December has arrived, and we’re now past the first quarter mark of the season.
To mark the occasion, we have an extended notes version of the notebook, so let’s dive right into it.
– On top of all the offseason additions made by Brad Treliving, one of the real lineup wildcards entering the season was a noteworthy rookie, Matthew Knies. He started on the third line, but it was an awkward fit alongside Kampf and a struggling-on-the-wing Domi. Still, he flashed promise at times and received a look up the lineup.
There is no question he has the speed and skill to hang with the Leafs‘ top players, but he’s still very much a rookie who is learning the league and how to contribute to the team night in and night out. It is tough for rookies to walk onto a top team where mistakes are magnified.
Against Boston on Saturday, he lost Kevin Shattenkirk in coverage resulting in a goal but made up for it later, contributing to Matthews’ first goal of the game. We saw a similar story in the playoffs last year against Florida in Game 1 when he was burned for a goal and scored afterward to make up for it (something Alec noted in the Game in 10 as well). But he’s very much working through these mistakes.
Against Seattle, late in the third of a tie game, he made a drop pass at the Leafs‘ blue line that got picked off. As the Leafs were hemmed in, he got the puck on his stick and failed to get it out, leading to more commotion in his own zone.
This is part of what happens when a rookie plays higher up the lineup (Jarnkrok replaced him after that shift). It is part of the development process, but the faster he learns and rounds into a true top-six forward, the better this Leafs team will be. The big question concerns how far along he will be by the trade deadline.
– Similar sentiments apply to Nick Robertson, although it is not as evident with him since he’s only averaging 10:27 per game. The Leafs brass should be using these games as much as possible to evaluate what they have in these players. It is found money if they can develop their games, but the Leafs will have to go through some bumps in the road to get there.
– We have seen this type of outburst from Mitch Marner before, where he finally gets the monkey off his back offensively and then goes off. It started with a hat trick against Seattle, and while he wasn’t buzzing in the same way against Boston, he made an elite pass to Matthews to tie the game before the buzzer. Considering the limited time left on the clock plus the commotion in front of the net all around him, it was an elite play to pause an extra second and set up a one-timer.
Suddenly, Marner’s .36 goals per game average is right on the heels of his .39 goals per game rate from the previous season.
– We’ve been talking about Jake McCabe’s seamless switch to the right side for the past few weeks. Last week against Seattle, he played a season-high 24:16, and he followed it up by logging 23:03 vs. Boston.
With the top pairing remaining the same, the injuries on defense have impacted McCabe more than anyone else. He switched sides, paired with Giordano, and is currently playing with Lagesson. He/his pairing has remained steady amid all of the moving pieces.
– Jake McCabe’s job is not to provide offense, but he’s still their third defenseman in ice time and has recorded just two assists in 16 games. The Leafs’ second most-played defenseman, TJ Brodie, has just three assists in 22 games. Offense from the defense remains a real issue, and a large reason why is their major minute eaters struggle to contribute on that end of the ice.
– Since the Leafs went to Sweden, their penalty kill is first in the league, killing off 95.5 percent of the penalties. It’s just seven games — an extremely small sample size — but they have utilized this practice time well to clean up a unit that was truly a mess to start the season (something I outlined a few weeks ago).
Their pressure on the point/half-wall is much more coordinated now between their forwards and defensemen, and their defensemen are stepping up with big shot blocks on shooters along the half-wall. Simon Benoit made a big one against the Bruins, and the Leafs’ penalty kill held steady against Florida late in the game before winning in a shootout.
– While the schedule and practice time have helped with the penalty kill, I think it has hurt the team’s overall rhythm. They played back-to-back at home against Calgary and Vancouver before a week off. They flew to Europe, played on Friday and Sunday, and flew home for another week off. Their next game was on a Friday afternoon — which is weird in general — followed by a back-to-back with travel.
This past week was the first normal schedule in a while with Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday games, and now they are off again until Thursday. It’s not an excuse, and certainly nobody is going to feel sorry for them, but the lack of a regular routine can impact players. I am not sure it was a coincidence that Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews played their best games of the season to date during the first “normal” week in a month or so.
– In the first period against Boston, Conor Timmins ripped a crisp pass right through the middle of the neutral zone onto Knies’ tape for a scoring chance. It is the type of offensive transition play that makes him an exciting player at times. In the third period, amid a good offensive shift for the Leafs, he took a pass and fanned on it, the Bruins took possession, and the Bruins eventually scored on the play.
It’s tough to walk into the middle of the season without experiencing the early season adjustment curve that everyone else in the league did, and it’s been a slow start for Timmins as a result. We see the play in the first period — the exciting passes that the team genuinely needs more of from its defense — but then there are the befuddling plays: fanning on pucks, messing up routine breakouts, or getting worked down low along the walls in the Leafs’ end.
Against Boston, Timmins played a season-high 17:20 and there have been flashes of promise, but the consistency is nowhere near where it needs to be yet.
– Morgan Rielly is currently fifth among all NHL defensemen in time on ice per game at 25:11, which would easily be a new career high — his current highest season average is 24:12 when he played just 47 games in 2019-20.
Last season, for reference, he averaged only 21:42, so this is a notable jump up. He has by and large been excellent, but those numbers do add up, and it can naturally lead to a player conserving himself as the games go along.
Against Seattle, Rielly didn’t close the gap on Eeli Tolvanen, who was able to cut in and score. Against Boston, there was a soft gap on David Pastrnak as he walked in and scored. For defensemen tiring from a big workload, gaps are one of the first things to soften up as they play on their heels instead of pushing up on their toes.
The Leafs have asked a lot of him, and Rielly has been excellent. It is commendable, but it will eventually catch up to them, too.
– It must have been a huge weight off Max Domi’s shoulders to finally score a goal. The Leafs running a “scoring” third line has been a change of pace from previous seasons, and that kind of goal against Boston is the benefit. They can make a game-breaking play against a good team. The Leafs aren’t always looking over at their top two lines to score while their bottom two lines only check. Their third line is a real scoring threat that can sway games.
“We all knew that we could play better. I mean, we needed to dig deep, show some f—king — oh, sorry — character. I think that kind of took over in the second period there.”
– Willam Nylander on the Florida game
The Leafs did respond, but at some point, the question is why are they in the position to have to respond in the first place? They’re playing the team that eliminated them last season (beat them earlier this season), and they’re on home ice. The Panthers came out and completely tilted the ice against the Leafs from the puck drop.
The Leafs manufactured a much better start against Seattle and maybe their best start of a game this season against Boston, so hopefully, it is a sign of things to come.
“There are two things. There are the standings, and then there is how you are playing.
From a manager’s perspective, you are always looking at how you are playing. To me, we have been hit and miss. There has been some inconsistency in our game which is a little concerning. The areas we want to clean up and improve upon: We want to try to put that same game on the ice period after period and game after game.
The one encouraging sign is that when we look at a lot of the data, our defensive play and what we have given up has gotten better. It needs to continue to get better. Overall, there are still gaps in the consistency of how we have played.”
– Brad Treliving on his assessment of the Leafs through 19 games
The Leafs are currently eighth in the league in points percentage. As Treliving referenced, they’ve not exactly been a consistent force, but the reality is that it’s a no-win situation for the team. If they start hot and look great, everyone will reserve judgment until the spring. If they struggle altogether, the fan base and media will crank up the heat about whether they will even make the playoffs.
So far, they are somewhere in between those two scenarios, which I don’t think is a terrible place for them to be. They are collecting points and working through legitimate issues such as the penalty kill, which is showing real signs of improvement now. They could do worse than trying to settle their game while collecting a lot of points along the way.
“He is inching toward getting more responsibility there. He and Kampf have done a good job for us, by and large, of playing against good players when we need them to.
He has done really well on the PK as well. As we have used him more, our PK has gotten better.
There are lots of really good signs there. He is deserving of more opportunity. That opportunity will come, whether it is just through utilizing all four lines or through pushing some of the others ahead of him and taking some of their minutes away.”
– Sheldon Keefe on Noah Gregor
On the surface, Noah Gregor has just three goals and four points in 22 games, but he has been much more impactful than the counting stats would indicate.
Gregor is getting buried in terms of linemates and defensive starts, but he has adapted well as a checker and energy player on a contender after arriving from the bottom-feeding Sharks. His speed really stands out, and he owns a great shot (although he needs to drive the net more). He has also started to emerge as a credible penalty killer. Altogether, he provides real value as an overall role player and contributor.
Notably, Keefe stated yesterday that he often intends on playing Gregor more but it just hasn’t seemed to work out due to situational factors. Keefe played Matthews 13 minutes more than Gregor against Florida on a night when Gregor was playing well (including scoring a huge goal) and Matthews was way off his game, so it’s hard to take those words too seriously based on what we’ve seen so far.
Tweets of the Week
👀 Further to my last tweet ; I’m told the @MapleLeafs were trying to acquire both D Zadorov and Tanev from @NHLFlames . With the @Canucks Zadorov deal now complete, the #LeafsForever will continue shopping 🛒 for Blueline help. #HockeyTwitter #HockeyX pic.twitter.com/ySR3vTZDc1
— Kevin Weekes (@KevinWeekes) December 1, 2023
This makes sense and aligns with what I wrote about Nikita Zadorov and Chris Tanev a few weeks ago. Zadorov is a solid NHL defenseman but a third-pairing one who came with a $3.75 million salary and a pending UFA status. We can look at the price Vancouver paid as reasonable, but the Leafs have very few picks to work with. They don’t have a second this year, a first or fourth next year, or a second in 2026. They can’t continue shedding picks for players unless there is either term or they are top-of-the-line game changers.
This is why a player like Tanev always made more sense overall. He would instantly be one of the Leafs’ best defensemen, and he is right-handed. The options Tanev would give them (Rielly-Tanev, thus bumping Brodie down, or keeping Rielly-Brodie together and pairing Tanev with McCabe) are both solid if unspectacular. They have to be smart with their resources and target the needle movers.
— Mike Kelly (@MikeKellyNHL) November 30, 2023
The most significant development early on this season for the Leafs has been the play of Joseph Woll. He is looking and playing the part of a legitimate starting goalie in the league, and even if there is a rookie wall at some point this season, he is signed for $766,667 through the end of next season (after which he will be an RFA). He could open up all sorts of fun and exciting options.
In addition to winning very seldom, the Sharks seldom even threaten to win.
Toronto, on the other hand, threaten to win nearly every game, but frequently find ways to not. pic.twitter.com/cBuvoFUaJf
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) November 30, 2023
The Leafs have been in almost every game they have played so far this season. With their firepower, it never really feels like they are out of it, but they’ve also made a habit of allowing other teams to hang around, too. At some point, they will need to clean it up, but the fact that they are in every game is generally encouraging.
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think the Leafs are in a real predicament with Ryan Reaves. After the first period against Boston in which he took a penalty in the offensive zone, he played only two shifts for the rest of the game. After the first meeting with the Bruins in Boston, Reaves remarked on not being on the ice at the time of the Marchand-Liljegren incident, and Sheldon Keefe rather bluntly said, “Brad Marchand does not care about Ryan Reaves or anybody else in the league. That is well-established.”
Reaves is really not Keefe’s type of player. The Leafs coach is at his best when he’s rolling four lines, which is never going to happen with Reaves in the starting 12, but Reaves has a three-year contract at $1.3 million AAV, so here we are in a bit of an awkward spot.
If money, veteran status, and all other politics were put aside, Reaves would very clearly not play. Brad Treliving signed Keefe to an extension, kept the core together, and invested notable cap dollars in support players to help the team win right now. At some point, I think the Leafs GM has to be honest about it and own this one.
2. On that note, Bobby McMann helped stabilize the fourth line when he was in the lineup, stringing together three solid games after the call-up from the AHL… and then Keefe healthy scratched him for three straight games.
McMann went 11 days between games, came back in against Seattle, and played poorly. He played just 5:44, took a penalty, and was on for two goals against. Unsurprisingly, he looked like a player who hadn’t played in a week and a half. McMann is a bit of a bubble/depth player regardless, so he needs to keep himself ready and do a better job of managing it/taking advantage of his opportunities. But he showed well originally and was scratched anyway.
The fourth line, to me, has made the most sense and performed its best with McMann on it. His speed coupled with Gregor’s creates a real handful for the opposition, and they are good enough checkers defensively. I’d like to see it receive a real run.
3. I think Mike Van Ryn is doing a good job managing the defense pairings. The Morgan Rielly – TJ Brodie, William Lagesson – Jake McCabe, and Simon Benoit – Conor Timmins pairings make sense. On offensive-zone draws, usually following the Rielly pairing, he will sneak out McCabe-Timmins. On certain defensive-zone draws, he’ll mix in Lagesson and Benoit.
This is the group he has to work with and he’s managing it sensibly. There is also real competition between Benoit and Timmins — and to a lesser degree, Lagesson — to stay in the lineup once Timothy Liljegren returns.
4. I think I’d keep these forward lines together for now (except for swapping McMann for Reaves as referenced above). Auston Matthews and William Nylander play with real speed and pace together, which was evident against Boston. They were dominant against a very good team. I also think Marner is benefiting from some easier matchups, and the other two lines have their roles and the right personnel to fill them.
5. I think it is fairly obvious that the net currently belongs to Joseph Woll. This is different than calling him the starter. He doesn’t have the track record, and it’s still barely December, so there is a ton of time for things to change dramatically. For now, though, he’s in a groove and it’s his net.
Eventually, Ilya Samsonov will get another shot, and it will be up to him to try to steal the net back.