank)
Points percentage.701 (4th).594 (tied for 10th)
5v5 Corsi53.56% (6th)52.68% (8th)
5v5 Fenwick53.1% (7th)52.37% (7th)
5v5 Expected goals53.3 (10th)54.09 (8th)
Power play percentage27.3 (1st)26.4 (4th)
Penalty kill percentage82.1 (8th)76.4 (21st)
5v5 Save percentage90.87 (27th)92.67% (9th)
Goals per game3.8 (2nd)2.81 (23rd)
Goals against per game3.07 (19th)2.75 (8th)

For all the talk about the Leafs goaltending so far, they have positioned themselves to easily surpass last season’s production at the position. That said, it should be noted that Jack Campbell was excellent through November of 2021. Look no further than last season for an example of how quickly a fast start in net can fade away.

On that note, we haven’t really seen what Matt Murray can do yet, and it would be difficult to project his performance one way or the other at this point. The only certainty is that he has real issues staying healthy.

Conversely, Ilya Samsonov was really good before his injury. While the Leafs might (and probably should) be able to cobble together an upgrade at the position over last season, come playoff time, they will need a goaltender to take over the net and run with it.

Regardless of who is in crease, the Leafs have tried to set up their netminders for success with their defensive play. Other than rush/transition opportunities, they have generally been able to contain their opponents defensively. They are not cheating for offense and most of their games have been low scoring.

Their goals per game are down as a consequence of it, but they have two impressive grind-it-out wins over the Bruins and Hurricanes to show for their early efforts – two of the best teams in the league were kept in check as the Leafs effectively protected their own end. It’s a far cry from some of the early-season all-offense Leafs teams that flamed out come springtime.

It’s also worth pointing out that the team is going through a bit of an identity change.

Jake Muzzin has been a staple in the top four in his time as a Leaf. Even last season, he played 47 regular-season games and all seven playoff games. Leafs brass was anticipating he would play this season, which is obviously not happening. While there is insurance in place, they didn’t exactly look for a suitable replacement.

At forward, the Leafs lost Ilya Mikheyev, and while some kidded themselves into thinking Calle Järnkrok is a suitable substitute, it should be quite clear by now that he isn’t. Nor was Nicolas Aube-Kubel an Ondrej Kase replacement. They also barely replaced Jason Spezza’s scoring in the bottom six. This is all partly reflected in their goals-per-game number dipping so dramatically.

And then we have the support players in Alex Kerfoot and Michael Bunting, who rounded out the top six last season and have generally played there this season, too. They each enjoyed career years last season, but so far, it doesn’t seem like they will reach those heights in 2022-23. Even with the top four generally producing, the group behind them appears to be watered down offensively.

The Leafs’ power-play percentage from last season is also a little misleading; they were over 30% and had a chance to be the highest-ranked power play of all time until their perennial cliff dive in the spring. It was a great power play until then. Their power play is good so far this season, but it’s difficult to repeat just how productive it was for most of 2021-22.

The Leafs are clearly still a good team. Just how good they are is a fair question. They have ground out a number of impressive wins, and if at least one of their goalies could stay healthy and take control of the net, stability at the netminding position while needing to sort out depth scoring is a pretty good spot to be in.

Especially while they’re still collecting points along the way.

Notes


Auston Matthews, Leafs legend
Photo: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

–  Auston Matthews’ first goal of the season was on a one-timer he ripped home, but the goal on Saturday against Vancouver is the first one where he actually used his patented snap shot and beat a goalie clean 1v1. It wasn’t a rebound, deflection, open net, or anything like that. He simply wired the puck by the goalie.

Matthews has seven goals in 16 games – the type of production most players would kill for – but the bar for him is so high coming off of 60. The career 16.1 percent shooter is shooting under 10 percent so far and is still at almost a 40-goal pace. I think him finally just sniping on a goalie is a positive sign that his goal-scoring is going to take off shortly.

–  Watching Auston Matthews play the bumper spot on the power play makes it hard not to wonder if everything is okay with him health-wise. Many will remember he also played there last season when he was experiencing issues with his wrist. It is not the optimal spot to play him on the power play. He is also at 48.65% at the faceoff circle – if this were to last, it would be the first time since his rookie season that he was under 50% on the dot. It’s not a huge drop – he’s a career 52.5% there – but it would be strange to fall off randomly in year seven. He won a career-high 56.22% last season. 

–  Early in the season, Michael Bunting is tied for the lead league in penalties drawn with 12, but he has taken nine himself. Last season, he was fourth in the league in penalties drawn with 45 and took 32 himself. When you get involved in that element of the game, you’re naturally going to take penalties yourself, so there will always be a give-and-take. But the penalty against Vancouver is not a good one – he clipped the guy on the play. Drawing penalties is a big plus to his game, but some of the antics need to stop.

–  I have to admit I did not think Sheldon Keefe would keep the lines together after the Leafs went down two against Vancouver. He did, and the team came back and won. It would have been easy to revert back to the old ones, but it’s important to not always go back to the same well. There has to be other ways to solve problems. It was nice to see the group stay together and rally. 

–  It was a big week for Zach Aston-Reese, who picked up two points in three games. He is starting to click on his line with David Kampf and Denis Malgin. As the season goes along, I think fans will appreciate what ZAR brings in terms of forechecking and defensive play. It shows better against good teams as opposed to an Arizona (or an equivalent opponent) trapping the Leafs. He can’t really help the team break a trap and score, but the grinding shifts matter more against the good teams.

It has also helped to add Malgin to the line as the primary puck carrier. Pierre Engvall has had some success in a similar role, too, where he’s playing beside grinders, defending, forechecking, and is tasked with making plays with the puck. The Leafs’ third line is an issue, but the fourth line has been solid. 

Quotes


Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Maple Leafs #37
Photo: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

“I think I’ve always had a good shot. I’ve just never really used it.”

– Timothy Liljegren on his shot, after scoring against Vegas with a great one-timer

I said this last season after Timothy Liljegren scored this one-timer goal against the Jets, but he has an underrated bomb of a shot. He has played all of 19 seconds on the power play, and I’m not sure it makes all that much sense when we consider he might have the best shot of any Leafs defenseman. 

“An even bigger moment in the game for me: We gave up a sort of broken 2-on-1, and Auston was probably half a zone behind. The effort he put in to catch up, strip them of the puck, and make a couple of defensive plays after that — the work that he put in there changed the energy of the game for me. It changed the energy in the building. The fans got into it from there. They recognized the effort that was put in.

I thought everything just fell in line and in place from there. Everyone else started to match that sort of effort. That, to me, is leadership.”

– Sheldon Keefe on Auston Matthews’ backcheck vs. Vancouver

I was at this game, and other than the goals or the excitement of Matthews’ breakaway (which he didn’t score on), the loudest moment in the rink came after this defensive effort by Auston Matthews. He put his head down for a huge backcheck and then won a battle.

Fans will always appreciate that kind of hustle. It’s not going to be a loud atmosphere watching the team try to break down a neutral zone trap or play on the perimeter. A big-time defensive effort, a hit, a shot block, or even the odd fight(!) are the kinds of things that get the crowd going. I wish they had more players who could provide those elements, particularly in the lower parts of their lineup.

“A little disappointed to give up the third one on a power play. We have to get off the ice a little quicker. We have to look at the score and see the time. We have to do a better job of (getting) fresher guys on the ice.”

– Mitch Marner after the Leafs gave up a lead against Vegas while shorthanded

According to CapFriendly, the Leafs were the fourth-oldest team going into the season. This is by and large a veteran group, and while veteran groups make mistakes just like any other team, some of the situational awareness has been head-scratching so far, to say the least.

There was not getting the first game of the season against Montreal to overtime due to an odd-man rush with under 30 seconds left; the blown lead against Anaheim that included calling a timeout while winning with plenty of time left and still giving up the lead; the entire Arizona game, and the game against Vegas where they gave up a shorthanded goal in the third period on home ice. The Leafs seem to be shooting themselves in the foot pretty regularly so far.

Tweets of the Week


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

At some point, you have to look at the results and conclude you can’t keep putting this combination out there. I think we’re officially at that point with this trio and overtime.

It was a heck of a debut for Jordie Benn. The grizzled veteran scored, but he was also physical, kept the game super simple, and he was on at the end closing out the game for the Leafs in the final minute. He also chipped in on the second penalty-killing unit alongside Morgan Rielly.

I’m sure everyone has seen this already. If you haven’t, watch it now. If you have seen it, watch it again.

Even as someone who was born well after his generation, it’s tough to articulate Börje Salming’s importance to the fans, the franchise, and the greater hockey world. While the Leafs are a storied franchise, they cannot exactly lay claim to any of the game’s true greats. There’s no Wayne Gretzky, or Mario Lemieux, or even an Alex Ovechkin in their history.

Mats Sundin leads the franchise in most statistical categories, but he ranks 30th all-time in points. Doug Gilmour, who most people would identify as a Leaf, sits 21st. Dave Andreychuk ranks 15th in goals, for what that’s worth.

I’ve always thought this is one reason Darryl Sittler is held in such high regard. Beyond his general awesomeness and graciousness, he holds a league record that will be very, very difficult to ever top (most points in a single game). There’s a lot of pride associated with the fact that the record is held by a true Maple Leaf.

There are few other individual achievements of significance. While you can argue Borje Salming doesn’t necessarily have those, either, he was a trailblazer for an entire country. A generation of Swedes followed his lead. He did it as a Leaf, and he did it incredibly well.

He sits 18th all-time in points by a defenseman (Brent Burns actually just passed him). Salming is a true source of pride for a lot of Leafs fans – for how good he was, how tough he was, and how significant he was to the game of hockey. If you were ever at a game over the years and he happened to be there, it was damn cool. Borje was in the house.

If we were to make a starting lineup of the best all-time Leafs, there is a lot of room for argument around the starting five. The number one defenseman is not in dispute, though.

Five Things I Think I’d Do


Erik Kallgren, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

1.   I think I would still keep rolling with the Auston MatthewsWilliam Nylander, John TavaresMitch Marner tandems. I’m not sure if it will work or not just yet, but that’s the point: It needs time together so we can actually see what they have here. If nothing else, I think the time apart for each pairing will do them well come the time when they eventually reunite the old pairings (which we all know they’ll do). 

2.   I do think I would start giving Timothy Liljegren second-unit power-play time. The unit doesn’t have much going for it right now. If Nick Robertson is dressed, he gives them a shot threat. Even if they want to keep Rasmus Sandin up top and let him develop there, I’d rather Liljegren as the right-handed shot on the half-wall over Calle Järnkrok; at least Liljegren has a bomb they can tee up.

So far, Järnkrok has been a regular participant on the second power-play unit – he’s averaging a minute per game there, but he has zero power-play points. He doesn’t have a particular strength they can leverage with the man advantage. He’s sort of good at everything but great at nothing.

3.   I do think I would be playing Calle Järnkrok at center. I’m surprised we haven’t really seen it too much so far. He has traditionally produced best on the wing, and while I don’t think he’s a full-time center, we know Pierre Engvall certainly isn’t. We have seen that movie too many times. If neither of them is a true center and both are better on the wing, I’d argue Engvall is the one who is more impactful on the wing. I’d cater to that. 

4.   Ultimately, I think we can talk about trying different combinations on the third line until we are blue in the face, but the truth is that they need better players there. At a minimum, they need at least one. If Nick Robertson was a home run this season, it would have given them options, but he is obviously going through growing pains (so far anyway). Now what? Play Pierre Engvall out of position? Calle Järnkrok? Alex Kerfoot? Move Michael Bunting or William Nylander there? The options are not great.

Eventually, it will have to be David Kampf back at 3C. He’s actually a good center. What will happen to the fourth line in that scenario? Who knows, but they will obviously need to add a forward of consequence. 

5.   On the other hand, I don’t mind the mix and depth on defense. Ideally, I think they need another legitimate top-four defenseman (who doesn’t?), but even without Jake Muzzin, there is a decent mix. We know what they have in Morgan Rielly – strengths, weaknesses, and all – but he is a legitimate top-four defenseman. So is TJ Brodie. Timothy Liljegren is the real deal. Mark Giordano can lead a third pairing.

They then have a bit of a mixed bag – never really know what they’re going to get, but they can be good – in Justin Holl, Rasmus Sandin, Jordie Benn, and Victor Mete.

One more legitimate option could bring the whole unit together, but I like the group so far. I’d keep playing with the pairings; their biggest strength is probably the versatility throughout the lineup.