It was a much-needed week of positive results for the Maple Leafs.

Playing three opponents that likely won’t make the playoffs this season, the Leafs took care of business by sweeping the three home games ahead of their four-game road trip.

It’s easy to dismiss a win over a terrible Anaheim team, but that’s the type of opponent the Leafs have been dropping points to all season (and last season, too, for that matter). On Saturday night, they came out and immediately took control of the game, leaving no doubt about the outcome.

Similarly, against the Blues, they handily controlled the game, and while at times the score tightened and flattered the Blues, the Leafs took care of business in the end.

The Flyers game was a bit dicey, to be sure, but credit where it’s due for at least battling through a wild week including a suspension, multiple players falling sick, a roster in flux, and blowing a lead late but still coming out with the two points.

Now, the Leafs are comfortably 11th in points percentage with room to get healthy and improve. Some depth players are hinting at a capacity for more production, and Timothy Liljegren isn’t looking out of place in bigger minutes, either.

Let’s get right into the notes to discuss a few takeaways from a busy and productive week for the blue and white.


Jake McCabe, Maple Leafs vs. Sharks
Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

–  Early in January, Jake McCabe scored on a backside one-timer playing on his offside. Against Anaheim, he scored his second goal of the season from this spot, although this was a little different as it was off of a faceoff play with some time to grip and rip it. We’ve seen McCabe shoot from that spot a few times and narrowly miss, hit the post, or get robbed by the goalie, but it’s clear he has some comfort level ripping shots from his offside in the offensive zone.

A shot from that area is not always comfortable for players – for example, look at TJ Brodie, who is often hesitant to shoot while playing the right side. For McCabe, though, it’s becoming a sneaky spot for him to create offense.

McCabe is up to 19 points on the season and his five goals are already a career high. His career high in points is 22, so he’s close to surpassing that mark and has plenty of time to do it. He’s not an offensive force by any means, but he is a contributor. In raw totals, his 17 even-strength points are tied for 51st among defensemen so far this season.

–  Tyler Bertuzzi received a lot of attention for taking a careless offensive-zone penalty right after the Flyers made it a one-goal game. It proved costly when the Flyers tied the game on the subsequent power play, and he deserved to be benched for the penalty. It’s a bad one to take. There’s no exonerating it.

What didn’t get as much attention was the penalty by Noah Gregor some five minutes earlier that set the stage for the comeback in the first place. The Flyers had nothing going in the first half of the third period; if anything, the Leafs created a collection of chances to make it a 4-1 game. But then Gregor took a retaliatory penalty behind the play in the offensive zone, and the Flyers generated a bunch of chances and scored promptly after the penalty expired.

Needless to say, a fourth-liner who is struggling to produce much of anything offensively or earn trust as a shutdown guy defensively can’t be taking penalties late in games when the team is comfortably protecting a lead. It’s a really bad play.

–  TJ Brodie has been on the ice for 23 goals against on the penalty kill through 51 games this season, which is the most he’s been on the ice for in any season since he arrived in Toronto. Last season, he was on the ice for 19 in 58 games after just 18 in 82 the season before.

Part of it is an expanded role and part of it is moving over to the right side. He’s already played over 140 minutes shorthanded compared to just under 170 last season and 186 the season before. His most common partner on defense on the penalty kill over those prior two seasons was Justin Holl, who would primarily play the right side and was effective at closing on the one-timer spot where most teams employ their top shooters.

Look at Brodie’s corsi against per 60 over the past two seasons: 74.89 and 93.61. This season? 117.73.

I’m highlighting Brodie here because he leads the Leafs in shorthanded time on ice per game, but the truth is none of their top three options on defense — Brodie, Giordano, McCabe — can competently play the right side on the penalty kill. It’s more difficult to clear pucks on the right side — the player is often on their backhand — and it’s a different angle when blocking the shot while defending the down-low give-and-go play.

–  Even beyond the difficulties facing left-handed shots playing the right, the Leafs’ entire penalty kill is constantly uncoordinated in how it applies pressure. Even against the lowly Ducks, their entire first penalty kill was totally chaotic before the Ducks eventually scored.

On a simple structure where the Ducks possessed the puck below the goal line, TJ Brodie was on a knee defending passes while David Kampf and Mitch Marner were both low — Kampf, in particular, was defending the player Brodie was defending a pass to already — and Jake McCabe was standing in front of the net all alone.

Frank Vatrano is in the most dangerous scoring position of any Duck on the ice, but he was wide open for ages until the puck eventually made it to him.

–  Against the Flyers, the Leafs went to a penalty kill late in the game and did the exact opposite. They didn’t pressure at all. Owen Tippett had so much time and space to do whatever he wanted, and his primary passing outlet (by the net) was wide open the whole time. This is so easy.

The Leafs’ PK currently ranks 23rd, the lowest of any team in a playoff position.

–  Against the Blues, the undermanned Leafs started the newly-formed Max Domi line with Tyler Bertuzzi and Nick Robertson, who put together a great shift. Domi led the forecheck, threw a hit, and sustained offensive-zone time, really setting the tone for the night.

Domi rarely starts games or even touches the ice within the first two shifts of the game. It’s not lost on me that Domi’s two best games of the season came against Pittsburgh with Matthews out and the Blues game where he played a season-high in ice time with Tavares out.

We’re not going to count the Ducks game either way — it was nearly over at puck drop — but Domi’s fingerprints were again all over the game. Against the Flyers, he moved up with Matthews and Marner for a few shifts here and there and the Leafs scored on one of them.

–  We’ve talked a lot about the Leafs’ young players at the forward position and how the growth in their games is a big development not just this season but for years to come — in particular, Matthew Knies, Nick Robertson, and Pontus Holmberg. We’re starting to see more good than bad as the season progresses, but we will still see the young player moments as well. That’s what happened with Knies against the Flyers.

The Leafs held a 3-1 lead in the third period at home with the game under control. The puck went up Knies’ wall, where the Flyers were always going to pinch at that point in the game. Knies’ eyes lit up at the chance to poke it by with speed and break down the ice on a 2v1 or a 3v1, but that’s not what matters at that point. He needed to prioritize getting the puck out, which meant two hands on the stick, staying in his lane, and if the defenseman got in his way, he needed to run through his chest.

Knies got stuffed on the play, and the Flyers scored immediately after. Knies is 21 years old and 50 games into his first NHL season. Hopefully, it’s a good learning experience.


TJ Brodie, Maple Leafs
Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

“I liked the pair. Brodie, in particular, fared very well on the left side. His touches on the breakout were much cleaner and he seemed to have a lot more confidence on that side.”

–  Sheldon Keefe on what he liked about the Brodie – Liljegren pairing after playing St. Louis

For the record, in Sheldon Keefe’s full answer, he discussed Liljegren, too, but I wanted to highlight the TJ Brodie part here.

At the end of the day, playing on the strong side is always easier — no matter who you are — as a defenseman in the NHL. It’s easier to keep pucks in the offensive zone. It’s easier to break out and transition (there is less turning). It’s easier to shoot from the point.

Brodie picked up a point by taking a shot through traffic that McMann pounced on and buried afterward. That’s the exact type of shot Brodie has been passing up all season on the right side (as we have mentioned regularly in this space). This is not to suggest it’s completely night and day for Brodie on the right versus the left — some of the issues will still persist as he’s aging — but he is going to find it easier on the left. For a Leafs defense unit that’s not particularly strong to begin with, any gain helps. 

“It was great. [Bertuzzi is] a big part of this team and a big part of our locker room. Seeing him get that one feels good for everybody, but I’m sure it feels really good for him. He’s had more than enough opportunities. Sometimes you just get a little snakebitten, but that one goes in and now you just don’t look back.”

– Matthews on Bertuzzi scoring for the first time in 20 games

Tyler Bertuzzi and his line were excellent against the Blues and did everything but score. It felt a little bit like a “the night is darkest before dawn” moment.

On the season, Bertuzzi is shooting just seven percent even though he has a career 13 percent shooting percentage. Last season, he shot 7.5%. In that season, Bertuzzi missed the first month and a half with a broken hand and another six weeks due to surgery on the other hand. In a few clips where his glove has come off, some kind of wrist protector has been visible on his hand.

Bertuzzi’s shot has little zip and he really lacks confidence when firing the puck. The good news is that he’s still creating a ton, and even without scoring, he has helped round out the second line with his forechecking abilities. If his confidence is ever able to return as an offensive threat, what a welcome boost it would be.

“Everybody has another level. We know we’re fighting for that playoff spot and we just have to make sure we fight every night. That’s it. There’s not much to talk about. Everybody can play in that league in that lineup”

–  Simon Benoit on playing without Morgan Rielly due to suspension

So far, the Leafs are three for three.

Tweets of the Week

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

The Leafs have shown some clear signs of trending in the right direction territorially and defensively. They are now fourth in goals per game and 18th in goals against per game. Their goal differential is currently 10th in the league.

Even with all of the talk about a lack of scoring depth, they are still clearly an elite offensive team with one of the best power plays in the league. I’m not sure they can improve their defensive numbers much further at this rate unless they make an addition to the blue-line unit, though.

The best ability is availability, and for Conor Timmins, it’s really been the story of his pro career to this point.

He is big, mobile, right-handed, and has a bomb of a shot. Every team in the league values players with his toolbox, but there is always something keeping him out of the lineup. In this case, it’s not even a playing injury.

Between the Morgan Rielly suspension and now the absence of Mark Giordano, this would have been a golden opportunity for Timmins to string some games together and make a case for consistent playing time, but he’s once again missing the boat.

I’ve been flagging these stats all season because, at some point, we just have to enjoy the show. It is truly an unbelievable and historic season in the making. Soak it in.

Five Things I Think I’d Do

Noah Gregor, Maple Leafs
Photo: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

1.  At this point, I think it’s pretty clear that Bobby McMann should be ahead of Noah Gregor on the depth chart. It’s been noted that he was going to be a healthy scratch before the game against the Blues where he scored a hat trick — meaning, Gregor was going to be playing over him. McMann is definitely better offensively, and it’s not like Gregor is some sort of defensive or penalty-killing stud who needs to be locked into the lineup.

2.   One thing I think we’re starting to see is that Bobby McMann should play with more offensively-inclined linemates. His most common linemates to date are David Kampf and Noah Gregor; he has been solid in that spot because he can carry the puck down the ice for them, but he has some untapped potential, and it’s not going to be realized with those linemates.

McMann has a nice power move to the net; he scored against the Blues with it, also created a similar chance against the Flyers, and made a power move against Anaheim’s Radko Gudas, leading to a delayed penalty call where he scored on the 6-on-5. He also ripped home a goal from the high slot against the Ducks.

I’d like to see McMann get some run on the third line with Max Domi and Nick Robertson to see if he can continue producing. He brings some much-needed size to the line, and he’s both fast enough to keep up with them and skilled enough to move the puck with them.

3.   I think I don’t mind Pontus Holmberg at center, but I definitely prefer him on the wing at this point. He’s more effective there as he’s actually quite crafty along the walls and he’s strong on his stick in his battles on the breakout.

At center, I think he struggles to transport the puck up ice and fill the right lanes on neutral-zone breakouts (although it didn’t help that the line was playing with defensemen who are not NHL calibre, too).

He has flashed potential as a capable, dependable checker, so when the lineup is healthy, I’d like to see him receive some run with David Kampf on a true checking line. I thought they were really good together against Seattle in January, and when Calle Jarnkrok eventually returns, he would round out the line.

4.    While it’s difficult to evaluate against a terrible Ducks team, I think Tyler Bertuzzi was effective on the power play and provided a bit of a different wrinkle that’s worth exploring. Bertuzzi is an effective passer from the net-front spot and owns a good spin move.

To play the net front effectively and complement the top unit, a player really needs to do three things well: pass, screen the goalie, and get to rebounds. We talked about moving John Tavares to the high slot last week and how it opened things up for him as he scored on high tips and ripped a shot home in that bumper spot.

It frees up Tavares to do what he does best, and they don’t miss a beat with Bertuzzi in front. Plus, it hopefully gets Bertuzzi’s offensive game going. The goal against Anaheim clearly went to his legs.

5.  I think the Leafs really need to start experimenting with different penalty-killing combinations. The David KampfMitch Marner tandem continues to be trotted out first when healthy, but the reality is that it hasn’t been effective.

William Nylander has been effective there, so I’d give it a try. They also had some success running a Jarnkrok – Marner tandem. Bobby McMann played some shorthanded shifts this week and did not look out of place. The options aren’t great, but it’s tough to justify rolling out the same units over and over.