Over the past few seasons, General Manager Kyle Dubas has consistently emphasized the importance of evaluating his team’s response to adversity.
Here he was in the 2021 Canadian division season discussing how the team will need to prove it can respond well when things aren’t going its way in order to convince him to buy at the trade deadline.
Here he was last season discussing his satisfaction with the Leafs battling through their early-season adversity.
Yet again just a few weeks ago, Dubas mentioned viewing the team’s early-season struggles and injuries as another opportunity.
It makes sense. It’s an important trait, to be battle-tested.
In the Leafs’ Canadian division season, their play got progressively worse in the playoffs as the pressure heightened, leading to a 3-1 collapse against Montreal. Their main segment of adversity that season was a rut of games while they were leading the division and already in the playoffs – is that really in-season adversity? They didn’t play a single game that season where they were the second-most talented team on the ice. All of their players of significance that season generally remained healthy (Zach Hyman missed more than 10 games, and that’s basically it).
Last season, after a slow start in October, it was mostly the same. Was there really much adversity to speak of? There were some trying moments like any team experiences, to be sure. Their goaltending definitely made life interesting in the second half of the season, but the Leafs were largely rolling along.
Auston Matthews led the league in goals. Mitch Marner was a top-10 points-per-game producer in the league (Matthews was top five). William Nylander, Michael Bunting, Alexander Kerfoot, Pierre Engvall, Ilya Mikheyev, and David Kämpf all enjoyed career seasons. After the first month, everything generally came up roses for the Leafs. The only injuries of note that season were to Mikheyev and Jack Campbell.
Of course, the team can only play the hand it is dealt. The Leafs won the Canadian division, and they were fourth in the NHL last season in points.
This season has been a different story. Matt Murray was instantly hurt. Ilya Samsonov took over the net and looked good – and then he went down injured, too. Jake Muzzin has played four games. TJ Brodie has missed eight games out of 23 (and counting). Now, Morgan Rielly is out until the new year.
Even before most of the injuries struck, the team was off to a slow start. Their bottom six has had some real issues to sort through. A few key secondary players struggled, and some are continuing to do so. Even Auston Matthews, while still productive and elite, has not been scoring at his usual pace – he has just four even-strength goals through 24 games.
In the past two seasons, if you were ever frustrated with the lines constantly remaining the same, the argument against a change was always the results. They won their division two seasons ago. Matthews scored 60 last season! Coaches are loath to mess with a good thing.
This season, the struggles were legitimate enough to change up the lines, and it’s going to help them in the long run. There’s so much focus on which pairings are best among the big four, but the truth is that they need to be versatile and switch it up when one iteration isn’t working. It shouldn’t be about which pairing is best; it should be about keeping them fresh and making the right adjustments depending on the game, matchup, recent form, and so on.
Even the simple winger swap in the top six doesn’t happen without some struggles to force their hand. It has happened, and the results have been strong so far. It’s a welcome change.
The Leafs’ win against the New Jersey Devils last week was the first game I can remember in ages where I felt the Leafs were genuinely the second-most talented team on paper. The gap between the two defenses, in particular, was massive due to injuries. Did the Leafs come out and dominate the game or even control play? Not really, but they went into a hostile rink, played the hottest team in the league, and ground out a win. The emotion from the team after the win was evident.
Getting largely outplayed is not a long-term recipe for success, but sometimes, a team does need to grind out a proverbial character win. I liked the way Sheldon Keefe described the team’s wins of late:
They haven’t been the prettiest wins, but guys are finding a way and competing. That is exactly what you are asking of your group when you are going through what you are: to set yourself up for success to win a game. We have done that. The guys have just flat-out competed to make sure we get the points.
These are not the types of wins we have typically seen from this Leafs team over the past few seasons. There were a lot of games in past years where they rode a hot power play, and there was a good chunk of games where the team would start the night slowly and simply turn it on when they needed to in order to get the win or point.
The Leafs were second in the league in goals per game last season, and sixth the year before that (they were first in the Canadian division season). They are 18th so far this season in goals per game.
In a lot of the team’s past wins where the team started slowly, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner would end up playing huge minutes to mount the comeback. Even as the Leafs improved defensively over the years, the recipe for winning almost always circled back to a track meet where they were happy to trade chances and bet on their star players outscoring the other team’s star players (and they generally did).
The 2022 offseason set the table for a stronger Leafs team defensively. This isn’t just because of the injuries, although they have intensified the situation. You never want to see players go down hurt, but in a weird way, I think this is going to be a good thing for this team.
The injuries are forcing players to play up the lineup and to change their game in order to adapt to the roster situation (the forwards have been excellent defensively the past few weeks). I’m not going to sit here and declare this will finally be the year they break through in the playoffs just because they’ve gone through some adversity and ground through injuries in November, but it’s going to help them prepare for the playoffs.
The postseason is all about adjustments and responding the right way in short order to adverse situations as they develop. It helps if the team is already battle-tested entering game one.
– I mentioned before that Mitch Marner and John Tavares play at the same pace and the benefit it provides when attacking defenses. They are more methodical in their movement and don’t attack with as much speed, whereas Auston Matthews and William Nylander push play with their pace and offense off the rush.
I noticed one other thing, and we saw it play out twice last week on Nylander goals: Matthews and Bunting are really good along the walls and as forecheckers, which allows Nylander to hang high as a triggerman. He doesn’t get to do it as much with Alex Kerfoot and Tavares.
Tavares isn’t fast enough to forecheck regularly and come up with the puck, and Kerfoot isn’t strong enough to win those battles and turn the puck over with regularity. Nylander scored two goals last week where Matthews and Bunting combined to win battles and found him up high. Marner and Nylander have the exact same goals-per-game rate in their career (.32), but Nylander has the better shot. We also saw Marner get in on the forecheck and set up Tavares for a goal against the Devils.
– This is a really important stretch for Rasmus Sandin, in particular, with all the injuries. He held out in the summer – not because of money but because he wanted a bigger role – and now the Leafs need him to step up. He has had some good stretches before in soft minutes, but he hasn’t been able to string enough games together in big roles to really cement himself. At some point, he has to grab an opportunity and make good on it instead of toiling on the third pairing (which is what happened with Travis Dermott for too long).
So far, so good. He’s played three straight games of 21:50+ minutes alongside Timothy Liljegren. They have controlled play and outscored opponents so far. Over the three games, they have been paired up with each of the Leafs’ top three lines in their 5v5 minutes.
– It’s early, but in three games without Morgan Rielly, the power play is 0/10. We probably underrate how long the unit has been together – basically since John Tavares arrived in Toronto. There’s an adjustment period – especially when it’s the player up top – but I will be curious to see if it does roll without him at any point and what the success looks like.
– Sheldon Keefe has been turning to a line Zach Aston-Reese – David Kämpf – Pierre Engvall line to close games in the final minute. ZAR and Kämpf, in particular, have been excellent this season as role players and grinders.
Those are three players that are super annoying to play against in terms of how they get into shooting lanes, clog the house, and can all play defense. Engvall has all the tools, and when given a simple task – i.e. get in the way and get pucks out – he can do it.
– It’s hard to describe how good Mitch Marner’s point streak has been. It’s like everything he touches turns to gold. I do think the Leafs planned on playing him less this season, but he has been so good and the team has not scored easily, so here he is averaging 21:34, which would be the second-highest TOI average of his career. That puts him eighth in the league among forwards.
– I was a little disappointed to see the Leafs give up Curtis Douglas to make the trade for Conor Timmins. He has tools and can play center – the kind of depth center on a cheap contract they could use in a year or two.
“On my end, it’s much appreciated. I don’t know how much I want to see Sandy dropping his gloves like that, but obviously, it means a lot coming from a guy like that.”
– Auston Matthews on Rasmus Sandin stepping up in response to a hit thrown by Oliver Wahlstrom
I have to admit I didn’t think Rasmus Sandin – or anyone, for that matter – was going to step up there. We have seen a number of instances in the past few seasons where Leafs players have been run and there has been little in the way of a response. It can’t only be about inserting a Wayne Simmonds or Kyle Clifford to respond, either. The fight itself didn’t go well for Sandin, but I’m sure every single teammate on the bench took note of how he stepped in there.
“It’s very difficult to properly summarize how I feel about Lou and do it justice. He’s a special manager but even more special as a person in the way he treats you and your family. Getting to work for Lou is one of the many very fortunate opportunities I have had along my journey and the most important — by far — in developing me at an early and important part of my career and certainly, I could never summarize how much I learned (and continue to learn) from him.”
– Kyle Dubas on his relationship with Lou Lamoriello
One thing I really liked about the Leafs organization during this period is all of the different perspectives present in the same management group. Between Lamoriello, Dubas, even Mark Hunter, and Mike Babcock, there were a bunch of different types of strengths and perspectives. Over the years, I do think they’ve lost that a bit. It’s a bit of a one-track-mind organization full of Sault Ste. Marie alumni top to bottom.
“At the end there, I don’t think Rasmus Sandin has ever been on the ice in the NHL with the goalie out. You have guys playing in different spots and finding a way.”
– Sheldon Keefe on young defensemen stepping up with three veterans out
This play isn’t getting talked about much – Matt Murray made a good save afterward and the Leafs won the game – but it was really bad. It’s the exact type of play where Rasmus Sandin has been victimized in the playoffs: holding the puck too long, trying to make a play when there isn’t one, and ultimately turning it over.
Knowing when to make a play and knowing when to simply get the puck out is the biggest area of focus for Sandin. The rest of his game has been quite good since he’s been asked to step up due to injuries.
Tweets of the Week
Justin Holl's ice time in the last four games:
He hasn't been on for a 5v5 goal against during this time. He's stepped up in a big way and doesn't always get enough credit
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) November 26, 2022
Justin Holl’s game is at its best when we don’t really notice him. He’s quietly going about his business lately, playing huge minutes and providing a steadying presence on a defense where two-thirds of the unit is under the age 24.
— CJ Fogler AKA Perc70 #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) November 25, 2022
I’m all for a little, “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying,” especially from a Cup-winning veteran like Matt Murray. Over the years, if anything, this team has been too polite out there. He also knocked the net off against the Devils. Eventually, especially in this market, refs are going to be all over it. They will all be warned, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a bad call swing the other way.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) November 25, 2022
This is an awesome tribute for an awesome person. The on-ice playoff success has not come under Brendan Shanahan, but he has, more often than not, done a fantastic job off the ice. Retiring numbers and reconciling with Dave Keon (to some degree, at least) stand out as feathers in his cap. The Börje Salming ceremony and this tribute are right there, too.
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I have liked Calle Järnkrok beside John Tavares and Mitch Marner so far. I wasn’t sure what to expect from him on his off-wing, but he does two things well: He positions himself well defensively, and he has a good shot. When he gets an opportunity, Jänrkork can put the puck in the net better than an Alex Kerfoot. Those two things alone will go quite far alongside two high-end players. I’d keep it rolling.
2. I think I’d happily run out Pontus Holmberg as long as possible to see how it goes with him as the 3C. The first half of the season should be about young players and letting them grow – this applies to Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren on defense, too.
It’s noteworthy to me how much better the team as a whole looks with a third line contributing something. The Leafs can’t become a two-line team in the playoffs as they have for too many years. The difference with Holmberg there playing just above average has been noticeable.
The top six will be good no matter what – there are four very good players in it (plus Bunting. This has been a good look at the team with a third line that has a bit more substance plus a fourth line that is great at its checking role with ZAR and David Kämpf.
3. I think the Leafs are needlessly putting themselves and Nick Robertson in an awkward spot at this point. Just send him down if he’s not going to play. There’s not much else to say, and there’s nothing wrong with a 21-year-old getting sent to the AHL to play significant all-situations minutes.
4. In a week with only three games, I think I’d still probably look to play Matt Murray only twice. He has been excellent so far. By far the biggest positive to start this season has been goaltending in general. They don’t need to overwork him.
There were two questions with Murray going into the season: Is he even still good, and can he stay healthy? He is proving he is still good so far. It’s on the Leafs brass to do everything in their power to keep him healthy now.
5. Even though the team acquired Conor Timmins and there is some curiosity about him – maybe even borderline excitement to see what he can do – I think like what Mac Hollowell has done with the Leafs so far. There have been some interesting decisions from him when it comes to joining the rush and situational awareness, but overall, he has been solid if unspectacular. I’d like to keep him in there until he proves otherwise rather than playing Timmins because he’s the new guy.