A lot can happen in a week, but while sorting through all of the current storylines in Leafs Nation, it’s important not to bury the lede. The Maple Leafs’ play hasn’t been good enough.
Coming out of the All-Star break, Max Domi noted, “This is when you start to separate and you see certain things with better teams.”
Well, through three games since the break, the Leafs blew a tie game late in regulation against the Islanders. They beat a good Dallas team, but it’s important to point out that the Stars played the night before and dominated the Leafs in the first period. It was one of the worst periods the Leafs have played all season — out-attempted 30-11 on home ice — and the one-goal deficit after 20 minutes flattered them. They followed it up by losing to a bottom-feeding Ottawa Senators team, marking their third defeat in four games against a rival that is closer to the first-overall draft pick than a playoff spot.
If we extend it to a larger sample since the Leafs returned from the Christmas break, they have been downright mediocre, tied for 18th in the league with the Ottawa Senators in points percentage (9-8-2). Over this stretch, they are 13th in goals per game and tied for 17th in goals against per game. Their power play is fourth in the league and their penalty kill ranks 23rd.
If we want to look for positives, the team is trending in the right direction in terms of territorial control with the sixth-best shots against per game rate while ranking 13th in shot-attempt share and ninth in expected goals at 5v5.
The stat that really stands out is their ranking of 23rd in five-on-five shooting percentage. The team is generating good chances right now, but they aren’t bearing down and capitalizing. The Leafs are more talented than 23rd in shooting percentage, and at some point, we have to imagine they will get some bounces.
In the meantime, the playoff race has caught up to them. The Detroit Red Wings are on a 10-2-2 hot streak. The Lightning just finished an 8-1-0 stretch of collecting points as well. The standings are officially uncomfortable right now, with the Leafs’ .600 points percentage just barely ahead of the Red Wings’ .588 and the Lightning’s .575. If the Devils — who just got Jack Hughes back — or the Islanders — who have flashed a little life under a new head coach — heat up, this could spiral out of control in short order.
A three-game homestand is coming up against the Blues, Flyers, and Ducks. Those are three winnable games. Afterward, the Leafs go on a road trip to play the Blues again, the Coyotes, Vegas, and the Avalanche. They then return home for a five-game homestand against the Golden Knights, Coyotes, Rangers, Sabres, and Bruins.
It’s a really tough stretch of play starting against Vegas on February 22, but the Leafs have some games beforehand where they need to clean up their play and start banking points.
– As the hockey tightens up down the stretch, one thing to keep an eye on is the type of goals the Leafs are scoring. When they beat Tampa Bay in the playoffs last spring, they were really effective at generating traffic at the net and getting shots through from the point (particularly Morgan Rielly). They scored a number of goals off of deflections or rebounds in front, which was one of the big reasons why they advanced.
Recently, Matthew Knies scored a nice tip on a Mitch Marner shot from the point against Ottawa. John Tavares solved an excellent Ilya Sorokin with a high tip as well on the power play. Otherwise, though, the Leafs are generating very few goals off of rebounds and traffic. They are full marks for nice cross-ice, one-timer types of goals from their stars, but there’s very little diversification of the offense.
– The Leafs have made a little adjustment with John Tavares on the power play: They have moved him up in the high slot more often instead of leaving him to exclusively stand in front of the net.
He scored on a one-timer in the high slot against Dallas, and he tipped home goals in the high slot against the Islanders and the Jets before the break. He can still score from a distance, and when standing in the high slot in the bumper area, he isn’t tied up nearly as much.
It’s a nice little adjustment and a different look to get him more involved in the offense.
– The break has served Matthew Knies really well. He was all over the ice against the Islanders and has three points in three games since returning to action, including breaking his goal-scoring drought in Ottawa.
This is the second time Knies has come back from a little time off and performed really well (the other was the Gordie Howe hat trick against the Penguins after he was a healthy scratch). There is a really good player here; he needs time and development to refine the details in his game, but he has flashed the potential more than a few times.
I would like to see him shoot more as he has just 61 shots on goal in 48 games. It seems like forever ago that he sniped a goal from the top of the circle against the Lightning early in the season.
– Conversely, Pontus Holmberg doesn’t have a shot on net — let alone a point — since returning. He has been put in a tough spot due to injury, centering Bobby McMann and Ryan Reaves. It’s really difficult to evaluate if Holmberg is a viable center option when this line is not a fit for him. Considering the Leafs are experiencing issues with secondary-scoring support, taking one of their better options of late, sticking him between those two, and playing him under 10 minutes per game (9:44) is only compounding the problem.
– A quietly nice development recently: William Nylander‘s play on the penalty kill. His speed is dangerous through the neutral zone, and he can counterattack teams if they make a mistake. He also doesn’t receive enough credit for how strong he is. Nylander wins a lot of 50/50 pucks when he digs in, which is helping him clear pucks.
For a team with penalty-killing issues this season, you’d like to see them get healthy with Calle Jarnkrok and David Kampf, add at least one penalty-killing defenseman to the mix, and see if they can salvage this unit.
“They thought it was a good hit.”
– Sheldon Keefe on the refs’ explanation for the no call on Mason Marchment after his hit on Jake McCabe
Earlier this season, Kampf took a high hit to the head, and after the game, it wasn’t addressed at all. When Kampf missed the next practice, Keefe sarcastically remarked that he was recovering from a clean hit to the head.
We talked about it then and we’ll talk about it now: These are suspension-worthy plays, and the Leafs are towing the company line instead of standing up for their players. The Mason Marchment hit checks many of the boxes for the type of hit the league tells us they want out of the game. It was late, it was blindside, and it was high. Jake McCabe’s bloody face needed stitches.
At some point, you have to stand up for your team. Maybe it makes no difference in what the league does, but the players will absolutely appreciate the coach having their back as opposed to what happens in Toronto on a regular basis. The Leafs are continually penalized while teams take free runs at them, and the coach with the biggest platform in the league quietly takes it lying down.
“When you’re playing at home maybe you become lackadaisical and too comfortable.”
– Nick Robertson ahead of the game against Dallas on the Leafs puzzling 11-10-2 record at home
The Leafs beat Dallas at home to improve their home record to 12-10-2. Of every team currently in a playoff spot across the league, only the Philadelphia Flyers have a worse record at home.
The Leafs’ identity was once clear. They used two defensive lines in their bottom six to take shifts against the opponent’s top lines where possible, setting the table for their top players to match up, hunt, and score. The Leafs aren’t built that way this season; they wanted to run three scoring lines and an energy fourth line. What has it turned into, though?
The Islanders dictated play in Toronto, and after the Leafs’ stars played huge minutes coming off the All-Star weekend, Keefe said the Barzal unit was running over the other lines (which was true). What is the formula for winning at home, though? The top players play a ton against the other team’s best players and need to outscore them, with maybe the third line chipping in a goal here or there. It’s not a three-line attack, and they don’t have enough checkers right now, so it’s basically all on the shoulders of the top players.
“I’m struggling a bit right now. Trying to grind through it and hopefully find my groove again.”
– Timothy Liljegren on the state of his game at the moment
It would be unfair to discuss Timothy Liljegren’s play without noting that he is coming back from a high-ankle sprain. It’s a tricky injury to return from because it’s not a cut-and-dry healing process like a broken bone. Joseph Woll suffered a similar ankle injury on December 7th and he’s still not back.
We don’t know how much it is impacting Liljegren’s play — if at all — but the struggles with the puck on his stick are readily apparent regardless. Against the Islanders, after the Leafs tied the game, Liljegren instantly went out on the ice and botched a breakout, putting a breakout pass tape-to-tape to an Islander player. On the next shift, the Leafs again gave it away on a breakout (this time it was a Brodie-to-Rielly sequence), which turned into the game-losing goal.
Liljegren had a similar sequence against the Red Wings late in a tie game that resulted in a game-losing goal. He’s pointless in his last 10 games as well, and secondary offense is something the team expects him to contribute. His struggles are a real issue on a defense that’s not deep to begin with.
Tweets of the Week
Alright, one more update to this. Turns out the NHL site separates out misconducts/game misconducts, so I added them and minor penalties to the chart
Generally, the fewer penalties/misconducts you get, the less frequently suspended you are, with a couple of exceptions. pic.twitter.com/QT8238KjAt
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) February 11, 2024
We have riffled through examples in the past illustrating the double standard in the league. It’s pretty clear when you look at it overall; there isn’t a player who has played in the league over the past five seasons that would say the Toronto Maple Leafs have been the dirtiest team in the league. If anything, you would argue the exact opposite.
It’s funny how all the former players love it and all the writers want to send Reilly to prison. Shocker. https://t.co/14BZDbI0Qq
— Colby Cohen (@ColbyCohen36) February 11, 2024
This is fairly straightforward. Morgan Rielly was right to respond. Ideally, though, the response is simply dropping the gloves instead of the crosscheck in order to avoid the suspension (even if you think it rode up Greig’s shoulder, it makes him more vulnerable to this type of thing occurring). Even still, Rielly’s response is better than no response at all, and every single player is aware of this.
There will be plenty of nights where the Matthews and Tavares lines take over and win.
The previous game against the Stars was a great example.
However, there's just not much margin for error. If the top six gets held to just one goal, it feels like a sure loss.
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) February 11, 2024
Perhaps the problem is that the Leafs continually bank on two lines instead of spreading it out and trying to create three.
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. When Morgan Rielly is suspended, I think I would pair Timothy Liljegren with TJ Brodie. I have no idea if it will be any good, but the Simon Benoit – Jake McCabe pairing has been solid, and I’ve been wanting to see a struggling Brodie move back to the left side since last season. This will provide a few consecutive games for Brodie to settle into it, and we’ll also see what Liljegren does with added responsibility.
In November of last season, the Leafs battled through a collection of injuries and had no choice but to play Liljegren more. He rose to the occasion. They are in a similar jam now, and this is a golden opportunity for him. It’s time to see if he’ll sink or swim.
Plus, the Leafs will get the added benefit of seeing the pairing together in the hopes that it is viable should the Leafs acquire a partner for Rielly.
2. Similarly, I’d like to see Conor Timmins receive the full run of games while Rielly is out. Not only do they need his puck moving now more than ever, but he has shown fairly well in his last few outings but isn’t consistently getting into the lineup regardless of what he does (in fairness, he has been sick recently). He’s signed through next season, and while the coaching staff probably isn’t focused on that, they need to see what he can do. Similar to Liljegren, this is a real chance for him to make a real statement.
3. Depending on the suspension length, I think I would not hesitate to run 11 and 7.
William Lagesson was a liability against Ottawa, which is partly what happens when you sit a player for a month and a half even though he gave the team good minutes through November and didn’t do anything glaringly wrong to sit out so long. Keeping players in the mix on a blue line that needs help is important, but the Leafs also don’t have any real horses they can ride with Rielly out. It’s going to have to be done by committee, so they should divide and conquer where appropriate.
The second part of this is the forward group. It’ll probably never happen, but the lack of depth is glaring without Calle Jarnkrok and David Kampf, so they should spread out Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander across three lines.
Noah Gregor has three points (no goals) in his last 18 games since the Christmas break, but he’s on the third line. Pontus Holmberg can give the team something more, but he’s stuck on the fourth line because the Leafs don’t have any other centers. Holmberg should be in the top nine as a winger, and Matthews can take extra shifts centering a fourth line with Bobby McMann and Gregor among other rotations.
The Leafs have played three games with this forward group since the break; the one game they won featured three power-play goals, and their top four forwards scored all five goals.
4. On the power play sans Rielly, I think I’d like to see them at least try a five-forward look at some point with Tyler Bertuzzi in front of the net, John Tavares in the bumper, William Nylander, and Auston Matthews on the half-wall, and Mitch Marner up top.
On the breakout, Nylander should assume the Rielly role and carry it up ice except when teams sell out on the drop pass, at which point he should have the green light to rush it up himself.
Everyone would be placed in a logical spot to succeed, and if there is the added benefit of getting Bertuzzi rolling, it’s a significant boost for the team as a whole.
5. I think this is a time when the Leafs management group — most likely Brad Treliving, although Brendan Shanahan would also be welcome — to show some leadership and make a public appearance.
The team is plodding along, their top defenseman is about to be suspended, and the standings are slipping away to some degree. No team has the media platform the Leafs do, but they are quietly sitting by as clear disparities in suspensions occur.
Mason Marchment got away with a late, blindside headshot on McCabe. Rielly is going to get suspended for a good chunk of games even though there is no comparison to what David Perron did (Perron also crosschecked high, but he did it against an unsuspecting opponent and even got the wrong player). Rielly went straight at the player in question, and if Greig was surprised at that point, well, it was on him.
Shanahan has a real voice as the former head of DoPS, but he has not used it once. This is an opportunity for a rallying cry for a team that is underachieving. The trade deadline is under a month away. The standings are getting uncomfortable. The team needs a wake-up call.