When injuries strike, it can open your eyes to all sorts of things.
For a chunk of this season, the Leafs were missing three of their top-four defensemen. It’s unclear if Jake Muzzin will ever return (and if he does, what would his game even look like at this point?). TJ Brodie has recently returned, and his presence has gone a long way toward creating three stable defense pairings.
And then there is Morgan Rielly. I wouldn’t call Rielly the lightning rod in this city – William Nylander has a stronger case, and Mitch Marner probably does at times, too. But Rielly has always been a bit of a hot-button topic as a very good offensive defenseman who struggles defensively and is not a “true” number one.
He definitely won brownie points for taking a discount to stay in Toronto, especially as seemingly no one else in the core has (whether they’ve stayed or departed). He has also generally stepped up at playoff time, even scoring some big goals that we don’t talk about due to the early post-season exits.
Over the years, Rielly has also generally stayed healthy. He played all 82 games last season. In the bubble season, he played 55 out of 56. In the season before, he did miss time, but that’s practically the only absence of note.
Rielly’s recent injury coincided with a hot streak where everything came up Maple Leafs and Mitch Marner went on a massive heater. But we’ve also seen the other side of life without Rielly.
The power play has cooled off, clicking at just 17.1 percent since Rielly’s injury, which ranks 26th in the league over this stretch. The coaching staff has now resorted to deploying five forwards on the power play as a result of the struggles. The big difference: Marner is playing up top to facilitate puck movement in the absence of Rielly.
They have also struggled at times on power-play breakouts and entries. It’s hard to pick out on the television view, but having attended a few games since the injury, it’s really noticeable: After the drop pass, Rasmus Sandin is mostly trying to navigate how to not get in the way. His speed – or lack thereof – is not backing off penalty killers the way Rielly’s would. Even with Rielly almost always dropping the puck, the opposition has to respect his speed. He will make them pay if they give him the opportunity.
While Sandin has generally picked up his production in Rielly’s absence – he has eight points in 13 games – the Leafs’ lack of ability to drive offense from the defense has stood out at the team level. Sandin can definitely move the puck and his shot is super underrated, but he’s not dynamic like Rielly and can’t join the rush as Rielly can. In fact, over the past four seasons, Rielly is fourth among all defensemen in points, 15 ahead of the next best defenseman (funny enough, it’s Tyson Barrie).
For all the talk about needing a number-one defenseman to win the Cup, a team does need a defenseman who can drive offense if nothing else. The checking is too tight in the playoffs, and teams are so good at clogging the lanes. A successful team needs different dimensions to their offense in order to break through.
Cale Makar led Colorado in scoring when they won the Cup last spring. Victor Hedman racked up 40 points in 48 playoff games when Tampa Bay won back-to-back Cups, which was also tied for third among all players in playoff points over that span (hilariously, he was tied with Nathan MacKinnon, who also had 40 points, but in 25 games). Alex Pietrangelo was third on the Blues in scoring when they won the Cup with 19 in 26. John Carlson piled up 20 in 24 when Washington won it the year before (he was actually fifth in playoff scoring on that team, which is probably the closest recent Cup winner to the Leafs as far as roster construction, top heaviness, ice-time allocation, and arguably stylistically – minus Tom Wilson).
The bottom line: A Cup-calibre team almost certainly needs an offensive driver from their back end. While the Leafs‘ defense is about as deep as I’ve ever seen it, the production of Rielly is still a valuable and unique piece of their core. Perhaps we don’t appreciate it enough, but as the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
– It is a quiet development, but it’s worth noting that David Kampf is currently on pace for a career-high in points per game. Last season, he recorded a career-high 11 goals and 26 points. He already has 13 points in just 33 games. It’s particularly funny looking back at his one-goal, 12-point season with Chicago after which the Blackhawks grew frustrated with him and cut bait.
I think the Leafs’ skill development is really underrated. Kampf makes plays with the puck now. Players such as Zach Hyman and Ilya Mikheyev really grew into offensive forces while in Toronto. Even Matt Martin rather quietly tied his career-high in points per game (in just 50 games, but still).
– The biggest question for the Leafs in this regard: Can they get back to being an NHL player factory in the American league? When Kyle Dubas was the AGM, it was a constantly-flowing pipeline. It was not just the Nylanders and higher-end players; there was the undrafted Trevor Moore, reclamation project Justin Holl, and late-round picks like Connor Brown, Pierre Engvall, and Andreas Johnsson. Timothy Liljegren was also a product of the Marlies. They were a well-oiled machine.
The jury is out on what will become of Nick Robertson or even Joey Anderson. Pontus Holmberg went pretty well straight to the NHL, so it wouldn’t be fair to label him a Marlies product.
– You can nitpick it any way you want, but if entering the season I told you Matt Murray will have played 12 games, be relatively healthy going into the Christmas break, and post a .925 save percentage while allowing just 2.34 goals per game, you would have signed on the dotted line. It seems a large part of it will simply be about getting Murray to the playoffs healthy.
– Against Calgary, the Leafs executed a little set play off of a faceoff. They won the faceoff at center to the right defenseman, who passed it to the left defenseman while the right winger (in this case, it was Mitch Marner) swung low and through the middle like a centerman to collect a pass in the middle of the ice before gaining the zone. It worked, and the Leafs spent most of the shift in the Calgary end.
Against Washington, the Leafs again won a faceoff, and again it went to the right defenseman, who passed it to the left defenseman – except nobody swung low, and nobody was remotely open up the middle. The puck had to go up the wall, where it was turned over, and the Leafs conceded a goal against in short order.
– My condolences go out to Victor Mete and his family. What an awful situation.
“He is a guy who plays a hard and pretty simple game. He is physical and competitive. Not a lot has happened for him offensively in the NHL, but he has scored and been a good player at the AHL level. He protects the puck well and all of those kinds of things. To that end, he brings a bit of a different element to the depth of the team.”
– Sheldon Keefe on new acquisition Dryden Hunt
I liked the last line from Keefe about Dryden Hunt adding a different element. Early on in Kyle Dubas’ tenure, I think some of the criticisms about the team’s depth were fair. In Sheldon Keefe’s first season with the Leafs (when he took over for Mike Babcock in November), Dmytro Timashov played 39 games, Nic Petan played 16, Adam Brooks played seven, and even Denis Malgin – yes, that same Malgin – was acquired and played six games. They also had Jason Spezza, but there were a lot of empty-calorie players getting kicks at the can to round out the bottom six.
Now, we see Zach Aston-Reese as a mainstay. They gave Nicolas Aube-Kubel an opportunity. Joey Anderson is getting a look right now. There is obviously a bit more of a mandate to acquire grinders and checkers.
I do think their third line needs a player who can really drive play and score – and I think Dubas has a forward move in mind for closer to the deadline – but the mix is good across the forward group. I think there are a lot of Dubas tropes out there that aren’t rooted in the current reality of the situation.
“I just didn’t gain a lot of traction in Arizona. Coming into this year I was just trying to work my way back from that (injury) … They were great to me there, but I think the system here just fits my game perfectly, so I’m excited.”
– Conor Timmins on going from bottom-feeding Arizona to contending Toronto
Similarly, when the Leafs acquired Tyson Barrie, it was a really awkward fit. They already had Morgan Rielly on the top power-play unit, and Barrie pouted because he wasn’t receiving top power-play time. Dubas spoke after the season about helping new acquisitions better adjust to the team and become comfortable.
When he acquired Matt Murray, for example, the Leafs GM talked less about Murray’s goaltending ability and more about the importance of the team around him helping him succeed.
Similarly, I think Conor Timmins has been put into a position to succeed. He has not been asked to do too much, and now he’s playing around 17 minutes per game next to TJ Brodie – a pretty good situation to settle into without asking him to shoulder too much.
It should also be noted that Timmins led all Leafs defensemen in ice time against the Rangers.
“You have to beat those teams anyway if you want to get anywhere. That’s just how it is. I’m not too worried about it. You can’t change it.”
– William Nylander on the path through Tampa Bay and Boston in the first two rounds of the playoffs due to the NHL’s division playoff bracket
The divisional bracket system sucks, but there’s nothing the Leafs can do about it. This is the correct mindset to take. If you’re going to win, you have to beat top teams. All you can do is face it head-on.
Tweets of the Week
Sheldon Keefe gets asked about former Leaf Jimmies Vesey coming up big against them.
“Are we done?”
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) December 16, 2022
I liked this response from Sheldon Keefe. Vesey doesn’t play for the Leafs. He shouldn’t stand there and throw out platitudes about former players scoring on them. That’s not in his job description.
Most goals since 2016-17
Auston Matthews 276
Alex Ovechkin 275#LeafsForever
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) December 21, 2022
Everyone knows Auston Matthews is an amazing player, but it still doesn’t seem to receive the recognition that it should. The lack of team playoff success likely has a lot to do with it, but you pretty well can’t ask for anything more out of a first-overall pick.
For all the talk about his slow start – which was partly fair as he did look a little off – Matthews has eight goals in his last 11 games and is starting to turn it on. Shockingly, through 33 games, he has one multi-goal game to his name. At some point, you would have to think that turns around.
His 11.4 shooting percentage would also be a career low – he has averaged shooting at 16 percent. It’s actually kind of funny to think he got off to a slow start while Mitch Marner set a Leafs record for points streak, and yet here they are tied with the exact same number of points through 33 games.
Rasmus Sandin looked really steady at both ends of the ice last night. Jumped up into the offence to create some chances and was solid defending in his own end. pic.twitter.com/pAmq8hy6Je
— Rink Rat Report (@RinkRatReport) December 16, 2022
Let’s hope his injury isn’t serious. Last season, Rasmus Sandin was playing good hockey before an injury, and then he never got back into the lineup as the playoffs rolled around. In the 2020-21 season, he played all of 10 games due to breaking his foot in the shortened schedule. At the time of this most recent injury, he had been playing the best NHL hockey of his career to date.
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. If Rasmus Sandin is out, I think I’d try Mark Giordano at the point rather than running this five-forward look. I just don’t see the point of the latter; Mitch Marner up top does not pose a shooting threat.
With Sandin there against Tampa Bay, he walked the line properly, froze the forward up top as a shooting threat, and it created a ton of space for Auston Matthews to walk into one and score. In the playoffs, I thought the Leafs looked their best on the power play with Giordano there (they put him there one game and scored, but then they basically never did it again).
I understand preserving Giordano’s minutes – he’s playing heavy minutes elsewhere – but with TJ Brodie back, I think they can start to ease the five-on-five workload.
2. I think I would also like to see Timothy Liljegren receive some steady power-play time, even if it’s just with the second unit, especially as the second unit has struggled to adjust to life without Jason Spezza (and now another triggerman in Nick Robertson is also out). He has a bomb of a shot. We’ve seen him rip quite a few.
Last game, the Leafs’ second power-play unit featured Calle Järnkrok, Pierre Engvall, Pontus Holmberg, Conor Timmins, and Mark Giordano. I think Liljegren can offer a one-time threat here. The Leafs have made mention of Timmins’ shot in practice, so I wouldn’t mind seeing it more. He has five shots on net in seven games and has never scored in the NHL.
3. I think I would keep Calle Järnkrok on the John Tavares–Mitch Marner line for now. If nothing else, he has some finishing ability, so playing with two top scorers will provide him with some opportunities. Plays don’t die on his stick. I don’t think it’s an ideal fit by any means – and in a perfect world, he’s not there – but given the alternatives, I’d give this some run.
4. At some point, I think I wouldn’t mind seeing Pontus Holmberg on the wing – even just for the odd shift to facilitate moving him up the lineup. Long term, he’s a center, but for now, he’s looking up at three players he’s not going to leapfrog this season.
Can he play the wing? How does it look there? He has flashed some craftiness and finish. Could he hang beside, say, John Tavares and Mitch Marner and not look like a fish out of water on the wing? I’d be interested to see it and find out if it’s a viable option (especially in case the Leafs acquire a scoring center later this season).
5. If Rasmus Sandin is out for some time and Jordie Benn is back, I think I’d run Mark Giordano – Justin Holl, TJ Brodie – Timothy Liljegren, Benn – Conor Timmins. Simply put, I’d put my four best available defensemen in the top four.
I’d be curious to see Brodie – Liljegren get some run, too, and see how it clicks. Giordano – Holl has been great. They won’t need to ask Benn – Timmins to shoulder too much, but both are big bodies, and one of them can move the puck while the other can hang back defensively.