Yesterday, we broke down the positives and drawbacks of the Maple Leafs running an 11 forwards, seven-defensemen lineup.
Let’s finish up this week’s notebook with the notes, quotes, tweets of the week, and Five Things.
– The Buffalo loss will grab the headlines, but I was far more interested in how the Leafs would play against the Devils and Oilers. I wouldn’t call either game perfect, but they dug in for both and played well.
By and large, the Devils have controlled play against the Leafs this year, and their speed has been a problem. The team was coming off a bad loss against the Canucks and a significant loss in ROR. The Devils dominated the first period against the Leafs, but from there, Toronto responded with some real gusto and came up big in the final minutes to win in regulation.
The Oilers kicked their ass just a week ago, and in an opportunity for revenge, they started the game well by tilting the ice, drawing a penalty, and then scoring on 5v5. Matt Murray struggled early, but they stuck with it, battled through it, kept their composure, and erupted in the second period. The game never really felt in doubt after they took the lead.
Those were two very impressive response games.
– Sheldon Keefe has been trying to run John Tavares and Michael Bunting together, but it hasn’t gone particularly well yet. They missed a 2v0 where they did not look on the same page at all, there was a poor drop pass against Vancouver that led to a 2v0 for the Canucks, and in general, they’ve had no real drive offensively working together. Bunting’s only point in the last five is an empty-net tap courtesy of David Kampf.
– Since the Leafs made the trade to acquire Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari, David Kampf rather quietly has seven points in 11 games. There was a lot of talk about whether he would look without his running mate Pierre Engvall, but so far, so good.
In particular, alongside Acciari, they are both really strong along the boards and cycling the puck, and they have been able to bring those elements and get pucks to the net.
On Acciari’s goal against the Oilers, the work rate really stood out. It was a lost offensive-zone faceoff, but Acciari jumped it and made contact, Kampf won the race to the puck, and Zach Aston-Reese joined the battle in the corner as they swarmed the puck. Kampf got the puck back, made a nice play behind the net, and centered it to ZAR before Acciari cleaned up the rebound.
It was a great effort goal, and they are flashing promise that they can be the type of physical, wear-down-the-opponent line that checks at a high level defensively.
– In the January 27 game against Ottawa, Pontus Holmberg was given an opportunity to line up as the 2C. He had a scoring chance early, but afterward, he took six minutes in penalties, spelling the end of that experiment.
After the Leafs made a number of trades to completely redo their bottom six, he was sent down to the Marlies for more seasoning. If it wasn’t for an injury to Ryan O’Reilly, he likely wouldn’t be up with the Leafs at this point, but he got the call. In his first game back, he took four more penalty minutes.
Holmberg has had a fine year and put his name on the map moving forward, but unfortunately, those are the type of things coaches are going to remember in the short term when making lineup decisions. He didn’t even play seven minutes in the game against the Devils and was scratched for the next one.
“I’m really impressed, like, how much energy he brings every, single day. Before the games, during the game, the way he plays, it’s like he never runs out of juice. It’s really impressive & I think everyone feeds off it … He brings the jam for us.”
– Sam Lafferty on Mitch Marner
Since the start of 2023, Mitch Marner has 43 points in 29 games. Only Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, and Matthew Tkachuk have more.
He has been lights out for months on end now, and the game against the Oilers might have been the best of all. He put them on his back in the second period to drive the comeback.
“He’s great. All of us really love Cookie ever since he got here. He’s really blended with the team nicely. A guy that plays so hard every night. Doesn’t matter what the situation is, he just gives it his all. Just the physicality he brings to our team has been incredible. He’s changed games and changed momentum by throwing the body, laying a couple big hits. Kinda getting us to wake up a little bit… He’s a bulldog out there. He hits hard, too.”
– Auston Matthews on Noel Acciari
We can’t understate the value Noel Acciari offers as someone who can swing his game with his physicality. It’s a big change from a few years ago when the bottom lines were essentially just worse versions of the top two lines and brought nothing else of note to the table.
A good example was in the game against New Jersey after the Leafs played an awful first period. Early in the second period, Acciari had a shift where he drove the net with the puck for a scoring chance then crunched Jack Hughes along the boards.
Against Seattle, he ran over Jared McCann. Against the Flames, he ran Nikita Zadorov.
In the few times the Leafs have physically engaged over the years, their star players, particularly Matthews, have loved it, and it can clearly go straight to their legs. Since the Leafs acquired him, Acciari leads all Leafs skaters with 35 hits, 11 more than second-place Justin Holl and 20 more than third-place John Tavares.
“He likes to dive and embellish. You want to get that out of the game, but they prevent guys from the consequences of those actions. Fighting is a great deterrent for those type of players and actions. It just prevents guys from having to answer the bell like. He’s a perfect example of that.”
– Evander Kane on Michael Bunting
Michael Bunting is second in the league in penalties drawn but only a plus-four overall due to all the penalties he has taken. I know some people enjoy the antics, but frankly, it’s not for me, and his game generally suffers when he’s engaged in it. He backs down physically when challenged, and for a few months now, he’s no longer getting the calls.
Against the Oilers, I didn’t think he dove at all, but he has before, and those things usually even out over an 82-game season. Accordingly, Keefe has pushed him down the lineup. There’s a useful player here when he focuses on his game. I would rather he do that.
Tweets of the Week
Alex Kerfoot's 5v5 shooting percentage by season:
I'm sure there's some other reason why people have turned off him. Can't put my finger on it.
— Cam Charron (@camcharronyvr) March 10, 2023
The dip in shooting percentage is an important note. Alex Kerfoot is scoring and producing at career-worst rates. I’m sure he will see those numbers bounce back up at some point (maybe not this season but at some point moving forward).
Where it gets dicey is twofold: He can’t shoot, and he’s playing with top players. The inability to shoot is causing him to be left wide open as teams focus in on Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. We could see this against New Jersey, in particular.
He does a lot of things right with his speed and is a legitimately good penalty killer. After the trades, he was playing down the lineup – it was a luxury, and he looked really good (he was great against Calgary while playing on the third line).
Jake McCabe playing defense with such calm and poise pic.twitter.com/rzROuljahl
— Willy O'Reillander (@willygoatgruf) March 8, 2023
Before the deadline, I think the question of who would close games for the Leafs was very much a point of concern. Their options were TJ Brodie, Justin Holl, Mark Giordano, Morgan Rielly, and two young defensemen. They didn’t want to put the young defensemen out there in the final minutes against teams like Tampa and Boston, which is completely fair.
It seems they also don’t particularly love the idea of using Rielly to close games, but if they have to, he’d go out there with Brodie, which means the other unit is automatically Giordano – Holl. It wasn’t great.
Jake McCabe gives them a legitimate option (he was great closing the game against the Devils). Adding him to Brodie, Giordano, and Holl gives them the flexibility to deploy any of them together at the same time.
They also have Luke Schenn, who it wouldn’t be surprising to see close games, too.
William Nylander shots off the rush 📈
(within 4 seconds of zone entry) per game.
— Meghan Chayka (@MeghanChayka) March 9, 2023
I mentioned during the season that one of the biggest positives in William Nylander’s game this season is how he’s driving the net with the puck.
He’s not settling for looping behind the net for a lap or rushing a shot on goal when pressured (or worse, trying to stop to create space and then shoot, which hardly ever works). He’s dropping his shoulder and taking pucks right to the net, and we can see here that he’s simply shooting a lot faster. As of this writing, he’s tracking to launch a career-high 3.59 shots on net per game.
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I’d call up Bobby McMann and see if he can play on the Leafs’ third or fourth line. Stylistically, his game makes a lot more sense alongside players such as Noel Acciari and Sam Lafferty than it did alongside Pierre Engvall. I understand the Leafs are down a forward and want to keep all their defensemen active – which is fair and they should – but it’s a balancing act. There should be 13 or 14 forwards that Keefe has some level of comfort turning to. Right now, the number seems to be 12.
2. I think this is why Matthew Knies will receive a legitimate chance to play. However, they simply can’t bank on him. He has never played pro hockey, and the Leafs should have at least a few options on the Marlies they feel okay about playing. The best situation is Knies is a player ready to contribute – and if he is, that’s great, but if not, it shouldn’t really matter.
3. I do think the absence of Ryan O’Reilly is going a little underrated and somewhat forgotten. He is a significant addition who does everything on the ice at a high standard and unlocks all sorts of lineup possibilities. Unfortunately, he’s only played eight games.
Maybe the area this is felt the most is the Leafs reuniting Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and using them head-to-head against top lines – as we’ve seen against Edmonton, Buffalo, and with NJ loading up on them.
ROR can ease the workload, with a defensive-zone line featuring David Kampf and Noel Acciari to support in behind. There is a significant domino effect when he is healthy.
4. I think the Leafs have to tread lightly with Timothy Liljegren. He did struggle against Buffalo and in general, he has appeared off since the Leafs added multiple defensemen and suddenly healthy scratched him (with Keefe even going so far as to announce he’s in a battle for a lineup spot). He has been very good this season, and over two seasons, his play has generally ascended.
Much like what happened with Rasmus Sandin, we don’t want a situation where the player feels he can’t win, ends up disgruntled, and management moves on. He’s a good player now and an important one for the future, which the Leafs can’t lose sight of.
I’d keep Liljegren in the lineup – and would probably just sit Erik Gustafsson – to roll three pairings and get his game back on track. Stylistically, he’s also a good fit to play against Tampa with his speed and puck movement.
5. At this point, I think I would be splitting starts between Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov, but truthfully, unless there’s some sort of combination of Samsonov faltering and Murray ascending, it’s sort of Samsonov’s net to lose at this point. There’s a month to go before playoffs – things can certainly change – but Samsonov is in the lead at this point.