Joseph Woll will make his 2023-24 season debut as the Maple Leafs host Connor Bedard and the 1-2-0 Chicago Blackhawks (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
Dating back to the start of the 2022-23 season, while it’s true they’ve only had Connor Bedard in their ranks for the last three games, no NHL team has scored fewer goals than the Blackhawks at 2.46 per game. For a Leafs team looking to tighten things up in the defensive zone after conceding nine goals through two games, it should be just what the doctor ordered.
Bedard has thus far produced three points in three games, all at even strength, and his line with Taylor Hall and Ryan Donato is the Blackhawks’ only one (by a large margin) that has broken even in shots and scoring chances. It’s clearly a Chicago team that the Leafs are capable of running over with their vastly superior depth, but this is the NHL and this is the Leafs, who need to prove that they’ve turned the page on their tendency from last season of playing down to bottom-feeders. Bedard’s first appearance at the center of the hockey universe (opposite Auston Matthews) will certainly add a bit of juice to this matchup, not to mention Corey Perry (three points in three games and playing on the top power play in Chicago) often brings his best for games in Toronto.
The season debut of Joseph Woll comes at a time when Ilya Samsonov has not gotten off to the hottest of starts by any means. Clearly, the timing of this start for Woll has nothing to do with Samsonov’s play so far and everything to do with the lack of back-to-backs in the first stretch of the schedule; the Leafs won’t play twice in two nights until the middle of November, and Woll needs playing time to gain traction early in the season, especially after missing a preseason start due to illness.
This is a scheduled start for Woll through and through. That said, if Woll is going to push for more starts this season — and begin chipping away at a #1/#2 situation, turning it into more of a 1A/1B situation over time — it’s a good time to start by putting on a quality performance tonight.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on where the team needs to improve through two games:
The two games were different, obviously… You like that the guys found ways to stick with it, and we found ways to generate lots of offense. The special teams — the power play has been really good, 6-on-5 has been really good. We spent a lot of time in those areas — probably more than we have in any other camp or preseason.
In the past, we have kind of pushed those things down the line thinking we’ll get to that and there will be time. We prioritized a lot of that last year. A lot of it is with Guy coming in, having some different ideas, and changing some things. We wanted to prioritize that. The time spent there has paid off.
We got the results and found ways to win. In both games, I’ve come away not feeling great because we have given up a lot. We have gotten scored on a lot and given up more chances than we’d like. You come away not feeling great about our defensive game, but in both games when I go back and look at it, there is more good in there than bad.
We just have to find a way to chip away and reduce the mistakes that we are making, but there are more than enough there that show where our expectations are. We know what we want to do. We just want to keep building on that. Consistency is everything. That is what we are looking toward.
Keefe on why the team has been leakier defensively than their usual standard:
We have had breakdowns in our defensive-zone coverage. There are a couple of things there.
We defend our best when we are fresh — everybody does when they’re fresh — but we want to have a lot of pressure on the puck in the offensive zone. When you are tired, that really breaks down.
Also, we haven’t changed anything in our defensive-zone coverage this season from our previous seasons, but we have six forwards that weren’t with us last season. Those six guys are spread out on all four lines. We don’t have any lines that have any sort of continuity where everybody is completely on the same page.
We have some guys who are still trying to get up to speed. One little breakdown tends to have someone else needing to cover and do somebody else’s job, which ultimately leaves you exposed at your net.
It is an area we have to really tighten up on. When I went back and looked at it, there were more than enough examples of exactly what we wanted it to look like. We just have to keep reinforcing that.
We had a brief practice yesterday, but that was a main theme for us: coming back to our zone, establishing pressure, and getting out quickly. That is what I would point to the most.
Some of it is early season. At times, shift length gets long, and you are defending tired. Over the course of the season, you really find your rhythm, and that is what really helps your defensive game — not just us but across the league as well. When you look at why things start to tighten up as the season goes along, it is just that type of stuff where the offseason and summer habits find their way out.
Keefe on whether this is a “new and improved” William Nylander this season:
I think Willy took a big step last season. From this time of the year right through to Christmas, I thought he was really carrying the load for us offensively and driving play. In that sense, I wouldn’t necessarily call it new, but he is continuing to progress and take charge, and his confidence is at an all-time high right now.
He has taken steps each season, but it has gotten to a point now where it is starting to really separate him from a lot of others in the league.
Fraser Minten on the keys to shutting down his childhood friend Connor Bedard:
It is like any other really good player. You just want to get the puck out of his hands and make it hard on him by closing his time and space. He will be attacking the net as much as he can, trying to get through the neutral zone with speed, and trying off the rush. He can do everything. You want to limit his space, time, and get the puck away from him.
John Tavares on Auston Mathews’ six-goals-in-two-games start to the season:
You just get a lot of vibes from a couple of years ago where he just gets in one of those zones. It’s not just the goal scoring, but you see it in the takeaways, how he wins battles, and his puck protection.
Head-to-Head Stats: Maple Leafs vs. Blackhawks (2022-23)
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#59 Tyler Bertuzzi – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#19 Calle Jarnkrok – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#23 Matthew Knies – #39 Fraser Minten – #11 Max Domi
#18 Noah Gregor – #64 David Kampf – #75 Ryan Reaves
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#22 Jake McCabe – #3 John Klingberg
#55 Mark Giordano – #37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter: #60 Joseph Woll
#35 Ilya Samsonov
Scratched: Simon Benoit
Injured: Conor Timmins
Chicago Blackhawks Projected Lines
#71 Taylor Hall – #98 Connor Bedard – #8 Ryan Donato
#90 Tyler Johnson – #27 Lukas Reichel – #11 Taylor Raddysh
#17 Nick Foligno – #17 Jason Dickinson – #94 Corey Perry
#14 Boris Katchouk – #58 Mackenzie Entwistle – #89 Andreas Athanasiou
#72 Alex Vlasic – #4 Seth Jones
#55 Kevin Korchinski – #5 Connor Murphy
#22 Nikita Zaitsev – #44 Wyatt Kaiser
Starter: #40 Arvid Soderblom
#34 Petr Mrazek
Scratched: Jared Tinordi
Injured: Colin Blackwell, Philipp Kurashev