The Maple Leafs are streaking.

Earlier today, I broke down some of the big-picture takeaways from their seven-game winning tear with a focus on ice-time allocation. Let’s now jump into some more observations about the Leafs‘ victories and individual performances of the past week.


Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Maple Leafs

–  In the Leafs‘ one win over the Panthers in the playoffs, Mitch Marner scored the game-winning goal on a five-on-five play where he pulled up high and sifted a wrister through traffic. He scored a similar goal to take the lead against the Avalanche on the weekend where he pulled up high, created a little space for himself with a tight turn, and then wristed a shot through traffic that found the back of the net. He’s developed confidence in that shot, and it has become a quietly effective play in his arsenal.

Marner is on a 10-game point streak right now and has a ridiculous 21 points in that time. He has been electric on this run and a real driver for this team during the winning streak.

–  One thing we discussed in the off-season — when the Leafs had cap space to add for the first time in years — is preserving some level of cap flexibility and carrying extra players instead of the roster minimum seemingly for the first time in years.

I have always believed that Sheldon Keefe has been at his best when he has options he can rotate in and out of the lineup. In the bubble season, for example, Keefe was doing a really good job of rotating in players such as Wayne Simmonds, Travis Boyd, Jimmy Vesey, and Adam Brooks, managing to squeeze out some real contributions along the way.

Of course, the Leafs went into this season capped out with a league-minimum roster, and in that scenario, it’s frustrating to watch the roster locked in place with no options available when players underperform. Due to injuries, the Leafs now have extra bodies at forward and defense, and we’re seeing the benefits of the flexibility at forward where Pontus Holmberg, Ryan Reaves, Nick Robertson, and Noah Gregor are rotating in and out while fighting to stand out and remain in the lineup. Even Matthew Knies was scratched for one game and came back with maybe his best performance of the season when he returned.

I would imagine it’s also easy to remind players that Calle Jarnkrok is returning soon as well, so there’s a fierce battle right now just to simply dress in the lineup.

–  While the Leafs have ascended of late, one player who has struggled a bit is Simon Benoit.

Against Arizona, the Leafs were up 3-0 until he fanned on a clearing attempt and the Coyotes immediately scored off the turnover. It was then his man in front who promptly deflected a puck in the net to make it 3-2.  Against Vegas, Michael Amadio snuck behind Benoit on a weird miscommunication between him, Jake McCabe, and Nick Robertson, leading to a goal just 26 seconds after the Leafs gave one up.  Against the Avalanche, Benoit started the game with a puck-over-glass penalty. He played just 16:31 in Colorado, his lowest since he played 15:17 against the Jets on January 24.

Benoit has been a great find — and I’d expect him to rebound — but it hasn’t been his best week.

–  It didn’t end up costing the Leafs in Colorado, but John Tavares has to either skate the puck in the corner and kill the clock with under 10 seconds left or try to shoot it in the net, which he made multiple chances to do before the puck hopped on him. The absolute last thing a player can do in that scenario is attempt to spin back. I still find the Leafs try to regroup and cut back a little too much overall rather than playing in straight lines.

–  It’s early days, but in nearly 70 minutes of five-on-five time together, Pontus Holmberg and David Kampf are up 3-0 in goals and ahead in every key statistical category, including Corsi (52.46 percent), Fenwick (55.7 percent), and Expected Goals (62.64 percent).

Against the Blues (in St. Louis), the pair wasn’t even on for a shot against at five-on-five. Playing tougher competition against the Avalanche, they strung together several good shifts, sustaining pressure for entire shifts, including for nearly a minute at one point in the third period while the Leafs held the lead. Ryan Reaves has played only 27 minutes alongside them — a tiny sample — but their possession numbers are even better when he’s on the right wing: 62.75 Corsi, 74.07 Fenwick, and 86.05 Expected Goals.

None of the three can really shoot or threaten from a distance, but they are all cycling, working the walls, and getting to the net.

–  A few weeks ago, Sheldon Keefe was pumping Tyler Bertuzzi’s tires as a big-game performer while noting his NHL playoff performances (10 points in seven games against the Panthers last season), his AHL contributions (19 points in 19 playoff games, winning the Calder Cup and playoff MVP), and even his junior days.

I found it interesting that he’d go all the way back, so I wanted to look it up. In 2013-14, Keefe was coaching Sault Ste. Marie with Darnell Nurse, Michael Bunting, Matt Murray, and Jared McCann on his team. They finished second in the league that season. First? Bertuzzi’s championship-winning Guelph Storm. Bertuzzi produced 10 goals in 18 games during their playoff run.

Bertuzzi has been stuck on bad Detroit teams for most of his career, but whenever he has made the playoffs in any league, he has been a high-end performer. In pro hockey alone, he has 28 goals in 49 career playoff games (0.57 GPG).

–  This was a really important stretch of play for Timothy Liljegren in Rielly’s absence. It was starting to trend toward “put up or shut up” time for him. Not that he was vocal about ice time or anything along those lines, but at some point, he needs to take hold of a top-four job or else he’s going to be made expendable, especially with his contract expiring this summer (he is an RFA).

Liljegren has seven points in seven games in this run and is averaging one second under 22 minutes per game in that time. Beyond the production, he has shown some real physicality and is using his strength more to drop his shoulder against forecheckers, turn up ice, and make plays. Liljegren has flashed potential when he has been given more responsibility in previous years, but he’s really starting to put it all together now.

Again, it’s important to note that Liljegren has only played 181 games in the league. He turns 25 at the end of April, but there is still room to grow when he’s played so little in the league overall.

–  I thought the game against Colorado was Ilya Samsonov’s best of the season. The Avs poured it on for long stretches of that game and win more at home than any other team in the league. When we add in some of the circumstances — the Avs scoring on an early power play and taking a 2-0 lead, Colorado coming out in the third period and tying the game right away, and the Leafs not putting a shot on net the first ~14 minutes of the final frame — he gave them every chance to win that game. 

–  When Joseph Woll got hurt, Samsonov was struggling, and Martin Jones came in and settled things down in the net, there was lots of talk about how lucky the Leafs were that Jones went unclaimed on waivers. That’s really looking like the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the team’s good fortune on the waiver wire.

Simon Benoit and Bobby McMann both were on waivers to start the season and went unclaimed. Both are roster mainstays at this point. And then there is Samsonov, who was placed on waivers as part of the plan the Leafs created to reset his game.

In December, I wrote I’d be wary of putting Samsonov on waivers for fear of a team like the Devils or Hurricanes — who both have cap space and a need in net — submitting a claim for a relatively low-risk pending UFA who has been good in the league before. I am still surprised neither did — especially the Devils who have all sorts of cap space right now — but it is a huge win for the Leafs.


John Tavares, Maple Leafs vs. Jets
Photo: USA Today Sports

“Our team has obviously been playing really well, so Keefer’s wanted to keep things rolling. (I’m playing with) two guys who have made great impacts for us all year and certainly have been playing really good hockey as of late. Bobby’s been on a roll, finding the net, and doing a lot of good things. It’s a great chance for me to go out there, impact the game, help make them better, and find chemistry with them, too.” 

–  John Tavares on moving down to the third line

John Tavares deserves credit for buying into a role that pushes him down the lineup at five-on-five and removes him from the top power-play unit. This might be the longest he has gone without being on a top power-play unit in his entire life, and it’s worth remembering he led the team in power-play goals and points last season.

The captain is simply going out there and doing his job. Whether it will work over the long term is a different story, but for the time being, he is creating a mismatch on the third line. Even against a top team like Colorado, he created some great opportunities, and the second power-play unit has some legitimacy with him on it. 

“Morgan left the lineup, and then there were injuries and illnesses that we were dealing with. The guys had no choice but to play better if we were going to have success. We had to be that much more committed and consistent within the team structure.

I have really felt that our team is growing a lot. That is a big part of it. This is the end of the long road trips for us for the regular season. I have felt — on this trip, in particular — that the group is really coming together closer than it has been at any point in the season.

That is maybe something that has been really understated: how many changes and different people were brought in combined with the number of players who are in their first year in the league. We had expected it would be a group that would get better as the year moves along.”

–  Sheldon Keefe on the Leafs finding a groove lately

The Morgan Rielly suspension is rightfully receiving a lot of attention for galvanizing the group, but whatever sickness knocked Mitch Marner and John Tavares out of the lineup — and William Nylander played through — really forced the coaching staff’s hand more than anything.

The admirable efforts the Leafs received on defense have been important, but Marshall Rifai is not suddenly going to be a regular on the team. At forward, players like Bobby McMann and Pontus Holmberg are emerging and sticking, as is Max Domi moving up the lineup and Tyler Bertuzzi playing on the top power-play unit. That flu bug just might have changed the complexion of the team moving forward.

“We do not care about those kinds of awards. It’s irrelevant. We’re worried about one thing and one thing only, so we’ll focus on that.”

– Max Domi when asked if Auston Matthews could be a Selke candidate

Well said.

Tweets of the Week

Matthew Knies, Mitch Marner & Auston Matthews celebrate Leafs goal
Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs are now the highest-scoring team in the league in goals per game. It’s not that long ago when the team would run into goalies like Ryan Miller and get shut down with regularity; when they simply lacked talent and goalies routinely stonewalled them. I don’t take this run or talent for granted (at least in the regular season).

This is the most underrated part of Auston Matthews’ and even Mitch Marner’s games: They are really good forecheckers.

Even if we look back to the beautiful goal Knies scored against the Blues, it was the forecheck by Matthews and Marner to get the puck back that set the table. Matthews, in particular, might have the best pickpocket move in the league. 

Amid everything going on with the NHL team, this is a really important development for the club. Ilya Samsonov has rebounded and Martin Jones is doing his job, but I think Joseph Woll is going to be a real part of the story this season. Woll has only played 26 games in the NHL, but he has a .919 save percentage in that time.

Five Things I Think I’d Do

Jake McCabe, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

1.   I think the Leafs are generally handling the defense the right way by keeping the TJ BrodieTimothy Liljegren pairing together as well as continuing to run the Simon BenoitJake McCabe pairing. It means Morgan Rielly essentially has to take one for the team and accept fewer minutes and a lesser partner than he’s used to in William Lagesson, but it’s clearly setting the table for an acquisition of some kind.

Before they make any additions, though, I would like to see Rielly-McCabe receive some shifts together if for no other reason than to see what it looks like. I’m not sold it will work and I’m not sure how Benoit holds up on a pairing with Lagesson or Mark Giordano when he returns, but it’s important to gather some data and look at different combinations. As we’re seeing with the forwards, sometimes things just need a chance.

2.    I think I’d run these forward lines until either Calle Jarnkrok returns or someone gives me a reason to insert Noah Gregor, who is waiting in the wings.

As we noted above, Ryan Reaves has acquitted himself quite well on the fourth line and has seemed to find some chemistry alongside Pontus Holmberg and David Kampf. They are consistently sustaining offensive-zone time, and Reaves is helping them keep it simple by getting pucks in deep, forechecking, and getting pucks and bodies to the net. His size is a welcome addition to what is a fairly small forward group overall.

Similarly, I think Keefe did a good job finding favourable matchups with the Tavares third line but also moving him up to play alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner at key moments against Colorado. I’d keep it rolling.

3.    I think using Tyler Bertuzzi in front of the net on the top power-play unit has looked as I thought it would, which is to say it’s been great.

This is something we have been calling for in this space for a long time. He’s really crafty around the crease as he bounces between screening the goalie and making himself an outlet. He is capable of all sorts of clever little plays in tight.

Even looking at Matthews’ 50th goal against Arizona, Bertuzzi subtly slid over to make himself an outlet for a pass — similar to the goal he scored against Anaheim — and Karel Vegelmka cheated on him just enough that Matthews exposed it.

Against the Blues, Matthews scored what was essentially the game-winner (the Blues scored late when the game was just about over) on the power play after Marner lost the puck behind the net, but Bertuzzi was quick to lift Nick Leddy’s stick so Marner could recover it and set up Matthews. On his first goal against the Avalanche, he simply slid to the backdoor for a tap-in.

Bertuzzi is a good passer from that spot, and he does a good job of screening the goalie as well as making himself a shooting option who attracts defensive/goalie attention. I like the fit, and I’d keep running with it.

4.   I think it’s easy to read too much into it when the Leafs were at the end of a long road trip, playing their fourth game in six nights, and were up against a top team in the league, but it really felt like they gave Colorado too much respect.

They often sent one passive forechecker deep and ceded the center ice line through the neutral zone. Their defensemen were playing behind the blue line and giving Colorado space to enter offensively. Twice, Mikko Rantanen flew in untouched. Once, Samsonov’s stick barely got a piece of his shot, and on the other, he split the defense and just missed scoring a highlight-reel goal.

The Leafs are better than this and are capable of matching up a lot better against top teams. I want to see the defense protect the blue line better, the first forward push up ice aggressively, and the following two forwards angle off starting at the center line.

It’s easier said than done against top teams, but it was striking to me how passive the Leafs were in Colorado. It allowed the Avalanche to dictate play for long stretches.

5.   At this point, I think it is very clear the top priority for the team should be a quality right-handed defenseman. This run should silence all of the silly talk about selling in any capacity — which I addressed a month ago — and the only real question for the Leafs at this point is whether they also feel the need to add another forward to the mix.

While Calle Jarnkrok is returning soon and they have several players emerging, it’s important to keep in mind that rookies and young players do not traditionally excel at playoff time, let alone forwards who are not exactly established contributors in the league. It might not be viewed as a glaring or needle-moving need at the moment given some of their depth play, but it’s still worthy of a discussion, depending on price.