David Kampf, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Dan Hamilton/USA Today Sports

Since the NHL All-Star break, the Toronto Maple Leafs are tied with the Dallas Stars for seventh in the league with a .674 points percentage.

Over the same period, the Florida Panthers are fourth in the league while the Boston Bruins are 17th. Rather quietly, the Tampa Bay Lightning are 10th.

In all likelihood, the Leafs are going to finish third in the Atlantic Division and play either Boston or Florida. But with 12 games left in the season, some level of discussion is warranted around the opportunity remaining to move up or down in the standings.

The Leafs currently find themselves eight points back of both Florida and Boston. Generally, it would be far too big of a gap to close in such a short time, but working in the Leafs’ favour is that they have two games in hand on a reeling Bruins team. They have just one game in hand on the Panthers, but they play them twice more this season.

Of course, it’s also worth noting that the Tampa Bay Lightning are only four points back of the Leafs (who have a game in hand), and the Leafs will play the Lightning twice more this season.

The Leafs’ fate isn’t entirely in their hands, but their play over the final dozen games could make it interesting in either direction.

Toronto’s remaining schedule is no cakewalk:

  • New Jersey x3
  • Florida x2
  • Tampa Bay x2
  • Washington
  • Detroit
  • Montreal
  • Buffalo
  • Pittsburgh

For what it’s worth, the Leafs’ remaining strength schedule ranks 16th most difficult in terms of points percentage. The Bruins rank first while the Panthers and Lightning are 21st and 22nd, respectively. Again, knowing the Leafs play Florida and Tampa twice each, they have some control over how they place in the standings relative to those two opponents.

There are still far too many teams and variables involved to debate who within the division the Leafs would prefer to play, but it is worth noting the obvious advantage for whoever wins the Eastern Conference. The first-place team is looking at a first-round matchup of the Capitals or Red Wings. There are no guarantees in the NHL, but on paper, it’s the easiest first-round opponent in the league.

The Leafs would need to surpass the New York Rangers and surging Carolina Hurricanes (who just swept Toronto) to win the conference – it’s unlikely – but home-ice advantage in the first round is still very much worth chasing.

The Leafs held home-ice advantage in each of the past three years (one was the bubble season) and went 1/4 in those playoff series, so fans in this market generally don’t think much of it. When Dom at The Athletic looked into the numbers last spring, he found that home teams won 55.4 percent of their games in the playoffs since 2008. It’s not the be-all and end-all, and those numbers can vary wildly from year to year.

That said, any advantage can help, and the Leafs – or any team really – are not in a position to say no to a playoff advantage. They are behind the eight-ball right now, but the Bruins are showing cracks, and the Leafs play the Panthers twice (to say nothing of the Lightning). There is a real possibility to move up or down the standings, and with a dozen games remaining on the schedule, it’s up to the Leafs to take care of business and put themselves in the best position possible heading into the playoffs.


Pontus Holmberg, Maple Leafs
Photo: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

–   Last season, Pontus Holmberg joined the lineup as a centerman and showed well defensively in a checking role, playing primarily between players such as ZAR (his most common linemate) and Pierre Engvall. This past fall, he had a weak preseason and started with the Marlies, but since he was called up, he has primarily been on the wing, where he has flashed promise. We saw another example of it against the Oilers; he scored twice, earning a promotion to the top line.

With the Leafs’ injuries, the coaching staff moved him back to center against Carolina, and I thought it was his best game in the middle of the ice this season. He was decisive with the puck, and he used his speed up the middle to carry it through the neutral zone and make chip plays off the wall in behind Hurricane defenders. A few times, he got the puck behind the Hurricanes’ net and cut in tight, using the net as a shield to give himself space. In one instance, it looked like he hit Robertson with a backdoor play, but Matthew Knies shot it instead. Nick Robertson also struggled for large stretches of the game, making Holmberg’s life more difficult, but he was able to settle things down multiple times.

Playing the wing is easier – and he’s more help to the team as a winger right now – but it was good to see Holmberg play well at center as he’s somewhat struggled when he’s been moved to the middle previously this season. He is also quietly winning 50 percent of his faceoffs so far this season, a huge jump up from 42.5 percent last season.

For a player already signed through next season (and a pending RFA afterward), these are notable developments not just for the here and now but as the Leafs plan for the future.

–  Since signing a big contract extension, David Kampf’s ice time is down nearly two minutes per game; he averaged 15:15 and 15:18 his first two seasons but is at 13:24 this season. Predictably, his production has followed suit. He notched 26 and 27 points in his first two seasons, but he sits at just 14 this season.

They didn’t sign him for his offensive numbers, but when he is making $2.4 million, there’s more of an expectation to produce to some degree. Even if we push the offense aside, he seems to be caught up in the philosophical differences between the old and new management regimes.

Kampf was the 3C in the past two seasons as the Leafs wanted to carve out a third-line checking unit. They paired him with defensive wingers such as Pierre Engvall, Ilya Mikheyev, and Alex Kerfoot, deploying them as a matchup line to free up their top players to produce.

The new management group wants three lines capable of creating offense, and this is the first time we’ve really seen the Leafs experiment with spreading out their top players over three lines under Sheldon Keefe. Kampf doesn’t fit this mold despite starting the season in between Domi and Knies. It wasn’t a good fit in that role, and even now with the injuries, the coaching staff is auditioning Holmberg in a 3C offensive role rather than Kampf (although they did create a checking L3 vs. the Oilers).

Kampf’s most common linemate so far this season is Noah Gregor, who almost certainly won’t be a playoff starter if the Leafs are healthy. So far, it’s an awkward fit for a player they just signed to a noteworthy contract. 

–   All of that said, you can stomach some of it (a little less ice time, less production) if Kampf is providing the elite checking and penalty killing. There have been some issues closing games, and the penalty kill has struggled all season. It has shown some signs of life throughout the season, but it’s now firmly searching for positive momentum ahead of the playoffs.

The Hurricanes scored off a fortunate bounce off a skate, and the Leafs went 3/3 vs the Oilers to start the game as they built their lead before giving up two goals on the penalty kill late in the third period. The “new” top unit of Kampf – Connor Dewar and Joel EdmundsonJake McCabe generally did their jobs well as they were only victimized for one goal on the weekend (off McCabe’s skate).

The glass-half-full take is that they look like a capable foursome, and the Leafs have two good penalty killers in Marner and Jarnkrok who will eventually return to the lineup. The glass-half-empty take is that the Leafs rank 31st while killing 68.6 percent of their penalties in the month of March.

–  Noah Gregor hasn’t scored since December 16, the game in which the Leafs routed the Pittsburgh Penguins and he scored the sixth goal on the power play. Since then, he has played in 31 games and has just four assists. He’s not supposed to be a big-time scorer, but we’ve said this before: If you aren’t scoring, you aren’t killing penalties, and you aren’t used to close games with the lead, what are you bringing to the table?


Jake McCabe, Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets
Photo: Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

“We have been hesitant to put them together throughout the season just because there are a lot of similarities in their games. Morgan is much more offensive and all of those sorts of things, but they both skate really well. Their skating and their feet take them to different spots on the ice that — in my mind — counter what each of them does, which is why I haven’t seen them as candidates to be a really good pair.

They have to be really smart in how they play. Their feet take them to good offensive places, and there are good rewards that come with that, but when it goes bad, it can go really bad. They have to be really locked in on how they move and read off of one another. That is part of it.

When it comes to the defending piece of it, McCabe has done a really good job for us. He is physical. He arrives at the puck in a bad mood and creates loose pucks. Morgan can come in, scoop those up, and get going. If it’s our low forward who wins the battle and gets the breakout going, it can allow Morgan to get going the other way.

One of the positives defensively: Because of how Jake closes fast and physically, it creates loose pucks that can get us on offense quickly, which can help Morgan in transition.”

–  Sheldon Keefe on pairing McCabe and Rielly together

We have talked about Jake McCabe’s offensive contributions throughout the season. With him, Morgan Rielly, and Timothy Liljegren spread out across three pairings, it ensures the Leafs have a defenseman who can contribute offensively on the ice at all times. 

McCabe isn’t a stay-at-home defenseman; he likes to get involved offensively and even a scored goal this week standing in front of the net at five-on-five. I can understand the hesitation to play two of the team’s better offensive defensemen together and how it might neuter them knowing they can’t play as aggressively as they want, but at the same time, these are the team’s two best defensemen. That’s the reality of where their defense stands.

For that reason alone, it’s worth giving them some run together to see if they can be a big-minute-eating pairing. So far, the pairing has actually looked pretty good and has earned a longer look if nothing else. 

“We talked about it at the start of the night. They loaded up their first line and we wanted our depth carry us through and show we had better depth, which ended up being the difference.”

–  Jake McCabe on the Leafs’ approach against the Oilers

Considering the Leafs were missing three of their seven or eight best forwards, I thought it was a really bizarre decision by the Oilers to load up one line, especially in Toronto where the Leafs owned last change. It played right into the Leafs’ hands, and the result speaks for itself.

Furthermore, I couldn’t help but think this is often what the Leafs do. Think back to last season when the team acquired ROR and Keefe jammed him into the top six while moving Tavares to the wing instead of creating three lines from the outset.

The Leafs have the depth this year to create three lines if not four. Only a few weeks ago, we noted Bruce Cassidy’s quote about the Leafs spreading out their attack across three lines making them more formidable.  

“For sure, they were more physical than us. They kind of grabbed control of the series that way, which we need to respond to a little better than we did with it. It was definitely a factor for them that help them beat us.”

–  Ryan O’Reilly reflecting on the Leafs five-game series loss to the Panthers last offseason

I thought about this quote when reflecting on the Leafs’ weekend and by extension their approach to the offseason and trade deadline. The Leafs have taken an “our power play is our toughness” approach for roughly eight seasons before this one. They tried to turn the other cheek and play through it when confronted physically, hoping for power play opportunities to make the opposition pay.

Those opportunities dry up in the playoffs, as we have seen time and again. I do think you need to fight fire with fire, to some degree, at playoff time. You can’t let teams push you around and dictate the play physically.

The Leafs have tried to add physicality around the core, but the top guys are still the top guys and will play the most again this spring. We will see how it all shakes out.


Tweets of the Week

TJ Brodie, Maple Leafs
Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In the offseason, we mentioned TJ Brodie’s struggles down the stretch of the regular season and through the playoffs. Considering his ice time and responsibilities, whether he could rebound this season was always going to be a major storyline in Toronto.

Brodie started the season paired up with his old partner (Rielly) while playing on the right side. But he’s clearly lost a step and looked overmatched against top players on a nightly basis while playing his weak side, where he has generally played throughout his career.

During Rielly’s suspension, Brodie was moved to the left side full-time for the first time this season, and it breathed some real life into his game. He was a big part of the Leafs’ winning streak in Rielly’s absence. When Rielly returned, they kept the pairing together, but it started to show some cracks. As injuries and trades developed, we saw last year’s Brodie – McCabe pairing reunited but with Brodie still on the left side.

Nothing has stuck, and each partner (Rielly, Liljegren, McCabe) has looked better when playing with someone else. Brodie has been a good penalty killer in years past — it could have been his calling card to stay in the lineup — but even his shorthanded play has slipped. At some point, it is what it is.

I would add a third element to the Leafs’ playoff issues: special teams. The power play is by and large a product of their top players who are cemented in place, while the penalty kill relies on a few of them along with the goaltender. But secondary scoring and physicality (or lack thereof) have been consistent issues in the postseason, too.

On the secondary scoring note, it’s worth pointing out that during the 2021-22 season, the Leafs actually produced a higher goals-per-game rate – it’s not like they haven’t been able to light it up in the regular season before – and Matthews and Nylander are arguably enjoying the best seasons of their careers right now. But Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi have some level of playoff credibility – even if it’s in limited samples – and have both improved as the season has progressed. Bobby McMann has emerged. They are seemingly going to go nearly half the season without Calle Jarnkrok at this rate, but they will eventually get him back (again).

A notable level of secondary scoring is developing, and the physicality speaks for itself. I’m not going to declare today that this spring will be different, but if nothing else, I can appreciate some different looks at the roster configuration in search of the ultimate solution.

A lot of Leafs turned in excellent performances against the Oilers, but I thought it was noteworthy that the player selected for the belt was not someone who had a big night on the scoresheet in a game where the Leafs scored six. It was someone who brought a level of physicality that appeared to rub off on his teammates. Joel Edmundson set the tone in a big game, and it was nice to see the Leafs receive that kind of contribution from a non-star player as well as the recognition by his teammates afterward.

Five Things I Think I’d Do

Morgan RIelly, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: USA Today Sports

1.  All that can be said with certainty about the defense right now is that Morgan Rielly, Jake McCabe, Joel Edmundson, and Timothy Liljegren are all locks amongst the top six. Beyond those four, the other two spots are between any two of Ilya Lyubushkin, Simon Benoit, TJ Brodie, and Connor Timmins.

Brodie is clearly struggling, while Lyubushkin and Timmins have shown well in limited responsibility (and I don’t think the coaching staff can ask either player to play more than limited minutes). Benoit has generally been solid this season, and even though he does make noticeable mistakes (toe dragged by Scott Laughton in Philly, fanned on a puck on the PK leading to an Ovechkin goal, skated into a line change for another goal against in Washington), he aligns with the Leafs’ identity on the defense (big and physical).

There is still some time for this to sort itself out on its own, so all of the players should receive reps, but this is roughly where it stands right now. If the Rielly-McCabe pairing plays well, it should be given the rope to continue together, and they would then figure out a third pairing between those four defensemen we noted above.

2.   I think I’d like to see Pontus Holmberg continue to receive some run at 3C for the time being until the Leafs are healthy. I think it’s a real option for next season and could be something they turn to at times in the playoffs depending on how things shake out (player performances, injuries, matchups, etc.).

I would give Holmberg a better opportunity linemate-wise, though, by playing Bobby McMann on his right wing instead of Nick Robertson (McMann is better suited to play there; he’s bigger, stronger, and has done it in the American league). Robertson should be on his strong side as he struggles on the wall as is.

That would mean a promotion for Matthew Knies back to the Auston Matthews line with Max Domi and Bertuzzi back on a line with John Tavares and William Nylander. It just makes a little more sense all around this way while Mitch Marner is out.

3.   I think the biggest issue with the power play right now is the lack of a down-low play without Mitch Marner. Their bread and butter when they were humming along was William Nylander on the half-wall with Marner down low — two righties on the same side working their handedness on the left to create favourable looks, be it Nylander shooting or Marner passing.

The Leafs have lacked righties in the absence of Marner and Jarnkrok, and the Hurricanes pressed them up high. They can still create a down-low play on the other side between Auston Matthews and John Tavares/Tyler Bertuzzi.

They need to hammer the principle home. Teams are selling out on two elite shooters in Nylander and Matthews right now, and they have to make them pay with down-low 2v1s.

4.   At 6v5, I think the Leafs need to have only one defenseman on the ice. Even with Marner and Jarnkrok out, they have more than enough good forwards to put five on the ice.

Against the Flyers and Hurricanes, the Leafs put both Timothy Liljegren and Morgan Rielly out, and although they did score with both of them on the ice once, it had little to do with the two-defensemen setup. It doesn’t make much sense to place Liljegren up top and Rielly at the top of the circle (he’s not effective there).

Even with Marner out, all of Matthews, Nylander, and Tavares are locks to be on the ice (rightfully so). I would also have Bertuzzi in front of the net, where he is most effective. Until Marner returns, I would have Domi on the ice as another playmaker rather than both Rielly and Liljegren.

If they are going to run it through Matthews, the defenseman should probably be Rielly (a lefty feeding a lefty). If they are going to run it through Nylander, it should be Liljegren.

5.   I think the Leafs’ plan to split the goalies as evenly as possible down the stretch (provided Ilya Samsonov is healthy and good to go) makes sense. Both goalies are clearly capable, and the Leafs will want to feel good about turning to either throughout the playoffs.

Many teams end up playing two goalies as the playoffs go along. Sergei Bobrovsky didn’t start G1 of the playoffs last year, and neither did the eventual Cup winner Adin Hill. It is the state of the position across the league. The Leafs will want both in form and feeling good about their games knowing that, in all likelihood, they will need both.