Maple Leafs vs. Panthers
Photo: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing is better than longer spring days with Maple Leafs playoff hockey in the air.

In this week’s notebook, as we enter the final few days of the regular season, we’ll reflect on the team’s 2-1-1 week before jumping into postseason preparation.

ICYMI, earlier today, I discussed Sheldon Keefe’s playoff approach and the merits of a three-line attack vs. stacking two lines.


Mitch Marner, Maple Leafs vs. Blackhawks
Photo: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

–  In the nine games before Mitch Marner’s return, the Leafs penalty kill went 24 for 28. Connor Dewar was second among forwards in shorthanded time on ice per game, playing all nine of those games and averaging 2:33 per night. Bobby McMann was fourth, averaging 1:47.

In the five games since Marner returned, the Leafs’ PK is eight for 15, and Marner is second among Leafs forwards in shorthanded time on ice per game. Dewar has been out of the lineup, while McMann has averaged 20 seconds of shorthanded time per game since Marner returned (which was not impacted by McMann leaving the Detroit game due to injury; he was actually at 19 seconds per game in the four games before then and got hurt on the penalty kill).

–  Since Marner returned, he is also tied for the team lead among forwards in time on ice per game (and if it wasn’t for Auston Matthews’ number inflating in the pursuit of 70, Marner would be first). This is driven by Marner playing on the top penalty-killing unit—all of Matthews, Tyler Bertuzzi, and William Nylander have played more even-strength time on ice per game. However, it is still striking that Marner has returned and shot right back up to the top.

–  Last month against the Oilers, John Tavares, not Matthews, went head-to-head against the McDavid line. When the Panthers came to town last week, it was again Tavares matching up against the Barkov-Reinhart line, and a few nights later against Tampa, the Leafs captain went head-to-head against Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. Last week, it was the same story. Tavares lined up against Sidney Crosby and Dylan Larkin. 

It’s a much less glamorous role, but it is one of the reasons the Leafs have been able to push the Matthews line for offense — they aren’t going head-to-head against the other team’s best). It also helps them create a sheltered line centered by Holmberg (which they can use for offensive-zone faceoffs and softer matchups).

–  Pontus Holmberg’s faceoff efficiency has been on the upswing recently, and he is now hovering around 50 percent on the season. But this is just his third straight month taking over 40 faceoffs. In February, he was 59.5 percent. In March, it was 42 percent. So far in April, it’s down to 40 percent.

Against the Red Wings, Holmberg was 0/4, and the coaching staff had Nylander take three faceoffs. Against the Devils, New Jersey scored a goal off a faceoff win against Holmberg. Some credibility in the faceoff circle is a requirement of playing center in the NHL, where a centerman can’t routinely chase the puck off of draws. It’s clearly a work in progress. Once Calle Jarnkrok returns, it’s possible he could take faceoffs as well – he is a respectable(ish) 48.1 percent over his career and was at 49.2 percent this season.

While his faceoff results might be tailing off, Holmberg’s skating and general play have been strong. Alongside Nylander recently, their underlying results have been good – ahead in shots and chances, although they sit at 4-4 in overall goals (which includes a disallowed goal by Robertson, and Nylander is in a bit of a cold spell at the moment). Holmberg’s great backcheck broke up a 2v1 leading to Robertson’s goal against the Red Wings.

–  Speaking of Nick Robertson, he is making a real case to be in the playoff lineup with his goal-scoring. He’s playing to a 21-goal, 39-point pace over 82 games this season, and the goal against the Red Wings exemplifies his ability to create a goal out of very little. Not many players on the team can streak down the ice, use the defenseman as a screen, and rip a shot high past the goalie. Even if he doesn’t start in the playoff lineup, it’s hard to imagine a legitimate goal scorer – which Robertson is – not getting into the playoffs at some point. That would mean everything is going very, very well for the Leafs if he doesn’t.

–  There are very few of these kinds of players in the league, but I thought it was a mistake not to dress Ryan Reaves in the game against the Devils, who dressed Kurtis MacDermid. MacDermid ran around all game, and most notably, he laid a huge hit on Morgan Rielly. The Leafs didn’t have anybody to respond.


Eric Bolte / USA Today

“If it was playoffs, I would’ve played right through it. It wasn’t that big of an injury. We just wanted to make sure I was 100% before getting back.”

–  Joel Edmundson when he returned from injury

According to the player himself, Joel Edmundson could have played but instead went two and a half weeks between playing a game. He returned, really struggled, and then sat again. He has played eight games total since joining the Leafs, and while he was brought in for the playoffs, he also needs some time to acclimate to the team. I am not advocating for playing through pain or injury over a generally meaningless string of games. Still, there has to be some value in getting comfortable and settling in — chemistry and repetition matter, too. 

I am sure Leafs brass believe they are doing Edmundson a favour, but I really question the extent to which they are pushing this. He’s a big man (6’5), on the older side, and is not a great skater to begin with, which is typically not the profile of a player you can seamlessly airdrop into the lineup at playoff time. To say nothing of the fact that he doesn’t even have a locked-in partner nor has he had the time to adjust to playing on this Leafs team, which is much different than the Washington team he came from (or the Montreal team before Washington). There’s vigilance, and then there is paranoia.  

“That’s what he’s all about. He’s a team-first guy and he’s always going to stick up for his teammates. I didn’t think he had to do that, but obviously he felt the need to and I’m always appreciative of guys standing up for one another and myself as well.”

– Auston Matthews on Max Domi jumping in to fight Simon Nemec

I really enjoy the jam and energy Max Domi brought to the team. He has set a career-high in penalty minutes this season with 118, including six fights. He’s also shown he can be a high-end passer, currently tied for 13th in even-strength assists in the league with Roman Josi and Matt Barzal at 37 (one behind Sidney Crosby). 

Moving forward, Domi will need to balance it out a little better. He has only nine goals this season and is shooting the second-lowest shots on net per game in his career (although the number rates higher on a per-60 basis, which is noteworthy because his 13:47 TOI per game is also going to be the second-lowest of his career). 

“I hated the first period. I hated the last 10 minutes of the first period, I should say. I thought we started just fine. We got a big power-play goal that got us going.

I thought we were good in the first 10 minutes. Auston hit the crossbar in alone. We got a power-play goal. It seemed like one of those nights where our guys thought it was going to be easy. We know how that goes when that is the case.

There is not going to be much coming easy from here.”

–  Sheldon Keefe on the game against the Red Wings.

The second last sentence really stands out: “It seemed like one of those nights where our guys thought it was going to be easy.” Keefe is right, but I am not sure why the players would ever think that. The Red Wings were playing for their lives. They needed at least a point to stay alive in the playoff race. 

It is a microcosm of how the Leafs have played at home, where they finished with the third-worst home record of any playoff team this season. They gave up 3.41 goals against per game at SBA, the fourth-worst mark of any team in the league. That is worse than the Ducks and in the Sharks’ territory, which is unacceptable. 

They played fast and loose at home, and to echo what Keefe said above, they played like they thought it would be easy. This included their home game against the Devils last week, where they scored 18 seconds in and proceeded to gift the Devils two easy goals. It’s really disappointing that they were so middling at home, where they made it an easy place for teams to come in, score goals, and leave with points. 


Tweets of the Week

Auston Matthews
Photo: Dan Hamilton/USA Today Sports

This tweet is a few days old at this point, so the numbers are a little different (they are now +33 with Auston Matthews at 5v5 and +5 without Matthews), but the general point here is clear: The Leafs dominate Matthews’ minutes and tread slightly above water when he’s off.

This is why it makes sense to spread it out over three lines and try to create more opportunities to outscore the opponent. Matthews is clearly excelling regardless of linemates, and they need to take advantage of this by building credible depth that can tilt the ice—not just with their second line but also with their third line.

The flipside to being average at home is that the Leafs were excellent on the road, where they will start in the playoffs.

Before this era, Phil Kessel was the face of the team, and this isn’t a knock on him, but it puts what John Tavares has accomplished into some perspective. He’s scored more goals and more points in fewer games than Kessel.

Five Things I Think I’d Do

Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

1.   I think the power play is rounding into form – as expected – with Mitch Marner back. He is an excellent passer, great on power-play zone entries, and a sorely needed right-handed shot for the top unit.

I’ll continue to note that I still prefer Tyler Bertuzzi in front of the net, but overall, we know who is on the unit and what makes them successful. It’s in a good spot, and their timing/spacing is starting to come back.

One area for improvement I would highlight, though, is the down-low play. They are really top-heavy right now. Matthews did score a nice goal working it up top off a Marner pass in the bumper spot, but they can create really good down-low options, too. PKs will sell out on Matthews and Nylander shooting off the half-wall, which means Tavares and Marner will have some time and space down low. They need to exploit it by looking for down-low 2v1s. They are there for the taking.

2.   I think the biggest concern right now is clearly the penalty kill, and it’s going to be hard to fix it in the week before the playoffs, especially when playing against and with makeshift lineups. Realistically, the best thing they can do is spend the entire week preparing for the Panthers’ power play specifically.

They need to re-emphasize their aggression. Over the past week, they started to retreat again and allowed teams to pass it around freely, which is a recipe for failure. In the previous few weeks, they used their speed to aggressively pursue the puck on the half-wall and disrupt teams rather than retreat and try to take the slot away.

On defense, Jake McCabe is clearly on the top unit and Simon Benoit is on the second unit. The other two spots are between Joel Edmundson, TJ Brodie, and Ilya Lyubushkin. I think Edmundson makes sense on the top unit because of his size and ability to clear the net.

At forward, they are in tough because Connor Dewar and David Kampf were forming a nice duo, but is that enough to give Dewar a lineup spot over a goal scorer like Nick Robertson or the physicality of Ryan Reaves against the Panthers? If their PK continues to struggle, it might end up going that way mid-series.

As much as the coaching staff likes Kampf-Marner, I am not as convinced. Marner tries to kill penalties with his instincts rather than aggressively pressuring with speed, which can lead to awkward rotations and open plays.

Jarnkrok is a good penalty killer, but he hasn’t played in a month (March 14), so he’ll be on either the second or third unit (if Jarnkrok is back for a regular-season game this week, I’d try to give him some repetitions alongside Kampf before the playoffs, though). I’ve liked the Holmberg-Nylander second duo, and I would try a Jarnkrok-McMann third unit.

3.   Ideally, I’d like to see Joel Edmundson and Timothy Liljegren play both final games together. Relevant to the point already made above, I think it’s important for bigger, older, slower players to get repetitions like Edmundson. It generally takes players of his ilk some time to settle in rather than simply plugging into a playoff series ice-cold.

It’s also important for Edmundson to continue building chemistry alongside Liljegren (to say nothing of Liljegren also missing time lately). Getting minutes and puck touches together is important to build up their game and establish some timing on what’s still a brand-new pairing.

4.   At this point, I think I would split the last two games between Joseph Woll and Martin Jones. I’d give Woll the Florida game – it is likely the game where the Leafs will ice more of their regular lineup. There is little value in playing a game on the second half of a back-to-back against a Tampa team that is already locked into their spot and will also presumably be sitting some veterans and mailing in the game. It’s not sharp hockey, and it does not serve goalies well at all to play loosely structured games with tons of scoring chances (similar to when the Leafs gave Ilya Samsonov time off instead of sending him down to the American League).

I’d tell Samsonov to focus on practicing, give Woll Tuesday’s game, and give Jones a start at this point.

5.   Regarding resting players, I think John Tavares (aging and the All-Star Break really served him well) and TJ Brodie (aging and clearly on the downside of his career) should receive at least one of the next two games off.

Ideally, Auston Matthews takes a game off as well. When it comes to 70, I’m sure the hope is that he gets it over with on Tuesday and is able to rest on Wednesday. If he doesn’t hit 70, I think he has ultimately earned the right to decide what he wants to do. I won’t begrudge his decision either way, but I do think there is a lot of focus on 70 right now rather than winning and preparing for the playoffs.

It’s a tough balancing act – there is no easy answer – but the gears have to shift to playoffs this week. At the end of the day, winning the Cup is what matters most (and I know we all love round numbers, but is 69 really any less nice impressive?).