It was a week light on games for the Maple Leafs, but injuries and illnesses are keeping the lineup in constant flux heading into a much busier week ahead.

Earlier today, I questioned the idea that this is a Cup-or-bust season for the Maple Leafs while looking at the scoring depth, youth, and continuity developing within the roster. Let’s now jump into my notes, quotes, and Five Things for the week.


William Nylander, John Tavares, Maple Leafs

–  The Leafs were scorching hot in February coming out of the All-Star break, going on a big run of collecting points and all but cementing a playoff spot. During their hot stretch, William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner were second and tied for third, respectively, in the NHL in points in February. Matthews led the league in goals.

March has not gone as well. Morgan Rielly leads all Leafs with six points in seven games. Nylander, John Tavares, and Max Domi are tied with five each. Matthews has four. They naturally miss Marner, but even beyond his absence, Matthews and Nylander can produce much more.

All of that said, the Leafs are 4-2-1 this month despite missing a star for half of those games and receiving reduced production from the other two. They are still pulling together wins by committee while showing some more signs of secondary scoring and depth development. Earlier in the season, whenever the stars went cold, the results went off the rails. 

–  As has been noted, this is a critical time for Timothy Liljegren and his place in the organization, and while the two games around the trade deadline (against Boston and Montreal) went poorly, the next two have been much better. He has three points in those two games (and missed a point on the Bertuzzi disallowed goal) and has largely avoided glaring mistakes save for one up the middle against Carolina that did not result in a goal. 

They need his puck-moving ability in the form of a right-handed shot who can make plays from that side of the ice. On the disallowed Bertuzzi goal, he was able to whip a puck to the net right off the wall, which a lefty cannot do based on handedness alone. 

–  In addition to the new contract this week, Bobby McMann has been getting some extended opportunities up the lineup. He moved up with Domi and Nylander and did not look out of place at all. He went on a shorthanded breakaway against the Hurricanes and set up Matthews in the slot (he hit the post). Throughout the game – but especially in the third period – McMann replaced Holmberg on the top line with Matthews and Bertuzzi. Against the Habs, you could argue McMann was the team’s best player.

A lot of good things are happening, but with that much responsibility, he needs to produce accordingly. He has just one point in seven games in March. 

–  Ilya Lyubushkin took a massive hit against the Flyers to make a proper breakout pass, resulting in a goal. He knew it was coming, but he held it the extra second to make the right play. Seven games into his return to Toronto, his numbers have been fairly strong in a limited third-pairing capacity (he’s averaging just 16:07) with 53.25 percent of the shot share and 61.42 percent of the expected goals at five-on-five. He’s up 4-3 at five-on-five in actual goals as well. It wasn’t the quality add they needed at the top of the lineup, but in a depth role, he is giving them decent minutes as a right-handed option. 

–  Matthew Knies’ goal against the Flyers was his first point in six games and brought him up to 27 points on the season in 64 games in total. It’s a solid rookie season, but it also serves as a reminder that this is a much more normal trajectory for the non-superstar rookie forward. He has largely played alongside the best goal-scorer in the world and an elite playmaker, too. It is not as if he has been fed fourth-line minutes and linemates this season.

After Connor Bedard and Brock Faber – two rookie stars – the next highest-scoring rookie this season is Marco Rossi with 35 points in 68 games. It’s going to be worth it in the long run, but this is the growing pain that comes with first-year players.


Nick Robertson, Maple Leafs
Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

“I understand it, but I’m not going to sit here and say that I’m happy.”

– Nick Robertson on his demotion off the roster due to the numbers game

Nick Robertson turned some heads with this quote, partly because it was a slow news week in which the Leafs played once in six days. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with the comments and appreciate the honesty.  He shouldn’t be happy about sitting, and it’s fair to be honest about it without pouting or whining publicly.

To me, it would be worse if he is happy or content with his situation. He played like he had a point to prove when he got back in the lineup. It’s now up to Robertson to give the coaching staff no choice but to keep him in. 

“We don’t have time to think about this because a lot of more games are coming. We play against Philadelphia and Washington back-to-back this week (on Tuesday and Wednesday). Just forget about today and focus on the next game.”

–  Ilya Samsonov on blowing a late lead to the Hurricanes and losing in the shootout

Earlier in the season, we noted some Ilya Samsonov post-game quotes in which he was self-deprecating and hyper-critical of his play, so I think it’s important that we circle back on it now and note the different tone in the answer above. That was a tough, gut-punch type of loss, but this is the right attitude: no time to dwell, don’t overthink it, and an “onto the next one” mentality. 

“Last night was a good example — for me, at least — or a reminder of why you give these guys these opportunities. If you recall earlier in the season — a couple of months ago, or whatever it was — we gave Holmberg a run on a line with Auston on the left wing. That helps him be more comfortable when we go back to it.”

– Sheldon Keefe on moving Pontus Holmberg up to the top line to play with Auston Matthews

This is also a good example of why it’s important to try things and how injuries can force lineup decisions that benefit a team in the long run. The injuries to Mitch Marner and Calle Jarnkrok are tough to handle overall, and the team is undoubtedly worse for the time being, but it’s creating opportunities for players to move up and fill different roles, which is going to make the team that much better overall when they do eventually return.

Tweets of the Week

Maple Leafs vs. Canucks, Mark Giordano fight

This was a rather quiet note amidst a busy week, but I wanted to take a second to discuss it.

On Mark Giordano‘s last shift, he was robbed and went flying into the boards after taking his shot, resulting in a head injury. Giordano really struggled last playoffs, but he was in the midst of a reasonable rebound effort in the first half of this season (on the plus side of shot share, goal share, and expected goals at 5v5). He’s the oldest player in the league, and the Leafs acquired several veterans since he last played, making a path to re-entering the top six that much more difficult even if he was healthy.

All of that said, I hope that play is not his final shift in the league.

The power play is coming off a February in which it produced at a 50 percent success rate, tied for the highest percentage in a single month in league history. It was bound to regress, and when we add in Mitch Marner’s injury, it has taken a real nose dive. But it’s far too early to suggest this is a legitimate concern this season, especially when a linchpin is missing and they are experimenting with the units seemingly from power play to power play. They don’t deserve much benefit of the doubt, as mentioned above, but I think it’s a little early for this rendition given the circumstances.

Conversely, the penalty kill has been an issue all season long and is waving all sorts of red flags. They rank 24th, which is still the worst of any team currently in a playoff spot. If you want to find some hope, last season, Las Vegas ranked 19th, and we know how the year ended for them.

The Leafs added some players to help the penalty kill and then lost two of their better penalty killers almost immediately in Marner and Jarnkrok, further complicating the mix. It’s a huge issue, and losing would-be regulars makes it even more difficult to figure out the right rotations and combinations.

Five Things I Think I’d Do

Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, William Nylander, Maple Leafs
Photo: Isiah J Downing/USA Today Sports

1.    I think I would simplify the power play with William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Timothy Liljegren at the top of the formation, Tyler Bertuzzi in front of the net, and John Tavares as the bumper (which are all optimal spots for each player). They are losing the down-low play without Marner – which has been a staple this season – so it’s time to keep it simple by having Matthews and Nylander roll downhill taking shots with speed and momentum. If teams sell out on them, Timothy Liljegren has a good shot, too.

It gives them a second unit featuring Morgan Rielly, Max Domi, Matthew Knies, Nick Robertson, and Bobby McMann. It’s five lefties, but Domi has been effective on the half-wall, Rielly is a good facilitator, and Robertson owns a great shot. McMann and Knies will have to show they can cause some havoc in the middle of the ice and in front of the net, but they are both big, strong, and skilled enough to do it, in theory.

2.   When the Leafs look at their penalty kill lately, I think it should stand out that all the goals are stemming from the slot. Owen Tippett banked in a rebound, but the original shot came from Morgan Frost at the top of the circle in the middle of the ice with time and space. Against Carolina, Jake Guentzel got a shot off in the slot before Seth Jarvis put the rebound in. The Hurricanes also scored a multi-deflection goal leading to a backdoor tap-in. Even if we look at the game against Montreal, Alex Newhook had all day to shoot it right in the slot.

That’s largely on the forwards. One is supposed to pressure, and one is supposed to cover the high-slot area. I have liked Connor Dewar’s speed, but he has to do a better job in that slot area in the limited action he’s played so far. I think his pace alongside Nylander makes for one good duo. That would leave Kampf and McMann as another unit and likely Matthews-Holmberg as the other until at least one of Marner or Jarnkrok returns.

I would also like to see them flip Joel Edmundson and TJ Brodie. Brodie had success with a right-handed shot in Holl previously, so I’d try to replicate it with Lyubushkin as his partner while the length of Edmundson pairs with McCabe.

3.   I think getting Simon Benoit in one of these two back-to-back games is important (update: it looks like Lyubushkin’s illness is going to make it happen). He has given them everything he has this season, and I think you need to keep him in the fight. It’s important to not block him out and sit him down for weeks at a time. He has earned continued involvement, and this isn’t a good enough defense unit to tell him to take a seat unless someone gets hurt.

I’d run their regular top six against the Flyers and then decide between Edmundson or Lyubushkin depending on how it goes. It could give them a good excuse to pair up Liljegren with Rielly for a game and see how it goes.

4.    With Nick Robertson returning to the lineup due to injury, I think I’d give him a real look at the top of the lineup to see if he can make a statement. I’d flip him and Pontus Holmberg, who was effectively benched last game. Robertson would play with Bertuzzi and Matthews, the McMann – Domi – Nylander would stay together, and Holmberg would move down to play with Knies and Tavares.

From a skill perspective, it makes more sense. Bertuzzi is the digger, and both Matthews and Robertson can shoot and create. Also, on the Holmberg line, Tavares is the finisher, Holmberg is a good playmaker, and Knies can do a bit of everything, including forechecking well. Stylistically, it’s a better fit across the board. I’d also put Ryan Reaves back with Dewar and Kampf on the fourth line.

5.   I think I would give Joseph Woll the start against the Flyers and Ilya Samsonov the second game of the back-to-back. Woll didn’t play at all last week as the Leafs only played two games and Samsonov was excellent. Samsonov also played those two games in a span of three nights. It’s a nice break; Samsonov would get three days off followed by playing on Wednesday against Washington (his old team) and then Saturday against Edmonton.