Bobby McMann, Maple Leafs bench
Photo: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The trade deadline is over, the clock sprung forward, the weather is improving, and we are officially in the stretch drive of the season ahead of the playoffs. In other words, it is a great time of year. 

We already covered Brad Treliving’s trade deadline at length, including a deadline notebook on the weekend if you missed it, so let’s get right into the extended notes after a busy week.


Bobby McMann, Maple Leafs
Photo: USA Today Sports

–  Bobby McMann became the eighth Leaf to hit double-digit goals this season. The next closest Leafs to the mark are Max Domi and Nick Robertson, who have scored eight goals each. They just added Dewar who has 10 goals as well, so it’s technically at nine, to some degree. Last season, nine Leafs hit double digits, but it’s a bit more convoluted as they traded one away, Pierre Engvall, and added three who hit double digits in ROR, Acciari, and Lafferty.

Their top guys carry the mail — they probably won’t even have a 20-goal scorer outside of the top four, which is on some level problematic — but there is a second level of scoring developing. Against the Habs on Saturday, Mitch Marner wasn’t in the lineup, Auston Matthews and William Nylander didn’t do much of anything, and their secondary players picked up the slack. 

–  It didn’t receive much recognition, but Bobby McMann made a big play to stick lift a Hab on the wall in the dying seconds of the third period to ensure the puck went out over the blue line to ice the game. It doesn’t get the attention that the empty netter against the Blues received, but it was a big-time play, and he’s starting to show that he can be trusted at the end of games when the Leafs are protecting a lead. He’s strong, and he’s fast enough to get to the right spots. 

–  In this space, we’ve talked about the team needing to show a sense of occasion in big games in preparation for the playoffs, where they have often come out flat. Last week was their biggest week of the season; they played a reeling Bruins team twice with a real chance to end the week in second place and control their fate in pursuit of home-ice advantage in the first round. The team came up empty, losing both games in regulation.

It was a bit of a weird week in terms of the team battling some sort of flu bug going through the room (they did look like they had no energy most of the week and weren’t sharp, even against the Sabres), the trade deadline, and a really busy schedule. In particular, the second Bruins game was their third game in four nights and the second half of a back-to-back played as a tired team that traveled versus a rested team at home (truthfully, it’s a schedule loss). But they shouldn’t be let off the hook completely, either.

There’s no excuse for how poor they were in the first game against the Bruins, a home game against a team that had already beaten them twice. They then played a Sabres team that crushed them 9-3 in the previous meeting, and while they won in overtime, it was hardly a convincing effort or anything remotely resembling a payback. 

–  What always stands out in the tighter-checking games is the Leafs‘ need to simplify. There was no reason for them to be over-aggressive halfway through the game on Monday against the Bruins even though they were down 2-0. They have one of the most explosive attacks in the league, but Matthews overcommitted and gave up a free 3v2 down the ice. Good teams make you pay in those situations (they gave them up against Buffalo, too, especially in the overtime, but the Sabres aren’t good enough to make you pay consistently as the top teams do).

In the next game against Boston, Marner didn’t immediately shoot it on an empty net and Nylander over-handled at the blue line leading to a breakaway goal against. Those are their three best players. You can’t beat the best teams in the league despite your best players the way they later beat the Habs despite them. 

–  On the game-winning goal against the Habs, Jake McCabe also established a new career high with 23 points. Of that 23, 20 have come at even strength. In terms of raw totals, it ties him with four other players for 45th among all defensemen.

The Leafs desperately needed some offense to emerge from their defense this season, and Jake McCabe is becoming a real source for it. He has missed time — so has Timothy Liljegren — but rather quietly, both are playing to 30+ point paces to go along with Morgan Rielly’s usual offensive production (he’s playing at a 64-point pace over 82 games). With all three currently spread out across three pairings, it gives them at least some level of production on each pairing. 

–  Against the Habs, Calle Jarnkrok took a late penalty after getting beat badly by Mike Matheson on the point. The Habs created a few chances from the point throughout the game. In the game before in Boston, Brandon Carlo scored from the point on a shot Joseph Woll should have saved. He also had tons of time and space to get the shot off with a screen in front. The Rangers scored two goals on plays originating from the point. Against the Avalanche a few weeks ago, Mikko Rantanen stood still at the point for nearly three seconds before finding a lane he liked and firing home a goal.

It’s a concern at this rate: The Leafs have been really poor at covering the point. They aren’t closing lanes well, and they aren’t applying pressure at all in many cases, giving defensemen the time and space to make plays. The skilled ones will make plays as Matheson did repeatedly for the Habs.

–  When the Leafs signed Noah Gregor, we noted that he isn’t here to be a scorer and would need to carve out a role for himself as a checker and penalty killer. Ultimately, it never materialized. He never showed signs of being a high-end checker, and he doesn’t produce enough to justify moving up the lineup.

With the Connor Dewar addition, we can see that he is essentially providing what they originally signed Gregor to provide. He was on the ice in the final minute protecting the lead against the Habs (and his line also generated a fantastic shift a few minutes before that where they hemmed the Habs in their end for roughly a minute), and he’s going to be a staple on a penalty kill. 

–  To that end, a large part of the trade deadline was about backfilling holes after offseason gambles didn’t work out — Gregor not sticking as a fourth-line checker and penalty killer, and John Klingberg not panning out as the right-handed defenseman the Leafs sorely needed.

This was essentially the extent of their deadline moves. They can’t hit on everything in the offseason, but when they max out the salary cap in the summer and are taking another swing at multiple positions they already targeted and failed to address the first time, it is a tough look.


Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Maple Leafs #37
Photo: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

“As I talked about this morning, I think this is a key time for Lily. If you go back to the last two years at the trade deadline, each time, we have added and it has essentially pushed him out of the lineup, which I thought affected his growth and his confidence.

At the time, I felt we did it out of necessity. We needed to get deeper there, but I think Lily has taken a step through this season and has played really well at times. At times, he has taken a step back.

I think part of that is probably the trade deadline hanging over his head a little bit. We are through that now. We have a veteran player such as Edmundson coming in. That is why it was important for Lily to play tonight. When Tre built the team out, these were the six guys and how it was built.”

–  Sheldon Keefe on keeping Timothy Liljegren in the lineup despite some recent struggles

As Keefe noted, the trade deadline has worked against Timothy Liljegren in previous years as he has been a regular healthy scratch at playoff time. Liljegren turns 25 in April, he’s 14 games away from 200 in the league, and his contract is up this summer (he will be a restricted free agent). The Leafs are clearly giving him a chance to step up — in part because they lack right-handed shots, which is a big deal — and it’s up to him to seize it as all options are on the table this summer (trade, bridge contract, long-term deal).

“Listen, it is going to continue to be a work in progress. At the trade deadline, there are certainly some things we looked at. We talked at length about trying to improve ourselves on the right side.

We were excited to get Joel. He is a big, long, rangy defenseman. He adds length and physicality. He adds experience. By adding him and Boosh, we have added some size and bite on the backend. Now, we have to do it by committee.

We have a number of guys back there. How we fit with pairs and partners — we have some options.”

–  Brad Treliving on reshaping the defense

The key part above is Treliving’s reference to a defense-by-committee approach. They clearly lack top-end quality on defense and it will need to be addressed at some point, even if Liljegren does eventually emerge. In the meantime, can they cobble together three respectable pairings and lean on one of the best offenses in the league to push them through?

Their special teams will need to hold up, and they will need to receive solid goaltending, but they wouldn’t be the first team to succeed with this type of approach. Since the All-Star break, the Leafs are fifth in shots against per game, 13th in goals against per game, and sixth in points percentage. They have the best power play in the league in that time and are third in goals per game.

“I thought we were really physical to start the game. I thought we were finishing checks and in turn when we got the lead. When the game got out of hand, I thought they got physical in trying to send a message maybe for playoffs potentially… If the playoffs started today, we’d be playing them… I liked our physicality. Theirs is a little too late.”

–  Jim Montgomery on the physicality between the two teams in their second game

It seems Boston is in the Leafs’ heads a bit at this rate. The sheer number of gifts the Leafs gave them in two games is shooting themselves in the foot — a 5v3, a breakaway, a clean 3v2 down the ice, and some backdoor plays wide open.

The Leafs went 0-2-2 this season against the Bruins, and the story for me is pretty simple: The Bruins wait for the Leafs to make mistakes, and the Leafs play right into it by overcomplicating their play, getting too cute, and not being simple and direct enough in their attack. If you go back through the games, the Bruins scored a lot of easy goals, and then their goaltending advantage took it home from there.

Tweets of the Week

Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs bench
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

As we recently saw with Noah Hanifin — and another prime example in Matthew Tkachuk before him — there’s a growing list of players who want to play down south. Even a player such as Radko Gudas said he saw the attention and scrutiny in the playoffs up here and decided it wasn’t for him. This market is not for everyone. I am not sure if Connor Dewar will work out or even like it here, but it is nice to have a player excited to be a Leaf. 

I really liked this video, especially the earlier part of the clip showing Joel Edmundson blocking a shot off the rush, something Corrado notes that he doesn’t often see other Leafs defensemen do (it’s true). His size and length give him some margin for error, and if he can keep things simple, stop cycles along the wall, and clear the front of the net, he will be a welcome addition who provides the Leafs with something a little different. 

It is amazing how long it takes to win in this league and how hard it is to climb the mountain. Early regular-season success probably spoiled Toronto fans a little bit, inflating expectations in a market where it can be tough to keep perspective. All of that said, the general average is six-plus years, and we’re at that point. It really is becoming time for a deeper run now.

Five Things I Think I’d Do

Simon Benoit, Maple Leafs
Photo: Dan Hamilton/USA Today Sports

1.   As much as it sucks for Simon Benoit — who has given them all that he can — I think the Leafs are doing the right thing on defense. Realistically, the TJ Brodie Jake McCabe pairing is the best pairing they can put together in a shutdown role. The Morgan RiellyIlya Lyubushkin pairing has generally worked well for now, and Rielly enjoyed success with a similar type of player in Schenn last season.

This leaves two of Edmundson, Liljegren, and Benoit for the third pairing. I think a second right-handed shot is extremely important, and Liljegren can provide real offense from the blue line (they should arguably use him on the top power-play unit more). Edmundson provides Liljegren with some veteran stability whereas Benoit has struggled a bit lately, something we noted two weeks ago. If anything, a breather should serve Benoit well. He will get another opportunity before long. 

2.  As the Leafs have tried to spread things out across three lines, I think one intriguing potential option I’d like to see more of — and it was one we saw against the Habs — is Matthew Knies driving the third line offensively. Away from Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, he was more assertive and aggressive attacking. It makes sense; when he plays with two elite players, of course, he is going to defer more to them.

Knies and Bobby McMann seemed to have some real chemistry together, but we know that David Kampf can’t be the full-time center for those two (he will kill them offensively). Max Domi might hurt them defensively, but I’d be interested to see him center them as a bit of a game-breaking, scoring third line. Domi can clearly create and produce, while McMann is already good on the wall. Knies has progressively improved in this area as the season has gone along. I think both would help him avoid getting hemmed into his own zone.

If the line works out, it would allow the Leafs to reassemble two lines that we already know work well: The Tyler BertuzziJohn TavaresWilliam Nylander unit that was their best line through to Christmas, and the Jarnkrok – Matthews – Marner line from last year that gives Matthews-Marner a more consistent veteran who can finish.

That would leave a fourth line of Dewar – Kampf – Reaves (vs Philadelphia), and they could then swap out Reaves for Holmberg against Carolina. If Marner is still out of the lineup, I would look to get Nick Robertson back into the mix, though.

3.   With the addition of Connor Dewar, the Leafs can potentially rethink some of their penalty-killing units. On defense, they should — and seem to be — running with Brodie-McCabe and Edmundson-Lyubushkin. That makes sense. At forward, they have Kampf, Marner, Jarnkrok, Dewar, and Nylander. Holmberg is also receiving some shifts there each game, and so has McMann lately.

It was interesting to see the Leafs run out Nylander with Kampf in Marner’s absence rather than Jarnkrok. Including Holmberg in that mix gives them six forwards and three units to send out for quick, hard shifts. Running it with Kampf – Marner, Dewar – Nylander, Holmberg – Jarnkrok gives them three lefty-righty units. They should mix and match to test what works best, but that’s how I’d start and go from there. 

4.  I think I would go into the week with the intention of splitting the goalie starts (the Leafs play Thursday and Saturday), but I would give Ilya Samsonov the first game, and if he is exceptional, I would play him again on Saturday. There is still some time for this goalie situation to play out — and I think really highly of Joseph Woll — but right now, Samsonov has the edge and should play accordingly.

Samsonov has been excellent since the All-Star break and Woll is returning from injury. While it’s important to get both rolling, this isn’t the time to give out charity starts. Woll will receive his starts down the stretch (the Leafs have a back-to-back the following week, so he’s getting one of those games, at a minimum). He has to up his game to push for more. 

5.  I think I would try to sign pending UFA, Bobby McMann, to a new contract before the playoffs start.

Other teams are certainly noticing he is a pretty good hockey player. It’s still surprising that he cleared waivers earlier this year, and now he’s up to 10 goals in 40 games on a very reasonable 12 percent shooting percentage.

McMann has been stuck on the fourth line for large stretches of that time and has only played with good players since February 13 when he moved up the lineup due to necessity. He has 11 points in 14 games since then despite a seven-game pointless streak that just ended with his goal in Montreal.

I don’t expect McMann to be so productive moving forward, but he’s big, strong, fast, owns a good shot, and is turning 28 this summer. He can fill several roles, including playing either wing. He’s a nice player to have in the mix, especially if the Leafs can do it for under $1.5 million per season.

The Leafs should be able to sign him to a two-year deal through the rest of his 20s and reward a homegrown product who is starting to figure out the league rather than farming a player’s development and watching him go somewhere else to play well. Good programs develop, keep, and reward their own, especially when it shouldn’t be expensive to do it.