Auston Matthews, Morgan Rielly, William Nylander celebrate a Toronto Maple Leafs goal
Photo: Gerry Angus-USA TODAY Sports

Putting aside the William Nylander contract extension (my analysis can be found here), there is a lot to discuss around the Maple Leafs’ three-game winning streak, the ice-time distribution on the blue line, the third-line left-wing spot, and much more in this week’s notebook.


Mark Giordano, Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

– This is the first time this season the Leafs‘ defense has been both healthy and without John Klingberg in the lineup, so we’re starting to see the minutes and deployment take shape. In the five games since Mark Giordano returned, here is the overall minutes breakdown:


Timothy Liljegren is quietly ascending the pecking order and also has four points in the five games since Giordano’s return. Even though TJ Brodie is Morgan Rielly’s partner, they have started to use Liljegren alongside Rielly in offensive situations, including offensive-zone faceoffs in regular situations (i.e. the Leafs are not trailing, or it’s early in the game).

– Last season, Giordano averaged 18:57 per game and logged huge minutes when the Leafs battled some injuries (he logged over 20 minutes per game two months in a row). In the playoffs, he really struggled and looked every bit his age for the first time since the Leafs acquired him.

This season, Giordano is down to 17:35 overall and 16:28 per game since returning. He’s a staple on the top unit of the penalty kill, where he made a huge block against the Kings in the third period when the Leafs were protecting a lead. He receives some power-play time, too, so he is essentially a special-teams bottom-pairing defenseman.

It’s a good deployment strategy at this stage of Giordano’s career, and perhaps most importantly, it’s preserving the miles he’s logging ahead of the playoffs.

–  Jake McCabe is technically anchoring the “third pairing” on paper, but when it is all said and done, he’s clearly in the top four in terms of overall minutes and even-strength minutes. 

In general, we can see that the Leafs’ pairings are kind of a thing on paper more than in actuality. The minutes shake down much differently than the way the players are paired up.

–  It’s amazing that Morgan Rielly has yet to take a penalty this season and even more amazing when we consider that he’s playing a career-high 24:31 per game. This is year two of Rielly’s eight-year extension, and so far, he has performed well above his $7.5 million price tag.

Tyler Bertuzzi has nine points in his last 10 games, and after a slow start, he has really settled in. Even when he’s not productive on the scoresheet, he’s noticeable almost every game battling in front of the net and causing turnovers to facilitate for his teammates.

The game against the Kings might have been Beruzzi’s best of the season (two primary assists). The first assist was particularly impressive as he hounded the puck between Fiala and Gavrikov after a faceoff loss (and Gavrikov ran some interference on him at first, too, that he fought through) before setting up a goal. It’s the type of forechecking and ability to disrupt plays that the team needs against good, tight-checking opponents who give them very little through the neutral zone.

–  It seems to be talked about a lot when they don’t do it, but it’s worth pointing out the good response led by Matthew Knies (of all players) — with Jake McCabe a close second — when Pierre Luc-Dubois took down Auston Matthews awkwardly in LA. Everyone came jumping in, Simon Benoit took on two players, and in general, there was a very quick and tidy “you can’t touch him” response from the team that felt entirely natural and on time.


Simon Benoit, Maple Leafs
Photo: Dan Hamilton/USA Today Sports

“I can’t score a (f-ing) goal but I’m glad to hit the bodies for you guys.”

– Simon Benoit after earning the game belt following a win against his old team in Anaheim

It’s hard not to like Simon Benoit. He has settled in nicely as a physical, defensive defenseman. Perhaps most importantly, he understands his role as he notes above. Not everyone can be a top-flight skill player (or even a watered-down skill guy, of which the Leafs employed many over the years). A team needs a few plumbers, and Benoit is clearly more than happy to fill the role.

“There are some times taking care of the puck under pressure and the demands of the league… That is the big thing I have been talking to him about — trying to manage that piece. Those touches from the breakout to the neutral zone and getting through onto the attack are really important to manage really well. That is where the next step is for Nick.”

– Sheldon Keefe on healthy scratching Nick Robertson and what the player needs to work on

Against LA, Nick Robertson turned the puck over in the first period trying to deke forehand to backhand at his own blue line. The Kings dominated the shift afterward and Robertson played under nine minutes in the game, the least of any Toronto forward. He’s been a healthy scratched twice since then.

We’ve noted Robertson’s struggles on the breakout for weeks now. Once the puck is in the offensive zone, he is a dangerous player, but against top teams, he can’t turn the puck over. The juice isn’t worth the squeeze when he doesn’t produce at an exceptional enough rate to allow those deficiencies to fly.

“I like to keep it simple. When I’m moving around, sliding around a little too much, that’s a telltale sign maybe I’m chasing it a little bit. I felt like I was in a good position for a lot of the night tonight. A lot of the chances they had were straight on. Not a lot of stuff side to side, so that helps.”

– Martin Jones after shutting out the LA Kings

Martin Jones has been excellent, but part of successful goaltending is the team creating an environment for the goalie to thrive in. Interestingly, Jones discussed feeling confident facing shots head-on — even if the player is alone or has some time and space — as long as he’s not going side-to-side to deal with backdoor plays, one-timers, etc. The team is always going to give up some opportunities against NHL opponents, and negating those passes has clearly been a huge focus for the Leafs of late.

Whether it’s on the penalty kill or five-on-five, outside of the Sharks’ only goal on Saturday, it’s difficult to think of many examples over the past five or so games where the Leafs have given up cross-ice plays. If anything, the quality chances against have been similar to the Trevor Moore opportunity in LA, where Jones was able to challenge it head-on. You might not know it, but Jones is actually listed at 6’5. 

Tweets of the Week

Matt Murray, Mark Giordano, Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

It feels like he has been around forever, but it’s easy to forget that Timothy Liljegren is still just 24 (turns 25 at the end of April). Perhaps more importantly, he has only played 161 games in the league.

So far this season, Liljegren is averaging what would be a career-high 19:26 per game. His previous high was last season’s 17:55, so that’s a notable jump in ice time and responsibility.

He’s only played 20 games this season, but so far, he is trending into fringe top-four defenseman territory. He’s still very much developing, and considering the Leafs have no other righties with real NHL pedigree and Liljegren is an RFA at the end of the season, his development along with a team-friendly contract represents a big piece of this organization for this season and beyond.

The Leafs’ goaltending has received so much attention, but by and large, it has generally been solid. Even including Ilya Samsonov, they are 14th in five-on-five save percentage and 15th in all-situations save percentage. It’s their defensive metrics that have been poor this season (which is isolated from goaltending), but when they check well, it’s clear that they generally receive strong goaltending, aside from whatever demons Samsonov is battling this season.

Pontus Holmberg somewhat quietly has two points in his last four games and his 14:49 of ice time against the Sharks was an NHL career-high. He had a number of good shifts, including a good one-timer on a cross-ice play. It is easy to forget that he was giving the Leafs good minutes last season, and at one point, he looked like he carved out a role on the team before he hit some sort of rookie wall.

If nothing else, Holmberg has shown that he can capably play steady shifts in the NHL. The main question is whether he can produce enough to play the role he’s currently playing (on the third line), and to a lesser extent, whether he can check well enough. It’s worth it to give him some run and see if he can claim a roster spot.

Five Things I Think I’d Do

Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs
Photo: USA Today Sports

1.   I think it’s really difficult to justify changing anything in the Leafs’ lineup right now. The defense is rolling, the forwards are doing their jobs, and the process as well as the results have been good. We don’t need to overthink anything at the moment. Keep it rolling until new developments force the coach’s hand.

2.   Rather quietly, Auston Matthews has 21 seconds of shorthanded ice time over the past five games combined while William Nylander is averaging 46 seconds there per game over the same period. That ranks Nylander fifth among all Leafs forwards, and he seems to be getting comfortable in the role.

In particular, Nylander’s speed causes real problems in the neutral zone and he’s good at winning puck battles with his strength. Conversely, I didn’t really love Matthews in that role unless the Leafs are losing and looking to power kill.

The Leafs have been auditioning penalty killers all season. While David Kampf, Calle Jarnkrok, Mitch Marner and now seemingly Noah Gregor are all in the mix, as a fifth option, I think Nylander is faring well enough so far to claim the spot.

3.  As much as we talk about needing to upgrade the defense with a legitimate top-four defenseman, I think the other position of note — which we have mentioned at least a few times on the podcast but needs to be covered here, too — is a top-nine forward.  Nick Robertson got a long look at 3LW and is now a healthy scratch while Pontus Holmberg takes a turn. The reality is that neither is a viable playoff option as a permanent member of the top nine.

What type of player Brad Treliving should acquire is probably a question of cost. In an ideal world, the Leafs would have a player good enough to challenge Matthew Knies for the top-line left-wing spot (and if he can push Knies down to the third line, it gives the team great depth). It might not be possible from a cap or trade cost perspective — it might have to be a quality two-way forward of sorts to slot in beside Max Domi and Calle Jarnkrok — but it is becoming increasingly clear that the need here is glaring.

4.  I think I’d want to give Ilya Samsonov the Sunday game on a back-to-back against the Red Wings on Sunday if the Leafs staff deems him ready. Leafs brass has made no secret that they plan on working with Samsonov and that he will play again for the Leafs at some point. By the time of this game against Detroit, it will have been over two weeks off for him, so if they are serious about it, it’s going to be time to get him back in and see how it goes.

5.   I think I’d give serious consideration to starting Dennis Hildeby on Tuesday against San Jose, too. If not, it’s going to be three games in five days for Martin Jones coming back from a West Coast trip. The other two games are against the Islanders and Avalanche, too.

There has to be some priority given to preserving Jones right now. I’d talk to him first — if he thinks it’s no big deal, then it’s fine — but if the workload is starting to add up, Tuesday is the game to rest him.