A big week for the Maple Leafs starts with a much-anticipated matchup against the Florida Panthers.

Earlier today, I examined the issues plaguing the Leafs’ 30th-ranked power play in the month of March. Let’s now dive into the rest of the notebook.


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

–  Ilya Lyubushkin has played in 11 games since the Leafs reacquired him. He’s been on for 52.25 percent of shot attempts and 59.71 percent of expected goals, and he’s up 8-4 in actual goals at 5v5. He has played with either Morgan Rielly or TJ Brodie, averaging 16:35 and picking up three assists in those 11 games. There haven’t been any highlight-reel hits or general heroics, but he is giving the Leafs solid, no-frills minutes as a right-handed shot (which they sorely lacked). 

–   It seemed like a little play, but one minute into the third period against the Capitals, Nylander tried a cross-ice breakout pass in the Leafs’ end to Simon Benoit that they didn’t connect on. The puck bounced off the boards, and Benoit had two forecheckers on him, one applying pressure and one pulling to the wall for a turnover. At 3-1 with a full period to play, it’s a crucial time not to give the opposition any life. Benoit played it safe, making sure to fire the puck off the glass and out to avoid danger. The puck bounced out to center, John Tavares spun off Nick Jensen and won the race, and the Leafs scored.

A few weeks back against Buffalo, Benoit was in some trouble in the same spot with about 30 seconds left in a tie game, and he tried to make a play up the wall instead of ensuring it got out. The Sabres almost won in regulation as a result (Matthews scored the overtime winner later that night).

The reality is that there is not a lot of skill on the Leafs’ back end. It has to be a simple unit that prioritizes getting pucks out – which will mean glass and out – rather than trying to make plays or be something they’re not. The Leafs have speed up front and a legitimate three-line attack. You can do a lot worse than creating races for pucks down the ice for the forwards to create offense off the rush.

–  William Nylander’s post-contract lull is far behind him at this point. Since the All-Star break lifted, he is tied for fourth in total goals with four other skaters and tied for ninth in total points with Mikko Rantanen.

The first goal against the Sabres was all him, taking the puck in the Leafs’ end, blazing right through the neutral zone, and drawing in two defenders, which left Tavares wide open in the high slot with plenty of time and space to shoot and score. He made a similar play in the second period but was tripped as he was crossing center, drawing a penalty. 

–  Since Ryan Reaves was reinserted in the lineup against the Jets at the end of January – and scored — he and David Kampf have played just over 114 minutes together at 5v5, are controlling 52.88 percent of shot attempts, and are up 4-3 in goals. It is nothing earth-shattering, but he hasn’t been a liability. They are ahead in their minutes across the board, and Reaves has brought his physicality to the team.

On Connor Dewar’s first goal as a Leaf, Reaves was subtle but effective in gaining the zone with the puck and starting a cycle. It’s a simple play, but that’s how the line needs to play. He sets the tone for their basic forecheck and cycling game, and it has been working for two months now. We know why he’s here, but he has to be playable for that to be a thing. He has been lately.


Sheldon Keefe, Maple Leafs bench
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

“We have spent a lot of time on it. It was required and probably long overdue.

The guys have really rallied. We have made some adjustments to it. We are killing a little bit differently in some areas. The guys have bought into it and adjusted on the fly with limited practice time.

So much of the penalty kill comes down to will and competitiveness.”

–  Sheldon Keefe on the penalty kill after it went 5/5 against the Sabres

In four games over the past week, the Leafs’ penalty kill went 12/13, and the one goal against was a bad bounce off Jake McCabe’s skate on a nothing play from distance. Sheldon Keefe noting that they are killing a little bit differently caught my eye, so I went back to watch some of their penalty kills this week.

Their penalty kill is now more of a “diamond” kill where they stretch out wide to the half-walls and the point, with one defender in front of the net blocking down low plays and bumper plays. Previously, they ran more of what I call a “T” — two defenders are down low (the horizontal part of the T), and two forwards retreat to the middle of the ice, one in the middle and one up high. The forwards would swing out to the half-walls with speed and retreat to the middle to block cross-ice passes. It was leading to a lot of time on the half-wall for opponents, and this shift –  coupled with their speed on the penalty kill with players like Dewar, McMann, and Holmberg getting comfortable – has started to trend things in a better direction so far.

“I think, especially the captain, you really want to be at the top of the list for of being accountable and setting the standard and the way we need to play.”

–  John Tavares in response to being called out by Sheldon Keefe after a loss to the Devils

Earlier in the season, when things weren’t going well, the Leafs scratched David Kampf, who was a bit of an easy target to pick in terms of making a statement without actually calling out the core. At the time, we said in this space that accountability needs to start at the top, and even though the freebies against New Jersey were largely at the hands of their inexperienced players – which Keefe acknowledged and named one-by-one – leadership always starts there. 

Keefe’s point about a 25-shot period and not expecting a 75-shot game rings true. It will always normalize, and the team needed to stay structured and disciplined while still down 2-1. Instead, they got carried away and compounded their issues. That is where the leadership piece comes in – their top players need to lead the charge, especially at this point in the season. 

John Tavares, to his credit, owned it and responded well. In the next game against Washington, he defended down low very well on several plays to get pucks out. The Leafs have given up one goal over two games since Keefe’s call-out. 

“Just something I promised I would do after my dad passed away there if I scored. The way it was going (smile) it looked like it might not happen, but nice to get that one … nothing too big, but pretty special for me.”

–  Mark Giordano after scoring in his third game since his father passed away and pointing to the sky afterward

I was hoping we’d get to see Mark Giordano return. You never want to see a player’s career end on an injury. It was an awesome week for him with the big goal before, at the end of the Sabres game, reminding us of what he is about as a teammate, sticking up for Brodie without hesitation at 40 years old.


Tweets of the Week

Maple Leafs celebration, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, TJ Brodie
Photo: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

We’re running out of ways to describe what Auston Matthews is doing at this point. We’ve never seen anything even remotely close to this in Leafs land. This is a generational player who was drafted here and has spent his entire career as a Leaf. Soak it in.

This run dates back to January 15, so for nearly two and a half months now, Ilya Samsonov has been excellent. His game against the Sabres was arguably his best this season. Sheldon Keefe noted after the game that their goalie coach, Curtis Sanford, said it was his most technically sound. He was calm in the net and relied on positioning more than his raw talent to make saves acrobatically (minus the breakaway and rebound).

We can add Martin Jones to this list as well. A big story for the Leafs this season has been finally getting some luck on the waiver wire and the players who were on waivers seizing opportunities when they rejoined the lineup.

Bobby McMann and Simon Benoit have both signed extensions before the season even ended while Ilya Samsonov is making a real case to be Leafs’ playoff starter, which seemed far-fetched a few months ago. All of these players deserve credit for buckling down and battling their way through their individual circumstances (injury, poor play, etc.).

Five Things I Think I’d Do

Conor Timmins, maple Leafs
Photo: USA Today

1.   I think this is a big week for Conor Timmins to make a statement to remain in the playoff mix one way or the other.

Last season, the Leafs played the Bruins in mid-January, and he looked completely overwhelmed by the pace and tenacity of their forecheck. That season, he flashed promise with 14 points in 25 games, but it was fair to question how he would hold up against the top teams in the league.

This season, he started with a promising training camp, but due to injury and then later sickness, he hasn’t been able to build on his momentum. We can see the flashes of talent (he has nine points in 21 games this season), but it’s one thing to do it versus the Sabres and Capitals. It’s another to do it against the Panthers and Lightning.

I think he should play both games no matter what and then reevaluate from there. I like his skillset and recognize what he brings as a real puck mover who can get shots through traffic from the point (which the Leafs generally lack). But he has to show that he can handle defending and dealing with aggressive forechecks from top-end teams. This will be a telling week, but let him sink or swim either way.

2.   I think the current defense pairings are the best the Leafs can do with what they have available to them right now, but with Morgan Rielly back on the ice, I’d eventually put him back in for Mark Giordano, move TJ Brodie down to play with Timmins, and have Rielly reunite with Ilya Lyubushkin. Regardless, it’s become very clear that Simon Benoit has a place in the top six even when they are healthy.

3.   I think similar sentiments apply to Pontus Holmberg at center. He has clearly shown he is an NHLer forward who can help the team as the winger. His speed is underrated, and he is crafty with the puck. He’s up to 15 points in 45 games and is settling in as a penalty killer.

But center is a different story, and he had a particularly tough night against the Sabres with multiple turnovers in the middle of the Leafs’ end when attempting to break out, which he won’t get away with against the top teams in the playoffs. You can see why the coaching staff would like to play Max Domi on the wing, but to do it, they need a viable center option for the third line. Holmberg offers the most upside and ability to slot between two other wingers with skill. Give him the games and see how it goes.

4.   If Mitch Marner returns this week, I think they have to start him on the third line. That might not last very long, but if nothing else, the Leafs’ top six has been very productive without him – the Leafs are third in goals per game since his injury – and they deserve to be recognized for it, not instantly cast aside when Marner does return.

Marner should still walk right back onto the top power-play unit – where it’s clear they miss him – and he should still be a regular penalty killer as well, but I’d start him on the third line alongside Knies and Holmberg and go from there. I will have more on this in a separate article this week.

5.  With nine games remaining across 17 days, I think balancing rest and taking care of business will be important. If they can grab home ice, they should be going for it. If it’s out of reach and they settle into third place, they should ensure they get a few players some nights off.

They haven’t officially clinched a playoff spot at this point, so that’s step one. Step two is jostling in the standings, but there should be an eye toward resting some players and ensuring the top guys are ready for the playoffs.

It’s going to be a fine needle to thread between rest, settling on line combinations and defense pairings, picking a goalie, and taking care of business in the standings. There are still many questions with just over two weeks to go! But it’s April, playoffs are around the corner, and the Leafs have the best goal scorer in the world. Enjoy it.