John Tavares, Maple Leaf s vs. Panthers
Photo: Jim Rassol/USA Today Sports

With the Maple Leafs officially reaching the halfway point of their 2023-24 schedule, it’s a good time to take a look around at the Atlantic Divison.

Before we jump into it, I’ll quickly note that this is the first time in years that we can say the playoff matchups are completely up in the air. We aren’t waiting for three months to watch the Leafs play Tampa Bay. Toronto could easily finish anywhere from first to fourth at this point. It might not be as comfortable as Leafs fans are accustomed to, but it does make the playoff race far more interesting to watch down the stretch.

In order from best to worst in total points, let’s take a look at each Atlantic team, including the Leafs.

Boston Bruins

Pts %Goals/gameGA/gamePPPK5v5 Corsi5v5 xGTeam SV%

The Bruins seemingly can’t stop collecting points. They are once again in the elite category in the standings with team defense and goaltending that are among the best. Their overall special teams are elite as well. It’s fair to wonder about their scoring depth and overall star power, though, considering Charlie Coyle is third on their team in scoring.

Florida Panthers

Pts %Goals/gameGA/gamePPPK5v5 Corsi5v5 xGTeam SV%

To me, Florida is the class of the East. They won the President’s Trophy a few seasons ago, they made the Stanley Cup Finals last year, and they’re posting nearly elite numbers across the board so far this season.

After surviving the early-season absences of Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour, they are now healthy and rolling. The Panthers are the team to beat. They have everything going for them.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Pts %Goals/gameGA/gamePPPK5v5 Corsi5v5 xGTeam SV%

For all the talk lately of the Leafs potentially falling out of the playoffs, their numbers are generally quite solid. This is a clear-cut case of a team that is excellent offensively and poor defensively. They outscore most of their issues on the backend, but they clearly need help on the blue line as well as at least one more quality checking forward who they can trust in high-leverage defensive situations.

Detroit Red Wings

Pts %Goals/gameGA/gamePPPK5v5 Corsi5v5 xGTeam SV%

There are warning signs with the Wings (their possession and expected goals at 5v5 are in lottery team territory), but they can score and are maintaining decent special teams. That can take a team pretty far.

Their scoring depth is legitimate – they have 13 players with at least seven goals already at the halfway mark – and they should be in the mix for a playoff spot down the stretch, but it’s an ominous sign when the ice is this badly titled against a team at five-on-five. They also need to get healthy in net.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Pts %Goals/gameGA/gamePPPK5v5 Corsi5v5 xGTeam SV%

The Lightning have been a Jekyll-and-Hyde team with the numbers to match. They can score, and their elite talent is still incredible – Nikita Kucherov leads the league in points, and they own the best power play in the league – but they are in a dogfight to make the playoffs at the midway point.

It’s possible most of their poor underlying numbers can be fixed/smoothed over simply by Andrei Vasilevskiy heating up and carrying the mail, something he is clearly capable of doing. The Lightning do need help on defense, though, and it’s fair to wonder if they have the assets or the appetite to address it via trade before the deadline.

Montreal Canadiens

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Montreal is clearly not a contender, but they are pesky and capable of stealing points (they just beat Edmonton and Colorado). Their goaltending is sneaky good and they have a few game-breakers, but the Kirby Dach injury really hurt them this season. They still clearly lack talent and depth, but there is some reason for optimism.

Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators

I am not going to waste much time discussing either team. It’s been another brutal season for each franchise that will inspire some deep soul-searching. It’s especially disappointing knowing each club had designs on competing for a playoff spot.


Tyler Bertuzzi, Maple Leafs vs. Red Wings
Photo: Dan Hamilton/USA Today Sports

–  For all the talk about how much better or worse the Leafs might be in comparison to the last few seasons, one noteworthy part of that equation is that the competition around them is simply better. The Red Wings and Canadiens are by no means world-beaters, but they are also no longer completely pathetic.

For the better part of the three seasons, half of the Atlantic Division has been genuinely awful. That is no longer the case. The Red Wings are legitimately in the playoff race, and the Canadiens are somewhat staying alive. Even the Sabres and Senators are underachieving more than anything. Both teams are better/more skilled than their results indicate.

–  In the 10 games since Christmas, the Leafs’ penalty kill has killed 68.2 percent of their penalties, which is the second-lowest mark in the league in that time. The only team worse is San Jose, and the team immediately ahead of them is Anaheim.

– In back-to-back games, against the Islanders and Avalanche, the Leafs gave up power-play goals immediately after David Kampf lost a defensive-zone faceoff. Over the back-to-back on the weekend, Kampf took only one other shorthanded faceoff, while Calle Jarnkrok took seven. Jarnkrok took six other defensive-zone faceoffs, which was one more than Kampf’s five, while Auston Matthews led the team with 10.

Kampf simply can’t win a faceoff right now. He’s at 33 percent over his last three games — all against good teams — and Keefe is clearly losing confidence in him in those situations, which is an area where Kampf was signed to help. The coaching staff doesn’t even consider using him at the start of overtime anymore (not that they should have in the first place, but it speaks to the lack of confidence in him). 

–  John Tavares is now playing at a .83 points per game pace, which would be the lowest mark of his career since his rookie season. He has just four points in his last 10 games (and is a minus-five), and he was benched against Colorado. In the next game against Detroit, he was effectively demoted to be the third-line center on paper, although he did end up playing about a minute more than Max Domi at even strength. 


Maple Leafs GM Brad Treliving
Maple Leafs GM Brad Treliving

“I also think you have to be careful on the trade deadline. We will continue to watch our team, but I am not a big believer that you make your team (at the deadline). You have to be careful with that.

Are there tweaks that you’d like to do? Sure. We have X number of assets that we don’t necessarily want to be throwing out the door. Certainly, we are continuing to watch our team. We are continuing to see if there are ways to help it. We will continue to do that up to the deadline.”

– Brad Treliving on the trade deadline

This might be a glimpse into Brad Treliving’s approach to the 2024 trade deadline, and while he’s right in that he can’t “make” the team at the deadline, I don’t think anyone is asking him to do that, either.

There are two clear holes — in the top four on defense and likely the third-line left wing spot (although a piece for higher in the lineup would be great) — and they have to patch at least one of those holes to push the envelope here. 

“He’s predictable.”

– Jake McCabe lists one of the reasons he likes playing with Simon Benoit in a pre-game interview 

Jake McCabe listed a few other reasons he enjoys a partnership with Simon Benoit — among them, his physicality and soundness defensively — but I think this one is worth highlighting.

To start the season, McCabe was paired with John Klingberg and slotted in as the defensive defenseman on the pairing. It didn’t work, and a large part of it was due to Klingberg being a combination of injured and bad. Another part of the issue was that stylistically, McCabe is a bit more of a rover offensively than he is given credit for. This is also why I don’t think he and Timothy Liljegren, who also likes to join the attack, are a great fit together.

Benoit is predictable and simply does his job defensively, which frees up McCabe. Offensively, McCabe is currently playing at a 35-point pace over 82 games with basically all of it coming at even strength. That would be an excellent season. For reference, only 19 defensemen produced at least 35 even-strength points in 2022-23; ranking 19th on the dot with 35 was Roman Josi.

McCabe is not a stud offensively nor should he be playing on the top power-play unit or anything along those lines, but he is effective offensively when he can roam a bit.

“When MacKinnon’s line is out there with Makar and Toews, the calibre of play is not the NHL. It is another league. I didn’t think we were handling that very well.”

– Sheldon Keefe on the loss to Colorado

The purpose of the “Quotes” section isn’t to “radio” people and overanalyze the comments, but this one really rubbed me the wrong way. This is year eight for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in Toronto. Matthews is the highest-paid player in the league, William Nylander is now about to be not too far behind him, and I’m sure Marner will fancy himself right up there salary-wise when the time comes.

Beyond the contracts, Keefe gives them all huge ice time. At some point, the bar has to be set at going head-to-head against the best and winning — or at worst, drawing — the matchup.

Naturally, Keefe did try to go power-on-power against Colorado and it failed, but the story after the game really shouldn’t be about how good the MacKinnon unit is. It should be about the Leafs’ top players — of whom the organization consistently talks about their elite status and how every team in the league is dying for players like them — came up empty in the matchup.

It’s a poor result, and sometimes that’s going to happen against elite competition. But it’s a poor mentality, too. We’ll see how it goes against Connor McDavid on Tuesday.

Tweets of the Week

Jake McCabe, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

This is going to be a telling stretch of games for this Leafs team. Benchmark games can get kind of overblown over an 82-game schedule (the Leafs have had several really good games against really good teams this season as well as some bad ones), but a stretch of games like this is different.

It’s daunting, and there are no breaks. It doesn’t get much more difficult than this at this stage of the schedule, especially with four of the five games coming on the road. It will take the Leafs to the All-Star break. We’re going to learn a lot about the team coming up shortly.

The Leafs are 21st in the league in win percentage when leading after the first period and 23rd when leading after two periods. There is some legitimate concern about their ability to close out games.

Conversely, they are fifth in win percentage when trailing after the first period and eighth when trailing after the second period. They are comfortable chasing a game offensively but uncomfortable snuffing it out defensively — locking down the neutral zone, cycling teams down, and grinding away the clock by spending time in the offensive zone.

It’s crazy that this is the first time that William Nylander and Morgan Rielly are going to the All-Star game, but it’s not their fault that the league has a terrible format. For two players on track to be lifetime Maple Leafs, it’s particularly cool that they are participating for the first time together and also in Toronto with two other teammates.

Five Things I Think I’d Do

Sheldon Keefe, Maple Leafs bench
Photo: Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

1.  I think it’s a good idea to shake up the lines. I don’t think the Leafs have quite found the combination of 12 that really clicks just yet. In general, experimenting and exploring different combinations in the middle of the season is a good idea, but when forming line combinations, the coach has to be realistic about the tenable options.

For example, there’s no planet where Matthew Knies is sticking on David Kampf’s left wing. Similarly, a Nick RobertsonJohn Tavares pairing with Calle Jarnkrok on the other side was never going to cut it as a realistic combination. It’s not a line the Leafs would remotely consider uniting in a playoff series versus Florida.

The idea of a Tyler BertuzziMax DomiMitch Marner line is not a bad mix in a vacuum, but realistically, the team isn’t deep enough to run this line, pair Auston Matthews with William Nylander, and believe they have the talent available to give Tavares enough to play with (Tavares is the member of the big four who is the worst bet to carry a line at this point).  

2.  I think that’s also why the Pontus HolmbergAuston MatthewsWilliam Nylander line was one of the worthwhile experiments. It’s a line that I could actually conceivably envision playing together down the road.  They were effective, and Holmberg has been really good for about a week — which is awesome, but let’s not blow it out of proportion — so I’d give them some run.

Holmberg is turning 25 this year and has a ton of pro-hockey experience, even if it’s not in the NHL. He has lots of detail in his game and is strong on his stick. He understands his role on that line and will consistently execute it. He gets in on the forecheck, he battles in front of the net, he backchecks hard, and he can make just enough plays offensively with the puck on his stick to play alongside two talents like Matthews and Nylander.

3.  The other combination I would like to see receive some runway is reuniting the Noah GregorDavid KampfCalle Jarnkrok checking line that the coaching staff has turned to while protecting leads at times.

The team needs a good checking unit. There are too many games where they’re playing very loose defensively through the neutral zone and are struggling to break the pressure. The Avalanche, in particular, had their way with the Leafs through the final two periods, and while I don’t think this line could go head-to-head with the MacKinnon unit by any stretch, they are capable of playing a secondary role and quieting the game down. Those are three veteran players who know what they are doing and will buy into their responsibilities.

4.   I think I would have Bobby McMann ahead of Nick Robertson and in the starting 12 at this point. McMann is bigger and stronger (6’2, 210 pounds) and is better on the walls breaking out of his end. The fact that he’s breaking even possession-wise despite his linemates (primarily David Kampf as his center) while getting buried with defensive-zone starts on a checking line is pretty impressive all-around.

I’d like to see McMann play a few games alongside Max Domi; he is fast enough to skate with Domi and skilled enough to make plays with him while also being reliable defensively.

5.   I think I’d have a rough plan to start Martin Jones against the Oilers and Ilya Samsonov against the Flames. Jones deserves the start based on his body of work, and if all goes well — barring a shutout or an easy night (highly unlikely) — I’d plan to keep Samsonov going.

Samsonov was solid against the Red Wings (the team let him down in that game more than anything), and there is still a big upside to getting him rolling. As long as he’s playing like he did against the Wings, he deserves to be in the rotation.