It’s easy to forget given all of the Maple Leafs’ core players returned this season, but there was a lot of change this summer on and off the ice. With change comes learning curves.
Half of the forward group is brand new. Half of the top-four defense just went through their first home opener with the club. Goaltender Joseph Woll is beginning his first full season in the league. Off the ice, there are new assistant coaches and new management in place.
The Leafs have started 2-1-0, but they haven’t exactly played good positional hockey. It’s probably the best time to go on a five-game road trip, to be honest. They will be forced to defend more, and they are also playing against better teams in general. They also won’t be pushing needlessly for offense in front of their own fans, which led to a whole collection of Blackhawks odd-man rushes on the counterattack. There were two breakaway goals against and a number of 3v2s and 2v1s, all stemming from essentially unforced errors.
There are some real adjustments the team will need to sort through. In adding Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi as well as integrating Matthew Knies full-time, the Leafs have added talent, but they have also added players who are used to playing big minutes. If Bertuzzi’s three-game time-on-ice average were to hold, it would be his lowest since his rookie season. For Max Domi, this would be the lowest time-on-ice average of his career. It’s safe to say Matthew Knies wasn’t playing just over 12 minutes per game in college last season, either.
For Knies, in particular, he has been tasked with playing alongside a rookie center, in limited minutes, with one of Calle Jarnkrok or Domi on the other side. It’s not exactly setting him up for success. His best scoring chance of the season was a breakaway courtesy of John Tavares in overtime. His best shift of the season, I would argue, came alongside Tyler Bertuzzi after a penalty expired.
Now factor in the fact that players such as Bertuzzi and Domi have never actually played on a team from the start of the season that went on to make the playoffs (I am not counting Domi making it in the COVID bubble year with the Habs; they otherwise wouldn’t have made it). The nightly expectations and the roles on the team are different and involve significant adjustments.
For Bertuzzi, he’s been overzealous while taking a number of offensive-zone penalties already (he has five penalties in three games so far). For Domi, he’s been careless with the puck in his own end (and subsequently benched/demoted – rightfully so).
Sheldon Keefe recently alluded to this adjustment process underway with the new additions:
“It is a challenge. A player has to find their game individually. I have to help them along with that. At the same time, you have a lot of guys you are trying to introduce, get going, and get comfortable.
All four of our left-wingers are new. You are trying to find the right mix for everybody, but everybody is responsible for maximizing the minutes they do get. It will settle into place.
As we go out on the road, the rejigging of the lines is about more consistently trying to get guys out there.”
So far, it has been a top-heavy approach just like in previous years. There are five forwards averaging over 16 minutes per game so far, and two averaging over 23 minutes. Calle Jarnkrok is sixth at 14:07, and nobody else is above 12:19. That’s with the team winning a relative blowout down the stretch against the Minnesota Wild.
This Leafs team needs a three-line attack – and they have more than enough talent to spread out amongst three units – but it has been a top-heavy approach so far. The players have to adjust to a new environment, but the coach also has to adjust to the additional talent. Keefe needs to empower players beyond his top four.
Part of the chicken-or-the-egg debate with Domi’s (for example) poor start: Is it because he isn’t getting enough ice time, or does he not deserve more ice time because he’s playing poorly? It is difficult to ignore his struggles on the breakout, and he has been beaten by his defenseman on the point a number of times, including one blatant missed assignment against the Wild that led to a goal against.
The top four players are what they have been for half a decade now: very good and capable of largely carrying the mail. But it can’t only be about the four of them, and the Leafs need to work through finding the right balance. It’s part of the learning curve following so much offseason change.
– William Nylander is off to a hot start and looks fantastic. I was curious to look up how he started the past few seasons, and while he’s started well before, the first few months were not always his best of the year. In October and November last season, he recorded 25 points in 25 games. It was in December and January when he took off, racking up 34 points in a 26-game span. The season before, he started the season with 21 points in 23 games. Again, very good, but it was the final two months of the season when he posted his best stretch of 31 points in 28 games.
It’s only three games into the season, so there’s no real conclusion to draw, but the only time he has ever been over a point per game in the first month of the season was his rookie season. So far, he’s come out looking the best he ever has.
– I have said it before, but I think Nylander is the best player on the team at driving the net with the puck on his stick. Against the Wild, the way he was able to hold the puck wide and use his body to shield off defenders is incredibly hard to do and even harder to stop.
– Against the Habs, Timothy Liljegren fanned on the puck leading directly to a Habs goal. He had the exact same whiff against the Islanders down the stretch last season for a goal against. Against Chicago, in the first period, there was a similar play about six minutes into the game. At some point, this is an issue to do with how he handles the puck and moves it. He often snaps the puck like a snapshot to make a pass instead of cradling and ripping it. When he misses, this is what happens.
– The Leafs needed more offense from the blue line, which was obvious in the playoffs. Morgan Rielly was the only effective blueliner from the point in this regard. So far, it’s clear that John Klingberg gives them another legitimate option. He has three points in three games to start and could have had a handful more if his teammates finished a few more chances.
Klingberg sent in McCabe all alone with a cross-ice pass and hit Nylander cross-ice at 5v5 for a one-timer that neither finished against Chicago. In the opener against Montreal, Nylander did score on a one-timer feed from him, and if you watch the shot, it wasn’t exactly a bomb (we’ve definitely seen Nylander rip harder ones than that). It also wasn’t off the bar and in or anything along those lines. Klingberg did a really nice job of freezing the defenders before sliding it over, giving Nylander all sorts of net to look at. Klingberg has a lot of deception in his game and is able to pull defenders to him in a way that Rielly can’t. He does need to stop shooting into shin pads, though.
– There has been a lot of talk about the Ryan Reaves fights, but the big hits he’s thrown stand out more to me. The Leafs have brought in players like Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford over the years, but those two were not laying out players with clean open-ice hits the way Reaves laid out Frederik Gaudreau against Minnesota on Saturday. Rewatching the play, it’s striking that a player like Gaudreau – a useful but not star-level player – thinks he can freely walk into the zone, slow down, toe drag, and rip a shot unbothered. Obviously, it didn’t work out for him this time.
A bit more presence in those areas – a message that you can’t try that stuff against us – is a good thing. It’s also a bit contagious. Auston Matthews has already laid out a number of big hits. Calle Jarnkrok ended the first period against Chicago by crunching Seth Jones along the boards and knocking him down as the clock expired. Nothing was going to happen there – the period was over, and in most cases, we’d see teams across the league dump it in, turn to their bench, and skate off to the gate. The Leafs won’t benefit from it in the third game of the season, but it’s the type of thing that can build up over a season, playoff series, and playoff run.
“The turnover stuff early on — it’s all just careless with the puck, and it is all of our best players. Really, really careless to start the game. That didn’t give us a chance to take hold of the game like you want to be able to do on home ice.
We weren’t able to take charge of the game, and then you let your opponent hang around. We have seen this movie before when you let them hang around.”
– Sheldon Keefe after losing to Chicago
First and foremost, to this point, Keefe hasn’t walked back those comments, unlike last season. That’s a positive sign.
Secondly, it’s fine to call the big guns out, but when Mitch Marner plays 25:54, Auston Matthews plays 25:49, and William Nylander plays 21:52, is Keefe really sending a message? I get that those ice-time figures were inflated because he played them for most of the final five minutes of the game with the net empty, but… he didn’t have to do that. He can easily state that the performance wasn’t up to snuff and he will be going with other options on principle alone.
Game 3 of the season in October is exactly the time to do that kind of thing. That’s why Lindy Ruff benched Timo Meier for a full period (he played one shift) and a brand new coach in Columbus benched a defenseman the organization gave a $50 million contract to – Damon Seversson – for a full period. This is the time to set the standard with actions, not with empty words.
“We don’t want to be the team that Toronto finally got to the second round, and they beat the Tampa Bay Lightning.”
– Mikhail Sergachev this offseason after losing to Toronto
Teams will talk about it as “just another regular season game” and that they can’t redeem a series loss in one game, but I’m fully expecting Tampa to come out with something extra to their game. We will see if the Leafs match and possibly exceed their intensity.
“It was my mindset to come back all along. I felt I’ve been pretty clear about that. I really enjoy playing here, and I love the core guys I’ve been playing with going back to my early days here. And the way the staff treats us is amazing. I’ve kind of repeated these things, they’re all true, and it means a lot to me to be here.
So, when I see stuff like some of the speculation this summer, I get a pretty good chuckle out of it because it’s just nonsense, to be honest with you… Look, if you didn’t hear it from me, and you didn’t hear it from my family, and you didn’t hear it from my agent, then what are we talking about here? It’s just like lies, just like people making stuff up.
At this point, I find it comedic more than anything. It didn’t really bother me at all. I just found it funny because there are so many so-called experts out there who feel they have scoops — people go on social media and say they hear things — but if they didn’t hear it from me, my family or my agent, where did you hear it from and who exactly is your credible source?
I guess they have their answer now. Like I said after the season, it was always my intention to re-sign here. Again, I love it here, this is always where I’ve wanted to be, and I’m excited. We’re just entering our prime.”
– Auston Matthews on wanting to be in Toronto and ultimately signing an extension to stay
While he may not have signed for the max term, Auston Matthews did ink an extension, which was particularly noteworthy given the offseason chatter the spring and summer prior. There was originally talk about how Matthews’ relationship with Kyle Dubas could impact his next contract, and at one point, there was speculation if it would play out similar to the John Tavares – Islanders situation.
It’s a reminder of A) why you need to be careful what you read, and B) why this market is a different kind of beast. It’s also why Sheldon Keefe needed to either be extended or let go. This market will blow up any storyline, and the onus is on the Leafs to be airtight at all times.
Tweets of the Week
— On-Ice for 27 (!) High-Danger Chances For
— On-Ice for 3 High-Danger Chances Against
Leafs come to play when Mo's on the ice. pic.twitter.com/7fsiu6N0eH
— Big Head Hockey (@BigHeadHcky) October 17, 2023
Despite playing on the second power-play unit, Morgan Rielly still has three points in three games to start the season. Without the capacity to simply wait for power plays to produce, he looks like he’s been more aggressive offensively at 5v5 in terms of joining the rush and pushing the envelope offensively.
Rielly deserves significant credit for gracefully accepting what is quite literally a demotion. It would be easy for him to point out how successful the power play has been the past two seasons and pout as a result, but he is a through-and-through team guy. It’s very commendable.
One interesting thing is Toronto is going Old School this season with a "Spread" or "Overload" look on the PP instead of the traditional 1-3-1…this involves a player to side of the net looking to make plays low#LeafsForever https://t.co/KU6Bo4kDbA pic.twitter.com/IsnSIEEERX
— Andrew Brewer (@Abrew2014) October 15, 2023
This has been a nice wrinkle added to the Leafs’ power play. The half-wall player is getting the puck downhill and either passing it to the goal line for this tic-tac-toe play or simply shooting it. It’s important to add counterpunches to keep opponents on their toes. I have also noticed that the Leafs have a quick-up power play breakout now, too, where instead of making the drop pass every time, they will rip it up to the far blue line and try to catch teams cheating as they sell out on the drop-pass play.
One of the reasons Keefe mentioned he didn't want Matthews PKing was they liked to get him out there after the kill, w/ other team's top guys typically off the ice. In the 1st shift following a PK in 2022-23, Leafs were outscored 9-5 & outshot 200-143. I say give him the PK mins.
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) October 11, 2023
I did not expect this stat at all. So far, Auston Matthews has looked good on the penalty kill. Any offense is secondary to me. The question is really whether or not he can kill penalties (and he’ll make teams pay the odd time offensively, I’m sure). Knowing that the Leafs haven’t accomplished much right after killing a penalty makes it much easier to digest this kind of usage. Kill the penalty and get back to 5v5 hockey.
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. To this point, I don’t think Fraser Minten has done anything to suggest he should stay beyond the nine-game mark. The confidence with the puck is not there to consistently make plays (and he’s had a number of chances set up for him that he’s whiffed on), which is not all too surprising for a player who produced well in the WHL last season but didn’t exactly leap off the page. He scored 67 points in 57 games followed by just four points in 10 playoff games. Unless he suddenly and surprisingly emerges over the next few games, the goal should be for him to go down and tear up the WHL, play in the world juniors, and make strides toward a serious run at a full-time spot next season.
2. In terms of filling the roster spot, I’d give the first crack to Pontus Holmberg simply because he’s a center. His preseason was very vanilla as we noted here multiple times, but I think his game will be better now that the real hockey has started. He simply isn’t a player who particularly shines in preseason; his game is predicated on putting together solid, dependable shifts rather than anything flashy. There was a point last season when he was locking himself into a roster spot, but then he hit a wall with the NHL grind. I think he would help solidify the third line. The main question will be whether he can produce enough and make plays with the puck.
3. I think the Jake McCabe – John Klingberg pairing went about exactly as I thought it would (which is to say it’s been a struggle). McCabe has a lot of risk to his game and is quite active in the offensive zone even though he doesn’t have the finishing talent to justify it. Liljegren has had some issues to start the season, but at least he hangs back. Giordano will generally hang back defensively at this stage of his career, too, which is a proper safety net for Klingberg’s style of play.
4. I think Ilya Samsonov deserves some rope after emerging as the Leafs starter last season. By rope, I mean one bad week for him and one good game for Joseph Woll doesn’t suddenly swap their roles. There’s no question Woll is talented and has performed well in the NHL whenever he’s been called upon, but he’s also struggled to stay healthy virtually his entire career. He played all of 28 games between the Marlies and Leafs last season, and 19 the season before that. They need to be mindful of that history – especially early – and bring him along slowly. Beyond that, they do need to get Samsonov going, too. This is also why it was smart to not sign Samsonov long-term. He very much needs to prove himself.
5. When we talk about a sense of occasion and gleaning value and meaning from the regular season, the next couple of games are the exact kind of games that come to mind. It is early, but through three games, the Leafs haven’t played particularly well. They won twice, but it’s not the brand of hockey that has made them or will make them successful. Now they head on the road to play the team that eliminated them (Florida) and the team that they eliminated from the playoffs last season (Tampa). There should be a little extra something to these games, and the Leafs should really be trying to clean up their overall game in general.