The Maple Leafs finished their four-game West Coast trip at 2-2-0 and were tied in the third period of both regulation losses.
It’s not an exceptional trip by any means, but by and large, they managed to collect some points and keep the wolves at bay.
There’s a lot to talk about after a busy week, and with some long breaks between games looming, it will allow for some time to dig into more specific longer-form articles. For now, let’s get right into it with an extended notes edition of the notebook.
– The Leafs‘ penalty kill started slow before appearing to work its way out of the early-season struggles, but in the past two months, it has regressed and become a problem again. By month, here’s the breakdown:
|Penalty Kill Percentage
– Interestingly, November is the only month that the Leafs‘ penalty-killing defense pairings were Jake McCabe – TJ Brodie and William Lagesson – Mark Giordano. Since then, it has been Giordano – Brodie, Benoit – McCabe. The top three forwards – David Kampf, Mitch Marner, and Calle Jarnkrok – have remained the same throughout the season.
– The Leafs have been up and down since Christmas, and a lot of attention has been focused on goaltending, special teams, and blowing leads. But the secondary scoring has been a huge problem.
- John Tavares has three points in 14 games
- Calle Jarnkrok has two goals and no assists in 14 games
- Noah Gregor has two assists and no goals in 13 games
- Matthew Knies has four points in 14 games
- Bobby McMann has three points in 12 games
- David Kampf has one point in 13 games
It’s really difficult to win consistently when this is the production the team is getting from half its forward group. The next highest producers are Max Domi with six in 14 and Tyler Bertuzzi with seven in 14. You’d like to think some of these players will break out at some point.
– Some kudos are deserved for the Leafs‘ stars who have really carried the team through these struggles. Auston Matthews produced a superstar performance against Calgary to lead the Leafs to a huge win.
– One player who has produced well? Pontus Holmberg with seven points in his last 11 games. More than the production, it really stood out how he closed the game against the Kraken, creating a turnover as Seattle tried to break out and pull the goalie. He passed it to David Kampf, who got it in deep, and then the line forechecked and worked the walls to eat the clock.
Whether it’s as a forechecker on the top line — he produced two points in that role against Edmonton – or as a checker with Kampf, Holmberg is becoming a useful utility player. Just 23 shots in 19 games can be improved on, though.
– It seems Mitch Marner officially has “a move” on breakaways now, quickly stickhandling the puck to his forehand and shooting it high glove. He’s scored that exact goal on breakaways against the Sabres, Kraken, and now Canucks this past weekend. In the game against Calgary, he tried the same thing but Dan Vladar made the save.
Marner is taking fewer shots on net than his career average (2.59 this season vs. 2.63 for his career), but he’s pacing for his second-highest goals per game output of his career with 20 goals through 44 games so far this season. He clearly has some confidence in his ability to cleanly beat goalies right now.
– The Leafs created a lot of offensive zone time against Seattle, which is one reason the Kraken only recorded 17 shots on net in the game. The Kraken collapsed to their net as much as possible, leaving the points wide open.
On multiple occasions in the game, amid an extended offensive-zone shift, the puck made its way to TJ Brodie, who turned it over despite ample time and space. One instance was a poor pass to Rielly that was deflected and left the zone; one was when he had time on the wall to continue the cycle and held onto it, leading to a turnover (with Nylander now playing defense because of it); one involved putting it off his own teammates’ shin pad after he was indecisive with the puck.
The last time Brodie scored a goal was December 31, 2022 – he actually went the entire 2023 calendar without scoring – and his confidence with the puck looks completely shot. It’s not his job to score, but at the same time, he can’t continually kill plays with the puck on his stick. He’s playing with Rielly, and the pairing shares a ton of ice time with the Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner line. That means lots of zone time and opportunity. He can’t regularly kill the offense in those situations.
– Despite owning the puck so much, the Leafs only put 26 shots on net against the Kraken, and Simon Benoit led their defense in shots on net with two even though the points were wide-open all night. As the season goes along, I’d venture to guess more teams will pack the house and collapse against the Leafs. Their defense will need to make plays on the point if that’s the case.
– One area where the defense is (strangely) looking to make plays is by joining the rush and forechecking. I noted this on Leafs Talk on the weekend, but to open the game against the Canucks, Mark Giordano raced up ice to forecheck on a nothing play. Vancouver broke out, setting in motion a shift where the Canucks dominated and eventually scored.
It was a low-reward play by Giordano, who was forechecking against three Canucks in the corner. Max Domi ended up playing defense off the rush to cover for him. On the road, two minutes into the game, and with not much happening yet to that point, there’s no need for it.
– Giordano is not the only one. Early in the season, in particular, Jake McCabe was joining the rush and forechecking deep with reckless abandon. Timothy Liljegren is prone to do the same. It seems the Leafs’ defensemen are encouraged to do it, but they really only have one exceptionally skilled defenseman (Rielly), so there’s a bit of a strange juxtaposition between the talent on the unit and the plays they’re green-lighted to do.
“The other part of that I am trying to work through as a coach: With all of the new players that we have — whether it is at forward or on defense — who are we going to rely on in those moments? Who is going to go out and get the job done?
Despite the fact that we are through the halfway point of the season now — 42 games in — I still have a lot of questions, quite honestly, about who is going to go out and we can say for certain is going to get the job done for us. It has been a little bit inconsistent throughout the group.”
– Sheldon Keefe on who he can trust defensively to close out games
Halfway through the season, this is a notable issue. The Leafs were previously flush with checkers which caused other issues down the stretch (lack of secondary scoring). Right now, they aren’t getting that secondary scoring to the degree they should be and there are questions about who can be trusted defensively (with players like Nylander becoming penalty killers as a result). Some of the solution can be manufactured from within, but some of it will likely need to be addressed by bringing in outside help.
“I have very loose knees. I’ve torn both knees, like, a ton of times, and I just don’t feel comfortable on the ice without them anymore. I’ve tried taking them off, and my knees are so loose that when I cut, like, to get out of bed the next morning, sometimes they pop out. So, keep ’em on. I wouldn’t even practice without them.”
– Ryan Reaves talking about the knee braces he wears whenever he goes on the ice
This is really just a bizarre situation all around at this point. Ryan Reaves said he’s been ready to play, but there appears to be no path in sight to him re-entering the lineup. When we tack on that his knees require braces just to practice and he was signed to a three deal in that kind of physical condition at the age of 36… well, there is a lot to unpack there, to put it kindly.
“Well, it’s a big test. It’s a good hockey team we’re playing. When you play Toronto in this building, it’s a big buzz. It’s almost like a playoff atmosphere. I like to approach it that way.”
– Rick Tocchet prior to the Leafs – Canucks game
I have mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating. The Canucks were fired up to play the Leafs, which always happens in Vancouver with the 4 p.m. start, and the Leafs did not come out and match their intensity level to start the game. The Leafs don’t treat special games like this with any sort of extra urgency or oomph. I think it’s to their detriment; they can’t just flip a switch at playoff time.
There was some bad goaltending involved in this game as well, but by and large, the Canucks took it to the Leafs to start the game, outshooting them 7-0 as the Leafs looked anything but ready. The Leafs had a better start the next night against the Kraken in a far less emotional game with a much calmer atmosphere, and when they get into the game, they are generally fine. But these poor starts are difficult to overcome.
Tweets of the Week
The Maple Leafs don’t lose 4+ straight games very often, but when they do, they respond well.
Under Sheldon Keefe⤵️
2020-21: 0-3-2 ➡️ 7-0-2
2021-22: 0-3-1 ➡️ 15-2-1
2022-23: 0-2-2 ➡️ 15-1-4
2023-24: 0-2-2 ➡️ 11-2-4
2023-24: 0-3-1 ➡️ ?-?-?#LeafsForever
— Joseph Zita (@josephdzita) January 17, 2024
Sheldon Keefe is the sixth-longest tenured coach in the NHL, and this is the biggest reason why. When things start to go south, the Leafs have seemingly always straightened it out and gone on a run to quiet any chatter about a coaching change.
Since this dip, the Leafs are 2-1-0 and now face a home-and-home with the Winnipeg Jets. They aren’t out of the woods by any means, but keeping the focus on the real issues without getting caught up in the noise of the Toronto market is a commendable skill.
— Rink Rat Report (@RinkRatReport) January 20, 2024
Jake McCabe is becoming one of the better open-ice hitters in the league and has a real edge to his game. It was nice to see him step in for Liljegren after Brandon Tanev flattened him. Before then, Tanev was involved in a heated exchange with Timmins and Benoit and was pretty fired up. After the fight, he hardly made a noise.
It does matter! can’t win 4 rounds in the playoffs playing that way. It’s not a switch u can just turn on come April! Thats on how the roster gets managed. Can’t expect to have flow on a team where Matthews has to save your bacon every night. As a coach you have to get… https://t.co/eyLIQNztlH
— P.K. Subban (@PKSubban1) January 19, 2024
We seemingly have this conversation every season. A team can only rely on its top guys so much. They need to build lines and empower players throughout the lineup, but I’m not sure that’s what’s happening in Toronto.
The stars have been great – and it is difficult to not play them when they are playing so well – but the question is: How do you make it a more cohesive team overall that garners contributions up and down the lineup?
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think the concern about the power play is notable at the moment, and there are a few issues at play. It ranks 17th in the league since the Christmas break and is routinely coming up empty in big moments, including an 0/7 weekend, although some of it is due to how the game against the Canucks ended.
Their entries are poor and need new wrinkles added to them. It can’t be the same drop-pass play when PKs are selling out to an extreme degree as the Canucks did. The original puck carrier, Morgan Rielly, is more than capable of keeping penalty kills honest by lugging it up himself when the opposition takes away the drop pass (as is William Nylander).
In the zone, they are pulling Nylander to the top, but it’s awkward with Rielly on the half-wall, where he’s not well-suited. It makes more sense as a conventional look with Nylander on the half-wall – where he likes to shoot short side – and Matthews on the other flank. They need to get back to basics and take the obvious plays the PKs are giving them.
2. As the Leafs are going to Conor Timmins as seemingly the seventh defenseman, I think I’d be more inclined to give William Lagesson some time again.
The penalty kill was at its best with him on it (as noted above). In fact, in a little over 30 minutes on the penalty kill, Lagesson has actually been on for one goal for and just two against. Beyond the numbers, he also brought some additional bite and physicality to the unit, especially in front of the Leafs’ net, where they have been particularly poor at clearing.
I’m surprised by how Lagesson has seemingly fallen out of the lineup (he hasn’t played since December 27) as he gave the Leafs solid minutes overall. His game meshes well with Liljegren’s stylistically as more of a hang-back, defensive defenseman paired with a more adventurous Liljegren.
3. I think it’s becoming apparent at this point that Mark Giordano shouldn’t be a regular who is only scratched in back-to-back situations. He’s really struggling with fast-paced opponents like Edmonton and Colorado (who are top-end teams, to be fair), and there haven’t been enough positives – be it on the penalty kill, moving the puck, or offensive production – to justify a regular spot. He’s 40 years old and father time is undefeated.
4. I think Nick Robertson has earned a spot in the lineup for the next game because if nothing else, he can provide secondary scoring that pretty well nobody else is providing at the moment. However, I would actually scratch Noah Gregor ahead of sitting Bobby McMann again.
It’s a negligible difference between players, but Gregor has quietly been receiving a pass even though he has done very little for nearly a month now. He started the season with real purpose and was very noticeable for extended periods, but the level of play has died down, and the hope would be that sitting him serves as a bit of a wake-up call. He can bring more than he’s shown as of late.
5. I think Ilya Samsonov starts the next game. He is the more talented goalie between him and Martin Jones at this point in their careers, and he’s coming off a strong game. If there’s a glimmer of hope for him to get rolling again, you have to take the chance and see if he can do so. The upside is too significant to not try it.