Last offseason, the Maple Leafs rightly prioritized goaltending. Unfortunately, it left little in the way of cap space to improve the roster elsewhere.
It certainly helps that Mark Giordano signed for an absolute gift of a contract, and with Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin continuing to develop, there’s a very credible argument to be made that their defense has improved overall, even with Jake Muzzin’s status very much in doubt moving forward.
The forward group is a bit trickier to navigate. The team returned their five best forwards, and considering how great their top four are, the group was always going to be good. They have two — arguably three — superstars in their primes and a still-very-good John Tavares. Michael Bunting is a productive player who can complement their top forwards well, too.
At the bottom end of the forward group, the Leafs swapped out offense for defense. Ilya Mikheyev played to a 32-goal pace last season and has 11 goals already this season, which would put him fifth on the Leafs right now behind the big four forwards. Calle Järnkrok is a legitimate NHL forward, but he was never going to replace that production. Ondrej Kase played 50 games and produced 27 points — he was also a productive depth player when healthy.
Jason Spezza, who largely carried the second power play and again was an offense driver on the fourth line, retired last spring. The Leafs didn’t bring in Zach Aston-Reese to replace Spezza one-for-one, but he’s taking on a fourth-line role and filling it differently. He’s the kind of professional role player the team has often lacked; there’s nothing fancy about his game, and he’s not an over-the-hill the former superstar. He’s a grinder, knows his role, and he is consistent in what he brings.
Nicolas Aube-Kubel was also signed to a contract last summer, and while he was lost on waivers in October, Joey Anderson is now receiving an opportunity to play regular minutes.
Ultimately, it’s a fine line when balancing offense and defense. The team defense has been fantastic this season. It’s not just the six defensemen at the back and/or the goalies who are getting the job done; the forwards have committed to taking care of that side of the ice. The Leafs are second in the league in goals against per game after finishing 19th, tied for seventh, 26th, 20th, and 12th over the previous five seasons.
On the flip side, the Leafs are tied for 12th with the Winnipeg Jets in goals scored per game. For reference, in the last five seasons, they finished second, sixth, third, fourth, and third in goals per game.
Ultimately, I think the focus on defense is a net positive, but it’s fair to wonder about depth scoring. If the top six is competitively matched in the playoffs, who else will score? The Leafs’ top nine is essentially the same group from last season, minus Mikheyev and plus Järnkrok.
I’ve already written this before, but it is worth repeating.
In the playoffs last year, the Leafs’ bottom six – which included some combination of Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf, Ondrej Kase, Colin Blackwell, Jason Spezza, Kyle Clifford, and Wayne Simmonds – combined for five goals, and two were Mikheyev empty netters. By comparison, Tampa Bay’s bottom six of Ross Colton, Nick Paul, Branden Hagel, Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Patrick Maroon combined for 10 goals (no empty netters).
In the playoff previous, the Leafs’ bottom six contributed four goals – Jason Spezza scored three of them, and one came when he moved into the top six. Joe Thornton scored the other on the power play. In the year before against Columbus, the only bottom-six forward (in terms of time on ice) to score at all was Nick Robertson.
Is this the group that’s going to break through when it matters most?
Kerfoot – Kampf – Engvall
Aston-Reese – Holmberg – Anderson
There are some useful players there — David Kampf is particularly handy — but there isn’t a single legitimate 20-goal scorer in the mix. They will need to have some level of offensive production in the bottom six come playoff time.
Every playoff team has a legitimate collection of star talent. The Leafs, in particular, are either playing against Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Anthony Cirelli or Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Taylor Hall (and maybe both in order to reach the Conference Finals). To ask their top players to not only outscore them straight up but also make up any scoring difference in the bottom six is a big, big ask.
If the Leafs acquired a top-six winger, he would presumably bump down Järnkrok and push Anderson off the starting roster altogether. It’s a positive domino effect. Four of the other spots are all but accounted for at this point: Kampf, Kerfoot, Engvall, and ZAR. Hypothetically, they could have traded one to help match the salaries, but Kyle Dubas has shown no inclination toward trading players mid-season that he actually likes, so I’m going to assume he won’t unless he proves otherwise.
The one player that Leafs management has to really sort out, then, is Pontus Holmberg.
By sort out, I mean figure out what they can they get out of him for the rest of this season and throughout the playoffs. He’s a fine-looking rookie who is playing to a 33-point pace while averaging just 10:02 per night. In fact, he hasn’t played like a rookie so far, perhaps in part because he’s turning 24 in March.
There isn’t much question about Holmberg’s status as a legitimate contributor on the future roster, but it’s a fair question to evaluate whether they can use him at playoff time this spring. They aren’t playing him very much this season and generally shelter him when they do. He has struggled in the faceoff circle, winning just 41.2 percent so far. We can debate the value of faceoffs all we want, but the Leafs have clearly shown that they care about it and have actively noted that Kerfoot and Engvall aren’t strong on draws when pulling them away from center duty before.
Hypothetically, if Järnkrok were to drop down to that line following an acquisition and they became a depth scoring line that also features a good checker (ZAR), I think we have an argument to be made for keeping Holmberg in the lineup. Jârnkrok could also protect him some in the faceoff circle — he is a 47.7 faceoff guy, and with one providing a lefty and the other a righty, they could split them to optimize their usage even further.
Holmberg is, if nothing else, crafty with the puck. He takes it to the hard areas willingly, as he showed when he drove the net against the Blues leading to a goal. He also has some surprising bursts of skill — like corralling this bouncing puck off the rush against Tampa Bay and ringing it off the post against Andrei Vasilevskiy.
This is probably the only notable role for Holmberg: a depth-scoring center capable of driving offense. If he’s able to click with Järnkrok and ZAR can help them as a forechecker one way and a grinder the other way, the Leafs at least have the makings of a unit that would be a notable fourth line, with a few players they could elevate to jolt the lineup.
The flip side to all of this is that the Leafs would again leave themselves a bit thin at center in case of injury. If one of the top two centers is out of the lineup, their options are Kerfoot, Engvall, Järnkrok, or bumping Nylander to center (thus stretching them thin on the wing instead; not to mention they would be messing around with a player who is ripping up the league).
Kampf is a full-value, solid player, but he’s not a scorer. He produced some surprisingly strong moments offensively in the playoffs, but it’s a big bet to think it’s what playoff-Kampf will do annually. Kerfoot has four goals in 37 career playoff games, and Engvall has never scored in 17 playoff games. The Leafs obviously can’t have a third line producing next to nothing offensively at playoff time.
We could argue that Holmberg will be ready to play more by then, too, but again, it’s a big bet. He’s only averaging 10 minutes per game right now (I would be all for a modern-day Alyn McCauley story, for whatever that’s worth).
With all of that said, this is what the regular season is for. The Leafs have only played 35 games. The NHL trade deadline isn’t until March 3. They have two more months of evaluation before they really have to pull the trigger on anything.
The team’s top six is humming along and the bottom six is full of useful players. Now, they really have to figure out the best way to optimize the group come playoff time. There’s an obvious player right now that likely wouldn’t be a part of a healthy playoff lineup (Anderson), and there’s another one they can continue to evaluate (Holmberg) as the other 10 spots are all spoken for.
– It’s no secret that Alex Kerfoot doesn’t have much of a shot, but it is notable that he is shooting the puck more.
His career-high in shots per game came all the way back in his second season with Colorado right before he was traded to the Leafs. He averaged 1.49 shots per game that season and scored 15 goals, which is the second-highest mark of his career. So far this season, he’s averaging a career-high 1.68 shots on net per game.
In December alone, Kerfoot is putting up over two shots on net per game. He rightfully took some heat after a game against Pittsburgh where a defender fell and he could have taken a mini-breakaway but elected to pass. In three of his next four games, he went shotless (perhaps still trigger-shy and struggling with confidence).
Since then, he has put at least one shot on net in every game. Against the Blues, I thought it was one of his best games as a Leaf. He was driving his offense, his speed was a problem, and he was creating opportunities. He wasn’t playing alongside superstars, either. His line with David Kampf and Pierre Engvall was effective. He has been miscast in the top six, but we’ll see if this becomes a better spot for him to consistently contribute.
– I am not sure if this is a trend or just a coincidence, but against the Rangers, Michael Bunting really didn’t help Giordano off the opening faceoff, resulting in a turnover and a Rangers goal. Against the Blues, he was again weak on the walls off of an opening faceoff, and the puck kicked out to the slot in the Leafs end, almost leading to a Blues goal.
Starting games and periods down the stretch — and at playoff time — has been an issue for the Leafs over the years, so it’s something to keep an eye on.
– It’s easy to overlook, but on a team with Auston Matthews and John Tavares, William Nylander is leading the team in goals and is tied for eighth in the league. He is putting together a very impressive season so far.
– It seemed to receive more attention when they were struggling with it, but the Leafs are currently a top-five team in faceoff win percentage. John Tavares is winning 59.5 percent, which is eighth among all players who have taken at least 300 faceoffs so far (a list of 96 players). Auston Matthews and David Kampf are each winning around 52 percent.
I do wonder if the Leafs will want a right-handed faceoff man at some point. Their top five faceoff takers are all lefties.
“To be able to play here in front of a lot of family and friends and really have the support of everyone really feels good.”
– Hometown boy Mark Giordano on being a Maple Leaf
Mark Giordano has been everything the Leafs could have asked for and more. He’s an excellent player, and I think his competitiveness and professionalism have made a positive impact by rubbing off on certain players. The contract is obviously an insane steal even if he was only decent. The fact that he has been genuinely very good makes it laugh-out-loud funny.
“Energy, solid two-way game, and try to chip in where I can.”
– Dryden Hunt on what he brings to the team
I am not expecting a ton from Dryden Hunt, but I do think he’s going to be a player who understands his role and is tossed into the mix every once in a while to add some energy. That’s an ideal 13th forward to me as opposed to a skilled guy who doesn’t actually produce much of anything.
“Giving (Murray) a little bit more time to get back in the net and get ready for Arizona made sense. It gives Ilya a chance to get right back in. He hasn’t been happy with his starts the last couple of times out.”
– Sheldon Keefe on starting Ilya Samsonov against the Blues
“First game after break, not too perfect, but we have two points. The result is good. A little bit hard to see the puck. Your reaction is not too great. Your legs are moving a little bit hard. Not too great ice here. My hips are tired today.”
– Ilya Samsonov after the Blues game
It’s tough to put much stock into the first game back after the holidays; it is a wildcard-type game. That said, I thought that was Ilya Samsonov’s third straight game where he struggled. The team has won two of them — and we saw last season how the team can overcome poor goaltending — but there’s clearly some degree of urgency here as acknowledged by Sheldon Keefe before the game.
It’s far too early to panic — it’s just three games — but it’s noteworthy until he turns it around.
Tweets of the Week
@MikeKellyNHL joined @Sportsnet Hockey Central using Sportlogiq data to analyze the five forward powerplay that we've seen from the Maple Leafs and around the league. https://t.co/yNllQVnSO5 pic.twitter.com/JbStSMQXsX
— Sportlogiq (@Sportlogiq) December 22, 2022
It is very early in this experiment, and while I ultimately expect Morgan Rielly will immediately walk back onto the top unit, the regular season is about experimentation (even if I’d rather try other defensemen as I think they have a number of capable options).
Converting Mete and Robertson from IR to LTIR gives the #LeafsForever an additional $1,546,667 in their LTI Salary pool.
This brings their total relief to $14,671,667 of which they have $7,885,000 usable space remaining.https://t.co/bNkke6voBx
— CapFriendly (@CapFriendly) December 27, 2022
Ultimately, the Leafs need to create cap space to activate Rielly and once they do, they are going to be right back up against it. Like most teams, it’s going to be tight to add a player, and if they want to add an impact contributor (which is obviously the goal), just like last season, they’ll probably only have room for one move of note unless they swap salaries as they did with the Nick Ritchie-for-Ilya Lyubushkin trade.
Marner leads the #Leafs in scoring at the Christmas break with 40 points in 34 games. Matthews, Nylander next with 39 each. All of the Leafs' top five scorers, including Tavares and Bunting, have played in every game.
— Terry Koshan 🇺🇦 (@koshtorontosun) December 22, 2022
For all the talk of the Leafs’ injuries, their top five forwards have all been completely healthy. If a center goes down, they’re suddenly debating between Alex Kerfoot, Calle Järnkrok, Pontus Holmberg or maybe moving William Nylander over to be 2C.
The domino effect, especially if they shifted Nylander over, would be notable. Conversely, their options on defense are moving up highly-touted defensemen with legitimate pedigree.
Even with the injuries in net, I’d argue the forward group is where they are most vulnerable should injuries strike. Their four best players are all forwards, too.
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. As much as I’d eventually like to see what Pontus Holmberg – Calle Järnkrok looks like, Järnkrok is humming right now on the second line. He can’t drive a line, but he’ll keep it moving forward, the puck won’t die on his stick, and he has a great shot. It’s a good recipe alongside two stars that generally do most of the work anyway.
2. I think it’s worth noting that Alex Kerfoot is looking his best right now in his proper spot: third-line left wing. He is miscast as a top-six forward or a center of any kind, but on the wing in the right role, he is legitimately effective. His speed is a problem, and when he isn’t forced to try to score, his weak shot isn’t nearly as problematic as it would be otherwise.
3. When Morgan Rielly returns against Arizona, it looks like he will start next to Timothy Liljegren.
#Leafs lines at practice Dec. 28/22
Extra: Anderson, Simmonds
— David Alter (@dalter) December 28, 2022
I think it’s also easy to picture him back in his spot alongside TJ Brodie at some point, which would make Conor Timmins the odd man out. After an initial run of good play, Timmins has been a bit more up and down of late, but it was interesting that he was on the ice in the final minutes against the Blues. He actually did a very good job of boxing out in front of the net on one play.
Of course, the Mark Giordano – Justin Holl pairing has been very good. This is simply a tough defense to crack when it’s healthy, and I anticipate that there will be a lot of rotation in and out anyway.
4. I think I can’t wait for Morgan Rielly to return and resume his role as the top-unit power-play quarterback. I don’t think this should be in question, either. He should walk right back onto the top unit.
5. It’s a little late, but I forgot to say it last week, and it’s still important: Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all of our readers. I hope you’re all having a happy and at least somewhat relaxing holiday.
As the year comes to a close, I also wanted to take a second to say thank you — for reading, engaging, arguing, and ultimately, for your time. I love every second of it. Hopefully, next year is the year.