The Maple Leafs swept a home-and-home against the Winnipeg Jets to enter the bye week on a high note.
With the team off for a week, it allows us some time to dig in on a few topics, so for now, let’s get right into an extended notes edition of the notebook.
– When the Leafs beat the Kings in LA, I thought it was by and large Tyler Bertuzzi’s best game of the season. He was constantly able to create space in that game and set up teammates as a result of his work along the walls and behind or in front of the net.
The game against the Jets on Saturday was another shining example – and he should have been rewarded with a goal. The second line, along with most of the team, struggled on Wednesday, but the second unit was excellent in the rematch after Bertuzzi returned. A big reason why was all of the battles Bertuzzi was winning and the loose pucks he was recovering.
It’s a skill set that is unique to the team, and my guess is it’s going to be highlighted more in the second half of the season when it’s tighter, more physical, and more difficult to access the prime areas of the ice.
– The Bertuzzi – Tavares – Nylander line is outscoring opponents 15-9 so far this season, which is right in line with their expected goals rate, and they have controlled play territorially. For me, it’s the best second line the Leafs have put together over the past few years – and that’s with Bertuzzi playing to just a 36-point pace to this point.
Bertuzzi is a better player than his counting stats indicate so far, and if the line keeps controlling play and creating chances with this kind of regularity, it’s hard to imagine the puck not going into the net more for him the rest of the way.
– Noah Gregor played 13:05 against the Jets, which was his highest mark since the team returned from the Christmas break (16 games). The fourth line played a good game and scored a huge goal.
Gregor has really faded into the background over the past few weeks and hasn’t scored a goal in 18 straight games now (nearly a quarter of the season). It’s not like he’s creating many opportunities and simply missing them similar to Bertuzzi. Given how well Gregor played against the Jets, I wonder how much of it is a chicken-or-the-egg thing: Is he struggling because he is barely playing, or is he barely playing because he’s struggling?
– This is now the second time Nick Robertson has been inserted into the lineup and provided a real spark. The key for him now is sustaining this level of play. Robertson did play a stretch of nearly 25 consecutive games and his performance really trailed off as those games wore on.
Two noticeable aspects of Robertson’s play since he has returned to the lineup: he’s not struggling to break out as much, and his overall puck management. Defensemen were pinching down on Robertson and keeping the puck in with some level of regularity earlier in the season, but he has been really heavy on his stick since returning and is coming out with more pucks/getting pucks out. His decisions with the puck have also been better.
Against the Jets in the third period, he possessed the puck on the half-wall in the Jets’ zone with the Leafs up 2-1. Max Domi cut into through the middle of the zone, and you could see Robertson think about it for a second, hold on, and decide to make an easy tape-to-tape pass to the corner afterward. It’s a small thing – and nothing resulted from it – but it’s the kind of play where, if he forces it and it’s picked off, the Jets are going to counterattack (which is the type of play that drives a coach nuts, especially knowing Domi wasn’t on his one-timer side or looking at any sort of high-percentage scoring chance).
Sheldon Keefe talks a lot about managing the game and managing the puck. Those are the small details we’re starting to see Robertson mature into grasping.
– Since he rejoined the lineup, Robertson has a goal, an assist, and nine shots on net in three games. In the second game, he played a career-high 17:08. He hasn’t been on the ice for a goal against in any of those three games.
– When Andrew Brewer joined the MLHS podcast, he made an interesting comment about Auston Matthews’ lack of comfort on his one-timer side on the power play early in his NHL career (which is why he played his strong side, something that drove many fans nuts). No longer an 18-19 year older, we can see the work Matthews has put into the one-time shot over the years.
When #34 raises his stick to call for someone to put it into his wheelhouse, it is as exciting as watching a 2v1 or breakaway at this point. As long as the pass is right, it spells real trouble for the opponent. We all but knew a goal was coming against the Jets when we watched him call for the puck and step into a one-timer inside the top of the circle. He’s not missing that.
– The Leafs‘ penalty kill went 4/4 in Winnipeg, and one thing that stood out about it compared to some of the poorer kills recently is how aggressive they were. Their forwards attacked the wall and applied pressure on the points, and they kept shifts short whenever possible (roughly 30 seconds if they got the puck out).
Without Calle Jarnkrok in the lineup, Noah Gregor – William Nylander was the second penalty-killing unit. When they were following up David Kampf – Mitch Marner after a clear and change, it meant Gregor and Nylander could use their speed to disrupt the power-play breakout, and they were really effective in that role. It was nice to see the units complementing each other and the speed working in tandem.
– Pontus Holmberg has been really effective as a winger since this call-up and has moved up and down the lineup well. One aspect that holds him back when he plays alongside top players is his shot.
We’ve seen Holmberg fan on quite a few or miss the puck altogether at times. In 21 games so far, he has two goals and only 26 shots on net. He’s really good on the forecheck and sneakily crafty with the puck. If he could get his shot up to snuff, he’d be a really good player.
“Also, the right-shot thing is something that we have been fighting for a bit with the left-handed guys playing on their offside. I have wanted to give it a little more runway with the lefty-righty. We will give it another game today.
It has been a while since Timmins has played consistently. We just wanted to give that a look. In this case, it is more about Timmins than it is about Gio.”
– Sheldon Keefe on scratching Mark Giordano for Conor Timmins
Handedness probably doesn’t receive enough attention, but it’s a big deal, especially on breakouts. Defensemen lose a split second by taking a pass on the off-side; they then have to rotate their body forward before making a pass, or if they do try to move it right away, they don’t have the full ice at their disposal as they would on their strong side.
In recent years, we have seen the Leafs acquire Ilya Lyubushkin and Luke Schenn as right-handed defensemen to play with Morgan Rielly, and now we’re seeing them rotate options in the bottom half of their lineup. They basically have one right-handed defenseman right now in Timothy Liljegren.
When they couldn’t break out in the first period against the Jets in Toronto, they shifted their pairings to reunite the Simon Benoit – Jake McCabe pairing that has worked all season and went with Rielly – Liljegren / TJ Brodie – Conor Timmins to try to get some proper breakouts going.
“A little bit of a tough time at the beginning of the season, but I don’t think he got too many opportunities to actually be able to do what he can do. That’s just me knowing how it happened for me. Feel like it’s going much of the same for him.”
– Wayne Simmons on Ryan Reaves
The Leafs have shuffled through a number of these types of players in Sheldon Keefe’s tenure. It’s pretty clear that they are not Keefe’s type of players. He wants four lines that he can trust, not a fourth line that’s going to go out and hit and fight. You can debate which approach is right, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t make sense to keep trying this square peg/round hole approach.
“I’m so motivated. I want to play every day. I want to stop the puck hard as you can and, just, first I want to enjoy. Last couple months, I forgot how to enjoy to play. I just want to enjoy every moment.”
– Ilya Samsonov ahead of playing Winnipeg in Toronto
It was nice to hear Ilya Samsonov talk about enjoying the moment and getting back to simply enjoying hockey in general. Early in the season, he was self-deprecating, letting in goals from distance and remarking that maybe he needs glasses (as one example). It was a negative approach that compounded matters as he clearly got in his own head over the past few months.
The shutout against the Jets was great, but I thought it was more impressive to shut the door after letting in the first shot of the night in a hostile environment on Hockey Night in Canada. It could have fallen apart in short order, but Samsonov battled hard.
Tweets of the Week
There are 58 defencemen who have played 200+ mins at 5v5 and are less than 40% in Ozone Starts. Simon Benoit is the only Leaf in this group.
He also has the third best xGF% amongst the group at 54.38%.
Credit where it's due, he's been so solid.
— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) January 28, 2024
Simon Benoit has been a great story and has clearly added an element to the team with his physicality and overall gamesmanship (tons of examples of him jawing with the opposition after whistles, starting scrums, etc.), but the next step is becoming a lynchpin for situational hockey.
Quietly, this is starting to come together. Against Seattle, Benoit and Jake McCabe closed out the one-goal lead and McCabe scored an empty netter on the play. Against Winnipeg, they closed the game again, and it was Benoit scoring the empty-netter goal.
Benoit is starting to solidify himself as a second-unit penalty killer as well. These are big developments for a team lacking in quality defensemen. He’s still just 25 years old with 170 games played in the league to date.
The need for a 3C is dire, but not dire enough for Drury to give up a No. 1 or a blue chip prospect–let alone both–in a trade for Monahan or Henrique. Maybe not what folks want to hear but there is nothing over the last 25 games that indicates this team should go all-in.
— Larry Brooks (@NYP_Brooksie) January 28, 2024
It was only a few weeks ago that there was plenty of talk about whether the Leafs should sell. This sentiment has died down as the Leafs have gone 4-1-0 in their last five games, four of which were on the road.
I highlight this because the Rangers just lost a critical player for the season, they have been mediocre for nearly two months now (19th in points percentage since December 1), and they are in first in their division. There is talk about whether they’re good enough to buy.
Other than the Rangers in the Metropolitan, the Carolina Hurricanes are a strong team, and then who? The Flyers are on a five-game losing streak and might be returning to reality. The Islanders fired their coach and have not benefitted from a new-coach bump to start – they are 2-6-2 in their last 10. The Devils are banged up, but they might turn it on when they’re healthier if they don’t dig too deep of a hole before then. The Penguins are debating whether they should be buyers or sellers.
We already outlined the situation in the Atlantic Division a few weeks ago. There are no powerhouse, insanely deep teams – the salary cap ensures this reality. The Leafs are a lot closer to winning it all than missing the playoffs altogether. As we outlined last week, the question is whether they can make the kind of impactful addition that includes some combination of term/youth rather than these three-month rentals where the player walks for free.
- Related Reading: As the buy vs. sell debate rages on, how should Brad Treliving approach the trade deadline?
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) January 28, 2024
To me, this partly illustrates that the Leafs play slowly. There is lots of talk about the Leafs’ collective group of skaters making for a “slow team,” but I’m just not particularly convinced this is true.
Something we have discussed in this space for years on end now is how slow and methodical the team plays – constant regroups, all about moving up the ice as a unit, and they create very few puck races. Alec wrote about it after they were eliminated last season in the playoffs. Stylistically, nothing has really changed since then.
If we look at the top 104 players who have most frequently hit 20 miles per hour this season listed below, I’d confidently argue that William Nylander, who didn’t make the list at all, is faster than at least 60 percent of the players.
Which forwards play the fastest?
Using the NHL's tracking data, here are the forwards who have most frequently exceeded 20 miles per hour in 2023-24:
1. Nathan MacKinnon
2. Ryan McLeod
3. Julien Gauthier
4. Roope Hintz
5. Brayden Point pic.twitter.com/NeV4KMb1e2
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) January 28, 2024
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think there were some examples of players stepping up during absences to Tyler Bertuzzi, Calle Jarnkrok, and Bobby McMann that should not go unnoticed. Nick Robertson has provided an offensive spark, Noah Gregor received additional penalty-killing time and was effective, Pontus Holmberg moved up and down the lineup and performed well, and Ryan Reaves came in and provided a real spark (plus a big goal!).
To me, this signals that the Leafs can squeeze more out of a good chunk of their players if they simply trust them. Robertson has demonstrated he can score in the league. Gregor was good on the penalty kill with his speed and should be part of a regular rotation there. Holmberg is an effective Swiss army knife-type player who brings all sorts of utility.
2. Further, I think it shouldn’t require injuries for us to see this type of thing. In this space and our weekly podcast, we have been pushing the idea that the forward group is better than they have shown and that there’s more utility to be squeezed out of this group compared to how it has been deployed. There are a number of good, useful forwards punching below their weight, and we see them produce in spurts or when players are missing (the beatdown against the Penguins is another shining example).
A little extra ice time here and there and some utility on special teams for certain players (Gregor on the penalty, Bertuzzi getting extra power-play bumps, Knies getting any power-play time at all) would go a long way to getting more of the lineup engaged and contributing to the bottom line of winning games.
3. The Leafs do it occasionally for offensive-zone faceoffs or when they are trailing in games, but I think I’d be looking for more opportunities to pair Morgan Rielly – Timothy Liljegren together.
Against the Jets in a tie game, TJ Brodie held the puck at the top of the offensive zone with traffic in front and no defender within even two stick lengths of him. He walked right in, wound up to take a slapshot, hesitated, decided not to shoot, fanned on his initial pass, and then shoveled the puck down low to Rielly.
Last week, we showed some video clips of Brodie’s turnovers on the offensive blue line against Seattle. He is still a really solid penalty killer who can be effective defensively (although that is diminishing), but these plays just can’t happen on the point when he’s routinely on the ice with the Leafs’ best players. It’s becoming a nightly occurrence.
The coaching staff can balance out zone starts between Brodie and Liljegren along with a “safe pairing” in Simon Benoit – Jake McCabe that they can always put out to reset their other pairings if necessary. They have to work with what they have, and this is what they have right now.
4. I think the events of the past few weeks demonstrated exactly why you don’t write off goalies too quickly – as many did with Ilya Samsonov – especially when we’re talking about a bad month or two of play. Samsonov is clearly a talented goalie — this was never really in question – and his issues were largely between the ears and confidence-related.
This is the most random and fickle of positions. Without one of the few elite studs in the league on the roster, this is why a team needs multiple goalies it can trust with starts. The Leafs have a nice mix of talent, youth, and experience between their three goalies. It’s important to keep whoever is healthy in the mix so that this will play out as it should.
5. As much as it has been uncomfortable for fans that the Leafs’ place in the standings has not been as solidified as in years past, I think this is a good thing for the team. They can’t afford to take their foot off the pedal, which maybe will help them become more battle-tested before playoff time.
At the start of the 2023 playoffs, the Leafs were run over in the first game and benefited greatly from Erik Cernak getting knocked out of the series. Of course, for all of this to work, the Leafs actually have to make the playoffs, but grinding through the season, encountering pivotal regular-season games, and collecting enough points is not necessarily a bad thing.
The Panthers made it in the last week of last season, and Vegas was 10th in points percentage at this time last year. The Leafs are currently 11th.