Jake McCabe, Maple Leafs vs. Sharks
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MLHS’ Anthony Petrielli joined The Fan Morning Show to discuss the storylines looking ahead to the second half of the Maple Leafs’ 2023-24 season, including Tyler Bertuzzi’s impact, Nick Robertson’s role, the bottom-six mix, and the situation on the blue line.

On Tyler Bertuzzi’s first half of the season:

He is only pacing for 36 points over an 82-game season, so that is disappointing no matter how you slice it. At the same time, they don’t really have anyone else who can offer what he offers in terms of how he works the walls, how he gets to the net, and how he creates space for teammates.

I think there are a number of factors into Nylander’s hot start — not the least of which is not having a contract — but I don’t think it was a complete coincidence he has been as successful as he has been this season with Bertuzzi there.

Ultimately, I look at the line, and Bertuzzi is barely producing, but I still think it is the best version of the Tavares-Nylander second line that we have seen in this era (the other main player who has been there is Alex Kerfoot).

If you look at the two Jets games, in the one in Toronto on Wednesday, the second line was terrible. I thought they were easily the Leafs’ best line on Saturday. They were creating. Bertuzzi scored what should have been a goal. He drew the penalty that essentially iced the game away.

He does a lot of good things out there. It just isn’t showing on the scoresheet.

… He is not the prototypical crasher and banger who is going out and throwing hits. He is not necessarily getting into fights. It’s not like he had a huge fight card coming into being a Leaf. He has never necessarily been a big hitter.

What he has been is a bit more of that greasy type of player, which we see in spades all the time. What also makes it difficult for him is that he is not necessarily a tic-tac-toe passer. I don’t think he is necessarily at his best in open ice making skilled passing plays. I think he has skill and is a good passer, but I don’t think he is one of the first guys you’d like to see on a 3-on-2 skating with the puck with William Nylander. He looks a little bit out of his element in those situations.

I think the LA Kings game was a good example. Those games are slower, tighter checking, harder to get inside, and harder to get pucks to the right spots — the types of games we see more of coming up through to the playoffs.

I think we are going to see the best version of him coming up as opposed to the first part of the season when it is 18 and 19-year-olds in the league with open ice and jerseys are flapping in the wind.

On whether Nick Robertson (and some of the Leafs‘ other depth players) should be receiving more minutes:

The easy answer is yes.

I think it’s an interesting time to discuss Nick Robertson. It is easy to forget that Sheldon Keefe did give Robertson something like 24 straight games. He really did peter off. There was a solid 10-15 game segment of the back half of those consecutive games where he really didn’t do anything.

He came in really hot to start the season when he first came up — four points in four games — but it really did die down for him. I do think getting scratched helped him and the break helped him.

I think we have seen a similar scenario with Matthew Knies. His best game came off of a scratch in the game against Pittsburgh where he had the Gordie Howe hat trick.

They’re young guys. It is Knies’ first time in the league, really — his first full season — and Robertson has never played a full season.

By and large, I do think the Leafs have a little bit more depth all around than they are probably given credit for. Gregor played his first good game in what felt like a month against the Jets, and it was not-coincidentally the most he has played in a month.

Max Domi moved up in that Pittsburgh game because Matthews was out. He played with Marner. That was probably his best game as a Leaf, too. We haven’t seen him receive that kind of responsibility again since that game.

It feels a bit like chicken or egg. Are these guys not doing anything because they are not getting any ice time, or are they not getting ice time because they are not doing anything?

Matthews is pacing for 70 goals and is having a lights-out year. It is hard to look at other guys sometimes when you can just put that on the ice. But I do think they need to squeeze a little more juice out of the rest of the lineup and get everyone pulling the rope in the right direction at playoff time. You need three lines at a minimum.

On sorting out the team’s bottom six mix:

If you go back to earlier in the season, it was a bit more bizarre. Kampf was centering Max Domi and Matthew Knies at one time — for weeks on end. It wasn’t a one-game line.

I would imagine that the logic was that Domi struggles defensively and Kampf excels there — let’s see if water and oil can balance each other out! Obviously, that didn’t work.

We also saw Kampf play a ton with Ryan Reaves. Some of it was unlucky. There was the run where Reaves was on for 10 goals against, and a good chunk of those goals had nothing to do with him, but it kind of just snowballed.

By and large, the idea of having a checking center and then asking him to player with an enforcer who you wouldn’t trust as a true checker is kind of water and oil.

Eventually, it got to the McMann, Kampf, and Gregor trio. For the first time this season, it felt to some degree like a line where it makes sense. They had some really good games. When they were united against Vancouver, they scored a couple of goals that night and they were one of the Leafs’ best lines. It felt like they just got a little stale after a few weeks of them as a trio where they kind of died down in their effectiveness.

I think there are enough guys where you can kind of group it together and suggest they can contribute, but they need to be rotating in and out of the lineup and staying hungry.

Recently, we’ve seen Pontus Holmberg play a little bit with Kampf — particularly in that Seattle game — and that actually has made sense. Holmberg has been pretty good as a winger. That line closed out that game against Seattle toward the end where they had a shift almost a minute long in the Kraken zone. Holmberg created a turnover, chipped it to Kampf, and they went to work together.

You can see pieces that start to make sense. It is just about getting everyone rolling.

On whether there are different combinations or options worth trying on the blue line:

They obviously need external help. The solution is not within what they have at the moment.

The decline of Brodie has been extremely notable. I don’t want to say he has completely fallen off — he is playable and takes responsible shifts by and large — but in that top role, we are starting to see the decline and what comes with it, especially in the things that he does at the offensive blue line, which is killing a lot of plays right now.

A lot of people say it is not his role, but the fact is, when you are playing with Matthews and Marner a lot, you can’t actively kill plays in the offensive zone. He is actively killing plays and hurting them when the puck is on his stick.

It is wild to see from a defenseman who, in his prime, had at least one 40-point season and had one double-digit goal season. Players age out, but even Mark Giordano, when he has the puck with an opportunity, can still make plays. He is 40 and is the oldest player in the league. It is kind of stunning to see the way it has gone with Brodie.

That is the most difficult part, but then the second part is Timothy Liljegren. He teases you. You see games where he is really good and you “get it” — a good skater, a good shot, and solid on his skates; a bit of a fire hydrant. He can rip pucks around. He led their defense in goals last season, which is not a huge thing to tout on this team, but it is something.

But he also just has a lot of games where he is jittery. I don’t know how else to describe it. He has games where he gets the puck and it rolls off his stick for no reason or he fans on it. It is to the point where you think that you’d like to see him with Rielly as a right-handed defenseman who can skate and shoot the puck — and they have been okay together at times — but then he does those things where you kind of go, “How could I legitimately trust this to be good?”

It is a tough spot. I think it is ultimately worth looking at it more. There have been times when Liljegren has been shoe-horned into more minutes, especially last year when the defense was hurt in November and he rose to the occasion.

The one thing we can say with certainty, which is wild, honestly: The Benoit – McCabe pairing is pretty good.