The Maple Leafs are on their first seven-game winning streak in 20 years.

It is almost hard to believe it’s been so long, but stringing together wins in the NHL is hard. It takes a combination of strong play, some lucky bounces, and catching some opponents at the right time.

I’ve always believed that a team is never as good as it looks on a winning streak and never as bad as it appears on a losing slump. We accentuate the negatives in a bad spell of games and gloss over the issues during a good stretch of play. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between.

But good things are happening right now for the Maple Leafs, and it’s important to take away the right lessons from them.

The first takeaway is not to overthink this too much. The star players are driving the bus.

Mitch Marner has a ridiculous 15 points in his last six games and is on a 10-game point streak. Auston Matthews has 10 goals and 14 points in his last seven. William Nylander has 13 in seven games. Their stars have been stars, and it’s the primary reason for the streak.

That’s not to suggest the Leafs haven’t received other contributions. Bobby McMann and Tyler Bertuzzi each scored hat tricks during this run. Nick Robertson and Matthew Knies have both chipped in four points in their last seven games. Max Domi has five points in the last seven, and John Tavares has three in five.

How much of this production is sustainable is fair to debate, but in the meantime, we’ve seen a shift in the ice-time allocation. It’s partly due to the nature of some of the wins; the victories against Anaheim, Arizona, and Vegas, in particular, were all but sealed by the time the third period started. But it’s also because the supporting cast has played well enough to force the coaching staff to play them more.

Some of it goes hand in hand, which brings us to the second point: Perhaps the ice-time allocation is finally getting a needed rethink.

Under Sheldon Keefe, the Leafs have historically played the tar out of their top players. One of the common themes we have discussed this season — and in the playoffs for about four years running — is that the elevated workloads have often seemed to catch up to their top players. They have typically looked gassed at critical times late in games, and Mitch Marner, in particular, looked like he was pacing himself.

So far, February has not only been Marner’s best month of the season in terms of production and overall play, but it’s also his lowest in time on ice per game at 20:51 (the only month this season when he is averaging less than at least 21:08). Over the seven-game winning streak, in particular, he is averaging 20:12. He has looked fresher as a result, and when he and Auston Matthews are hopping the boards, it is as dominant as it has been all season in the run of play (8-1 at five-on-five, 67% xGF). All of their top players are playing less than their season averages.

PlayerTOI/gm during win streakTOI/gm before win streak
Mitch Marner20:1221:26
Auston Matthews19:0821:19
William Nylander18:5320:11
John Tavares16:5518:19

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Leafs — and these individual players — have played some of their best hockey as this group has played less while displaying more energy in their minutes. Even in a tough battle against a top team such as Colorado, Marner played his more typical 21:19, but Matthews was still barely over 20 minutes (20:16), Nylander was in a good middle ground at 19:29, and Tavares was a little too low due to a lack of top power-play time (15:48). 

When the game was in the balance at the end, the Leafs still had some gas in the tank to make a real push. Tavares moved up to the top line in the offensive zone on the shift when Mikko Rantanen took his delay-of-game penalty. When the top power-play unit went out afterward, they were crisp and took the lead. After the goal, Sheldon Keefe went right back to the Nylander line — which produced a good shift — and then the Matthews line almost put the game to bed but hit the crossbar. 

I’m not flatly suggesting the top players play better if they play less, but there appears to be a sweet spot in which the stars receive the minutes needed to thrive without overloading them. At the same time, it frees up some extra minutes for the rest of the forward group to become more invested in the game, giving them a real opportunity to contribute. 

During this run, the Leafs’ regular forwards are currently averaging between a high of Marner’s 20:12 and a low of Ryan Reaves’s 10:41. The next forward above Reaves is Nick Robertson at 12:15. Before this seven-game run, five regular or semi-regular forwards were averaging less than Robertson’s 12:15 mark during this streak: Robertson himself, Reaves, Noah Gregor, Pontus Holmberg, and Bobby McMann.

All of those players are showing they can handle more responsibility, and in the next tier, Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi look revitalized by added minutes, better linemates, and more responsibility. Tavares has done a really good job of driving offense from the third line in softer matchups so far. Eventually, another solid forward who will earn quality minutes in Calle Jarnkrok will return and add more depth to the group as well. 

Depth has to be a strength of the team. The Leafs are now the highest-scoring team per game in the NHL. Their stars are the key drivers of it — and were yet again in this recent streak — but they needed the secondary-scoring contributions to help push them over the top. 

In last spring’s playoffs, Mitch Marner averaged the highest time on ice per game of any forward in the league, while Matthews was sixth. In 2022, Marner was second and Matthews was fifth. In 2021, Marner was fourth and Matthews was sixth. The team has manufactured zero playoff runs of note in this time despite icing some really strong lineups overall. At some point, the organization has to be honest about it. Maybe it’s not the best approach. 

There are some additional lessons to be learned on defense, too — namely, TJ Brodie should play on the left side the rest of the season, and it’s time to trust Timothy Liljegren with a full-time top-four role the rest of the way (instead of limited minutes before regular healthy scratches at playoff time). But the forward group, in particular, has so many moving parts to piece together, and it will continue to evolve as players continue to sink or swim. 

There’s a formula and lesson to be gleaned from spreading out the minutes a little more, preserving the top players a little more while getting the best out of them, and empowering contributors up and down the lineup. It’s easy to ride it out when everything is coming up Milhouse as it is for the Leafs at the moment. We’ll see what happens when the current heater cools off.

Programming Note: The rest of my notebook — Notes, Quotes, Tweets of the Week, and 5 Things I Think I’d Do — will follow later today.