You wouldn’t always know it based on the discourse around the team, but the Maple Leafs are 7-2-1 in their last 10 and are currently on a 109-point pace.
Toronto’s .667 points percentage is currently tied with the Florida Panthers for fifth in the league. Only LA, Vegas, Boston, and the New York Rangers are ahead of them.
It’s a familiar story with the Leafs in recent years: starting the season slowly before settling in, stringing together wins, and putting themselves comfortably in a playoff position.
We will get right to it with extended notes ahead of a busy four-game week.
– Rather quietly, Nashville’s top unit of Nyquist – O’Reilly – Forsberg has been one of the better lines in the league so far this season in terms of possession, goal differential, and scoring chances. They are hovering around or inside the top 10 in all of those categories. With that in mind, I was curious to monitor Sheldon Keefe’s approach to matching up against them at home with the benefit of last change.
Keefe simply decided to go head-to-head with the Auston Matthews line, who tilted the ice against Nashville’s first line. Shot attempts were 8-3 in the Matthews vs. ROR matchup, but that stat doesn’t capture the whole story. William Nylander hit the crossbar in the first period, and the Leafs started the second period by dominating them for a shift (shortly after, Matthew Knies created a great scoring chance by driving the net).
The Matthews line was having its way with Nashville’s top group. It’s a good position to be in when the other team brings a formidable top line to the game and the Leafs can simply — and successfully — match their top line against them.
– I really like the pace at which Matthews and Nylander play when they’re together. They are a lot more direct and use their speed to attack in straight lines as we saw with the Matthews 2-0 goal against Nashville. The play went from Nylander up the wall to Matthews in the middle, back to Nylander on the wall, and back to Matthews for a tap-in as both players took off down the ice together.
They are a lot more north-south as compared to Marner, who is much more of an east-west player. He likes to curl up, slow the game down, and dissect defenses. Keefe has remarked before that he hasn’t loved the combination because both Matthews and Nylander like to have the puck on their sticks, but they are working well off of each other so far. Against Ottawa, they worked a give-and-go off the cycle that Matthews one-timed off the crossbar.
There are flashes of real promise, but as a line with Knies as the third linemate, they are sitting at 3-3 in goals, 45.39 percent of the shot attempts, and 49.31 of the expected goals. Some of it is due to the situation on defense and the issues with the breakout. The Predators game was a step in the right direction, but they will need to consistently win their minutes to justify keeping it together.
– Similarly, the early returns on the Tyler Bertuzzi – John Tavares – Mitch Marner line are ho-hum: roughly even in shot-attempt percentage, 2-1 in goals, and somehow 39.23% in expected goals. Again, the defense not breaking out cleanly plays a role in it, but they aren’t generating enough shots.
Bertuzzi is a bit more of a playmaker than many realized. He is great in front of the net, but he isn’t scoring from a distance. Outside of the crease, we see him generally look to set up teammates rather than shoot. Of course, Marner is a pass-first player. I believe that’s why – in theory – they like the original combinations: spread out the passers and the shooters.
– I thought it was strange of the Predators not to start Juuse Saros against the Leafs. It was almost as if Andrew Brunette was conceding the game and playing for the split given they were in a back-to-back situation with the Habs on the schedule for the next night. I suppose it worked (they beat Montreal), but it was odd to see a team that fancies itself a playoff team not play their best hand against a contender.
The Leafs were excellent regardless, and truthfully, so was Kevin Lankinen. In the end, I don’t think the Predators’ goalie mattered much in terms of swaying the outcome. But I was surprised that they walked into Toronto and immediately put themselves at a disadvantage.
– We’ve talked about this before, but unfortunately, Joseph Woll’s pro career has been marred by injuries to this point. The most games he has played in a season since turning pro is 32, which was his rookie season. This season, he got hurt in game 15. There’s no questioning his talent at this point, but the best ability is availability, and he’s going to have to prove he can stay healthy at some point if he’s going to be a bonafide number-one goalie in the league.
– In Ottawa, the Senators won the opening draw and dumped the puck in. Simon Benoit retrieved it behind the net and went d-to-d to Jake McCabe, who was under pressure and settled for a backhand pass attempt up the wall. It resulted in a giveaway and zone time for the Sens.
It is not my intent to pick on McCabe but more to point out the limitations of playing the wrong side. A right-handed shot takes that pass already facing up ice on the forehand, opening up the whole ice to make a play. From this angle on the offside, the defenseman is really limited:
– We’re seeing similar issues in the offensive end with TJ Brodie when he attempts to keep pucks in the zone. He’s up to five points on the season after a two-point night against the Senators, but both of those passes leading to assists came outside the offensive zone. His three other points all came in the OZ; for two of them, he was in the middle of the zone, with only one coming from the right side at the point (he passed it to Matthews at the top of the zone). Playing on the offside really limits a defenseman with the puck.
– With around 12:40 left in the second period against Ottawa, TSN showed an offensive-zone possession tracker which read 4:58 for the Leafs and 5:24 for Ottawa. Shots were 20-10 in favour of the Senators, and shot attempts were 32-25. Over the next five-plus minutes, the Leafs carried the play and forced three Senators icings, but they had zero shots on goal to show for it.
The team’s possession numbers have been middling this season, but I think a lot of it falls in this category: the ice is not exactly tilted against them, but they’re not doing a good enough job of getting pucks/bodies to the inside and digging in front. Their top players don’t need a ton of looks to score, but they can generate more in terms of shot volume. The Leafs are currently 11th in shots per game.
– Matthew Knies came as advertised as a power forward when he broke the league. He created some early moments where he muscled opponents off the puck down the low, held possession, and made some impressive net drives. One aspect that has fallen short of the “power forward” label is the punishing physicality that true power forwards dish out.
Last week, though, Knies was noticeably more physical than he’s been since entering the league. Against Ottawa, he crushed Ridly Greig, driving his shoulder into him with the type of hit that hurts right before Nylander scored a very important insurance marker. In the next game against Nashville, Knies stood up Cody Glass in the first period. On the next shift, he finished a hard hit on Phil Tomasino.
It’s kind of hard to believe, but Knies has only played 27 regular-season games in the league (not even half of a season). He’s a late birthday who just turned 21 in October. It can take time to learn the league and establish enough comfort to start throwing around big hits. He’s already nearly 220 pounds (and is 6’3), so he certainly has the size and strength to do it.
“I don’t think there has ever been as much parity in the league as far as I can remember. Beyond one or two teams at the top or one or two teams at the bottom, it is something that all teams are talking about — trying to find that consistent approach to the game.
That being said, the results have been pretty good. We want it to be better. Our record is strong right now, but we are still looking to get that entire game back.
In talking to some of my colleagues, we are all going through it. We are all experiencing it. With the cap not growing over the last few years, what was already a league of parity has become even closer night in and night out. It should be a race to the very end.”
– Brendan Shanahan
It was surprising to see a Brendan Shanahan interview. He didn’t say a word publicly all of last season but agreed to an on-camera interview at the quarter pole of this season. You can make of that what you will knowing what transpired behind the scenes last season.
Despite the strong point pace, there’s a real urgency for the team to play better. It would be easy to look at their record and conclude that all is well, which is something they’ve been guilty of in past years (one example that stands out is the Joe Thornton comment on the Amazon Prime series, where he essentially said the team has a good record and wasn’t worried at a time when the Leafs were struggling and Keefe called a leadership meeting).
“We have things to clean up. You take the positives out of it. We have been able to find some points. In some ways, we have been resilient. If you look at last Saturday, we came from behind. In some games, we have pissed away some points in terms of letting teams back into it — or maybe even we got it [done] in OT or shootout, but we made it more difficult than it should’ve been.
I’d like us just to be a lot tighter defensively. Our team has enough people who can score. Sheldon and his staff are working on it and are aware of it. We just have to be a little cleaner defensively. We shouldn’t need four every night to win a game.”
– Brad Treliving on collecting points despite very few regulation wins (five at the time of the quote)
Those are similar sentiments to Shanahan’s from Brad Treliving above. It’s all about peaking at the right time, and we aren’t even close to the most critical period of the season.
There are some clear areas to improve on, but the Leafs have also done a good job of fixing some problems already – the penalty kill is one, and the forward group has started to settle into a more logical rotation as well with the top two lines, a scoring line led by Max Domi, and a checking line led by Kampf (with Jarnkrok bouncing between them depending on the situation).
“It is just such a special opportunity. We have the staff’s dads here as well this time. On a personal note, to have my dad a part of this is tremendous.
It just brings everything closer together. When you talk about your dad, as I said to the group this morning, if it is not your first phone call after a game, it is not long behind it, or the text messages that are exchanged. It is your first contact after a game. It is your first contact when you are going through something difficult.
We have them in our meetings when they are here, they can see the inner workings of the group, what is happening, and what we are talking about. They are spending time with each other and interacting with all of the different players.
It just brings the entire group closer together. It’s very similar when you have different events for the wives and kids. The more you can have everyone in and bring the families closer together, I think the group grows inside of that.
Those closest to you impact you, us, and all that we do.”
– Sheldon Keefe on what he likes most about the Leafs’ dad trip that is now underway
Keefe’s answer was even longer than this (full quote here), but I wanted to share a passage. It’s awesome that the staff’s dads are joining the trip, including Keefe’s. On a personal note, my dad is still my favourite person to watch a game with (no offense to my friends or fiancée reading this).
Tweets of the Week
Noah Gregor is on pace for 14 goals while averaging the fourth most shorthanded minutes per game among Leafs forwards.
They're getting some real good value out of his $775K.
— Willyston Riellander (@nylanderthews) December 10, 2023
Noah Gregor has a ton of speed, and we’ve previously outlined the fact that he shoots a ton. I think it was always fair to expect him to hit double-digit goal totals should he remain healthy. He scored 10 last season in 57 and eight in 63 the season before.
The real emergence has been his contributions as a penalty killer. We’ve outlined the Leafs’ complete 180 on the penalty kill over the past month or so, and Gregor has been one reason why. His speed is causing turnovers and headaches for power-play breakouts in the neutral zone. It’s a big development for a team that was trying to find a penalty killer to supplement the holdovers (Marner, Kampf, and Jarnkrok).
Couple nice plays in the defensive zone from Simon Benoit that lead to the cycle break up pic.twitter.com/ui9DlBrAG7
— Rink Rat Report (@RinkRatReport) December 8, 2023
I really like the second clip above where Simon Benoit is physical against Josh Norris and erases him, ending the Sens’ possession on the wall. In the next game against Nashville, Benoit made a similar play against Cole Smith, pinning him against the wall and stopping a cycle dead in its tracks. Domi picked up the puck, leading to an easy breakout and a shot on goal at the other end.
Benoit has been excellent at this play, breaking cycles and ending defensive-zone time by eliminating plays along the walls with his big frame. He has been a really nice find so far.
Touched on this yesterday, but Samsonov was light years better last year when he had Erik Kallgren or early Joseph Woll backing him up in the crease and didn’t have to worry about Murray pushing him for starts. I’d expect the same with Woll out and Martin Jones in this time https://t.co/sperERFHrN
— Аlex Hobson (@AHobsonMedia) December 10, 2023
I had a similar thought when Joseph Woll got hurt. It’s Ilya Samsonov’s net now, which might help him settle in mentally and get on a roll.
Samsonov didn’t play well as Woll’s performances applied pressure on him. He then fell sick and wasn’t dressing as the Leafs tried to work with him on his game. With the shutout vs. Nashville, the Leafs couldn’t have asked for a better start to what is hopefully a new chapter in Samsonov’s season.
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I would be in no rush to change anything on defense. First and foremost, making moves out of desperation leads to mistakes. Second, the Leafs are still collecting plenty of points regardless of the absences and flaws. Third, the Leafs seem to have uncovered some real potential contributors in Simon Benoit and William Lagesson. Fourth, they are inching towards getting healthy again.
Conor Timmins is already back. Lagesson has some sort of illness, so presumably, he will return in short order. Timothy Liljegren is already skating and has been out for over five weeks, so you’d like to think he will be back sooner rather than later. I don’t see a massive need to take action right now, much less have other clubs feel as though they have leverage over the Leafs.
2. I think similar sentiments apply in net. Ilya Samsonov – Martin Jones is not a bad tandem. One of the Leafs’ biggest early wins so far this season is that Jones cleared waivers (which still surprises me). A veteran of his calibre as the third-string goalie makes life a lot easier, and he was fantastic in spot duty against Ottawa.
There’s no reason to take any action here. Let it play out and show some confidence in two goalies who are credible NHLers with at least some track record of success in the league.
3. I think it’s clear that the Leafs have some real defensive depth. What they really need is another quality top-four defenseman. Those trades usually take far longer to come together with much bigger implications at play in terms of the cap space and assets required to make a move.
My singular focus on defense would be to improve it inside the top four, preferably with a right-handed defenseman so they don’t need to ask so many D to play their off-side. It is leading to all sorts of little “lost” plays throughout a game, whether it’s slower breakouts or an inability to keep the puck in the offensive zone.
4. I think I would keep the top two forward lines together for now. With four games this week, it gives the Leafs a real opportunity to get into a groove and evaluate whether it’s a credible option or not. The Auston Matthews line was excellent against Nashville, giving them something to build on. The coaching staff needs to give it time to gel, and this is a good time in the schedule to do it.
5. Against Nashville, the Leafs didn’t have a shot on net on their first power play. Over their past 10 games, their power play is clicking at just 14.3 percent. I think they have to seriously consider changing up the top unit, and the easiest move would be to simply insert Tyler Bertuzzi for John Tavares in front of the net. Tavares is probably better at scoring in that spot, but I think Bertuzzi brings a bit of a different element there – more of a passer and more disruptive when battling defenders.
Stylistically, I think the top unit has become too predictable looking for the one-touch-to-the-slot play. It needs to diversify more. They need to get Matthews skating downhill and ripping shots off the wall. He is most dangerous when he catches a pass in stride and can walk in and shoot. Keep it simple with Bertuzzi providing the screen as Matthews winds up with speed.