The Maple Leafs have won nine of their last 10 games with the opportunity to make up more ground in the divisional race with two battles against Boston this week.

We’re also reaching crunch time ahead of the 2024 trade deadline this Friday at 3 p.m. EST. Needless to say, there is a ton to talk about this week.

Last night, I discussed the signs of an evolution within Sheldon Keefe’s coaching approach compared to past seasons and the first half of 2023-24. Let’s jump into some other observations after a 2-1-0 week for the Maple Leafs.


Auston Matthews & William Nylander
Photo: Dan Hamilton/USA Today Sports

–  Right after William Nylander signed his contract, he went cold and his production started to normalize to some degree, but he now has 18 points in his past 10 games and is sixth in league scoring. He has played fewer games than all but one (Connor McDavid) ahead of him. At five-on-five play, Nylander has developed a really nice seeing-eye wrister from the blue line (similar to Marner). He can it get through traffic and to the net to cause havoc.

–  Since February 1, the Leafs‘ PK has killed off 80.7 percent of their penalties. It’s not a gaudy number by any stretch, but it sits tied for 11th in that timeframe, which is a big jump from their current 21st overall ranking. In a big win against the Rangers, the PK went three for three against the sixth-ranked unit in the league, by and large holding them at bay.

Nylander and Pontus Holmberg have grabbed regular penalty-killing spots. Both averaged over a minute per game in that time and were regular second-unit killers while other previous regulars Noah Gregor and William Lagesson have been bumped out of the lineup altogether (there is some level of addition by subtraction there). Now Calle Jarnkrok has returned and is another welcome addition/part of the solution, and Ilya Lyubushkin gives them a proper right-handed shot blocker to take some minutes as well (we will see how it goes, but as a general rule, I’d rather a righty on the proper side than a lefty on the wrong side).

They are starting to coordinate pressure better on the half-wall to get the puck out of the opposition’s best players’ hands while covering cross-ice passes more effectively through the slot. If/when they clear the puck, they are strong through the neutral zone because of their speed and how their defense pushes up at the blue to prevent clean entries.

It is small progress, but for a unit that has been an Achilles heel for the team this season, it is a step in the right direction.

–  To activate Jarnkrok, the Leafs needed to clear just under $700K in salary. The decision of least resistance was sending down Nick Robertson, who didn’t require waivers. He has five points in his last 10 games, and while the coaching staff made it clear to him that it’s not due to his play, they also didn’t do him any favours playing him on his right wing. He wasn’t particularly dangerous attacking off the rush on his off-wing, where it’s more difficult to break out cleanly; he has to turn back to get the puck off the wall and make a strong play.

It’s also easy to forget just how young Robertson is sometimes. The Jets just made Cole Perfetti a healthy scratch over the weekend, and he was born January 1, 2002; Robertson was born September 11, 2001, so they’re barely 3.5 months apart. We’ve seen this before from Robertson, and he’s generally returned with an extra hop in his step and been productive once back in the lineup. 

–  The Leafs are tied with six other teams in shorthanded goals against with eight. Only the Montreal Canadiens have given up more (11). Alex Kerfoot (of course) scored shorthanded this past week on a poor read by Mitch Marner on the wall followed by Morgan Rielly getting caught/playing it poorly. In the next game against the Rangers, the best scoring chance in their 0/3 night with the man advantage was an Adam Fox shot on a 4v2 counterattack rush. The Leafs‘ power play is generally excellent — they have the second-highest percentage in the league — but they are also careless a little too often. 

–  With a full lineup at forward and the Leafs nursing a lead against the Rangers, the lines shifted to three units to close: Tyler BertuzziAuston MatthewsMitch Marner, Bobby McMannJohn TavaresCalle Jarnkrok, Pontus HolmbergDavid KampfWilliam Nylander. Keefe has moved up Bertuzzi to the top line a few times (such as when Bertuzzi skied it over an empty net against the Blues) to close games alongside Matthews and Marner, and while he apparently can’t score on an open net, it makes sense.

Only Matthews (who is regularly among the league leaders) and Marner (who is a top-line penalty killer) have blocked more shots than Bertuzzi among Leafs forwards this season. He’s good at getting in shooting lanes and is not afraid to lay out for a big block. He’s also effective at winning battles along the wall to chip pucks out and has a good high-flip dump out where he doesn’t ice it.


Max Domi, Calle Jarnkrok, Nick Robertson, Maple Leafs
Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

“He wants to win just as much as any guy in this room does. He’s been driving the ship of this group for the last few years. He’s done a great job. And he’s got our back, and we got his back. As a group, we love seeing him get fired up like that. It brings emotion. Obviously, the game started out great and then didn’t finish the way we liked it. But Keefer was upset with what was going on, and he had every right to be. So we have his back just like he does for us. And I loved it.”

–  Max Domi on Sheldon Keefe getting ejected against Vegas

It’s difficult to quantify this, but I think these types of moments can impact the group and the players recognize them. 

“When I’m not in regularly, I feel like I’m not really myself. You know, it’s hard to be the locker room guy, the loud guy talking in the dressing room. But it’s been a little easier for me lately. And staying in the lineup has helped my confidence for sure. 

Even little things. Like in practice, just trying things I know I’m probably not going to do in games. But I think before I just tried not to make a mistake, I was too tight and just feeling tight everywhere. I feel a little looser, having a little more fun, and my game has come along. I feel like my game is in a good spot — playing physical, playing responsible in the D-zone. Our line’s been getting chances, and it’s been really good in the offensive zone the last couple of games especially. I’m in a good headspace right now and hope to carry that on.”

– Ryan Reaves, coming off of a February in which he played 10 games, his most in a month as a Leaf

We’ve talked about this regularly over the years: If you are going to invest in the general concept of toughness, you need to play the player consistently enough to get buy-in, or else it’s an exercise in futility. In the past, Wayne Simmonds mentioned the feeling of not being in the lineup regularly, not receiving opportunities, and it not going the way he wanted it to in Toronto.

Now, players always want to play and it’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg situation (did you not get the opportunities, or did you not earn the opportunities?), but receiving an extended look as a regular and running with it includes a role for both sides — reliable play from the player and a commitment to helping it succeed from the coaching staff. Both seem to be happening right now, and Reaves is responding well.

“It is easy to say, “Klingberg’s money went away,” but you also look at it when John Klingberg went on LTI and we were running a thinner roster. You want to help your team without taking your team apart. When you do the math and say you have Klingberg’s space on LTI, it was a different roster when John was playing. We have more players up here.

We are going to try to be as creative as possible. That is today’s NHL. When you look at these deals, part of the attraction with Ilya is him coming in [below $700k] so it allows you some flexibility. We are going to try to be creative and see where we can help ourselves.”

– Brad Treliving on making additional moves before the deadline

Brad Treliving said all the things you thought he might — still looking to improve the team while not specifying whether it would be at the forward or defense position — but this answer, in particular, caught my eye.

Simon Benoit, Bobby McMann, and Pontus Holmberg are locking themselves into roster spots, and while you can argue for upgrading, adding veteran experience, and importing more depth, there’s also something to be said about not rocking the boat and taking jobs away from players who have earned it. It’s a fine line, and Treliving’s comments about “it was a different roster” and “we have more players up here” seem to speak to that.

Tweets of the Week

Ilya Lyubushkin, Maple Leaf again
Photo: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Treliving referenced Ilya Lyubushkin’s ability to defend the blue line as well. How much Lyubushkin, in particular, can move the needle overall is fair to question, but it is interesting that the Leafs didn’t only target the big, physical, and right-handed attributes but also the ability to defend entries and stop possessions along the wall.

Earlier in the year, we talked about Treliving simply owning it and moving on from Ryan Reaves. If he continues to play as he has since the All-Star break, though, there is absolutely a place for him on this team in the starting 12.

The Holmberg – Kampf – Reaves line is now at 50 minutes together at 5v5 while more than holding serve with a 55.1 percent share of the shot attempts and a 71.16 percent share of expected goals. They are up 3-1 in goals while taking more faceoffs in the defensive zone than anywhere else on the ice. Reaves, of course, isn’t the driving force of the line, but he’s fit in as a player who helps forecheck, works the walls, and isn’t a liability.

The real driver of that line is Holmberg, who is really coming into his own. He’s listed at just 6’0, 188 pounds, but he’s strong and a bit of a fire hydrant. His skating has found another level and he’s shown the ability to really pull away from defenders, whether it’s to create the 2v1 goal against Vegas or to keep up with Nylander for a 2v0 down the ice leading to a shorthanded goal against the Blues. Add in his ability to carry the puck, and he’s a really useful player. He just needs to work on his shot.

I think we’ve seen tons of evidence over the years that Auston Matthews, in particular, loves this type of activity from a teammate. How much it all matters when it comes down to wins and losses is fair to question, but the 82-game season is a grind. It’s nice to receive emotional uplift at times.

Five Things I Think I’d Do

Calle Jarnkrok, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Marc DesRosiers/USA TODAY Sports

1.   I think the game against the Rangers was a bit of a microcosm of what the spread-out three-line attack can do. All three lines scored, the John Tavares unit was much more well-rounded with Calle Jarnkrok on it, and the Tyler Bertuzzi Max DomiWilliam Nylander was a Jekyll and Hyde.

As Alec noted in the Game in 10, the trio has been out-chanced 58-40 along with a 36.3% xGF. They can score and are up 7-6 in their minutes overall, but this isn’t sustainable against real teams at playoff time. I think everyone can see it.

So far, it seems like the coaching staff is pushing them to clean it up defensively on their own; Keefe noted how he discussed defensive responsibility with the line on the Friday ahead of the Rangers game. These are talented players and defense is often a matter of simple commitment. They are often exposed when they cheat for offense, not because they lack overall ability.

If the issues persist, I’d try swapping out William Nylander and Mitch Marner to see if it balances it out better even though Matthews and Marner have been lighting it up together for a month or so now.

2.    I think I would really like to see a run of play from the Bobby McMannJohn TavaresCalle Jarnkrok trio. They are three honest players who don’t cheat the game. All three of them work the walls well and possess some finishing ability. It’s a nice mix of forecheckers, and they were excellent in their first game together against the Rangers. We’ll see how often they can produce, but it’s a unit I would trust to take good shifts against other team’s top six lines with regularity.

3.   I think it was the right move to send Nick Robertson down for the time being. I understand the argument about whether Noah Gregor would even receive a claim on waivers (and whether it’s a good thing in general) but for now, we know he can at least come in and take a shift. I wouldn’t disregard a player who has been with the group all season and lose him for free for no reason. There’s less than a week until the trade deadline; keep the cards close to your vest until then, see what’s available, see what it costs, and go from there once all the cards are on the table.

4.  I think I would still be targeting a quality, right-handed defenseman. At this point, if you’re going to swing on that type of player, it has to be a player with term. They can’t keep bleeding assets for short-term rentals. It has to be a player the team can use for not just this year but next year as well (at a minimum), joining the nucleus that includes Morgan Rielly and Jake McCabe already under contract as well as RFAs Simon Benoit and Timothy Liljegren. Locking in a player of quality for at least the rest of this season plus next season (and hopefully longer) helps them build a proper, sustainable defense.

5.  I think I would start Ilya Samsonov again against Boston on Monday. He was excellent against the Rangers, and it was a good start and response to Joseph Woll‘s return. I am very curious to see how he handles sharing the net again; it didn’t go too well the first time, and he really emerged last year when Matt Murray went down. Samsonov has been solid since the all-star break and deserves the next one after the performance against the Rangers. From that point forward, it’s a rolling evaluation of the situation from game to game and week to week.