Lots to talk about, so let’s get straight into the notes this week.
– Seemingly left out of all the reports about the much-discussed Leafs fishing trip preceding the blowout loss to the Florida Panthers: It was on Sunday, not the day before the game. To clarify, the Leafs played Carolina in Carolina on Saturday, beat them, flew to Florida that night, had a day off (when some members of the team went fishing) on Sunday, and then they had a regular day on Monday including a team practice and meetings. So, if you think they played poorly because they went fishing somewhere around 48 hours before a game, I am not sure what to tell you. The Instagram post that was shared on all the major networks clearly has a Sunday timestamp.
– In the Florida game, the Kadri and his line started the first shift and were handily outplayed, leading to a goal against that set the tone for what was to come. Since then, the Brian Boyle line has started not only the first shift of each game but the first shift of every period save for the third against Tampa Bay when the Leafs were shorthanded.
– Against Chicago, Boyle only played 10:55, but according to NaturalStatTrick.com, 9:30 of it was against Jonathan Toews. That left the Kadri line to go up against Kane while the other two lines saw spot duty versus Chicago’s best. In the Tampa game, Boyle’s ice time went up because it was a blowout (his 15:34 was the most he’s played since becoming a Leaf) and he played the most against Lightning star Nikita Kucherov (6:10).
– Tough to glean too much from last week’s games when two out of three were blowouts, but it was interesting to see Zach Hyman finish ninth among forwards in ice time against Chicago. Can’t recall seeing that too many times this season.
– Hyman’s TOI might have been impacted by the fact the Leafs did not take a single penalty on Saturday. The first thing Babcock referenced about the Chicago matchup in his Thursday post-game in Tampa Bay was the need to stay out of the box. That is one way to make sure you don’t get burned.
– Did not think JVR had it in him to stick up for Mitch Marner like he did, but that was nice to see.
– There were some interesting stats tweeted out by SportsLogiq this week: Over the last five games, the Leafs average even strength possession time is 11:56 compared to the league median of 13:48. Part of the reason for that is three additional statistics SportsLoqiq noted – Toronto ranks 28th in even strength possession time, 30th in defensive zone possession success rate, and 30th in defensive zone passing success rate. Toronto has struggled moving the puck out of their zone cleanly all season, which has now pushed them down to a 50.1 CF% (17th), a 49.7 Fenwick% (18th), and a 49.5 shots for % (18th). In order for this team to take the next step, management will have to make some major upgrades to their defense group, and it is going to have to come from the outside. There is not much in the system that suggests there is someone there who will push to become a top-three defenseman one day.
– The other Toronto hockey team – the Marlies – are in a heated playoff race of their own. As of this writing, they sit third in their division with 71 points, the two teams behind them have 70 and 69 points, and the two teams ahead have 72 and 75. They have all played 64 games. If you weren’t aware, the AHL has adopted a similar division-driven playoff format to the NHL. The top four teams from each division make the playoffs now; the top seed plays the fourth seed, and the second seed plays the third seed. There are 76 games in an AHL season so there is still time left, but there also is not much room for error.
– Quietly, Kerby Rychel now leads the Marlies in scoring with 47 points (17 goals) in 62 games. He also leads the team with 163 shots on goal. The Leafs are not set to lose a single winger this summer via free agency and yet Kasperi Kapanen, Brendan Leipsic and Kerby Rychel are all deserving of a look, to say nothing of Josh Leivo. Something will have to give on the wing at some point.
– Listed as a center or left winger, the Leafs also recently announced the signing of Miro Aaltonen. He joins other recent Toronto acquisitions as a small forward with a history of production – Trevor Moore, Nikita Soshnikov, Seth Griffith, to name a few. Seems Toronto has a general philosophy/willingness to add forwards at a low-risk price if they have shown they can contribute at other levels, with the hope of hitting a home run on the cheap.
– The Toronto St. Pat’s uniform was a cool idea, but I didn’t feel like I was watching the Leafs on Saturday. Just me?
“I thought Rielly had a real good game back there for us, which was real important for him, too. Hadn’t gone quite as smooth here late. It was great for him to have the kind of game he had. He’s had a real good trip here with the game in Carolina and the game tonight. So that’s positive. Just, in general, we had good traffic and good, heavy o-zone play early, and that led to goals.”
– Mike Babcock after beating Tampa Bay 5-0
When players are struggling or having their names being dragged out by the media, I have noticed Babcock usually goes out of his way to pump said player’s game when he does have a good game.
“Obviously, they have a really talented and young lineup. But at the same time, there are a lot of other teams in the league that have the same thing. That’s the new NHL. The league is getting younger and younger, and faster and faster, and more talented. It’s a plus that it’s happening in a hockey city like Toronto that’s been having a tough go lately. It’s fun to see them do well.”
– Hawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson on comparing the Leafs to Chicago
It’s easy to look at Matthews and Marner, in particular, and make the Blackhawks comparison. It’s also easy to forget about all the other young teams in the league with promise. Florida was feeling great heading into the season with Aaron Ekblad, Alexander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and co., and they have taken a step back this season. Buffalo thought they were ready to take a step with Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Evander Kane, and co.; they are back in the basement. The Hawks also had the luxury of drafting or acquiring Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell, Brent Seabrook and Hjalmarsson, plus they stole Nick Leddy. Toronto’s next step will be trying to come even remotely close to that level of strength on defense. They have a long way to go still.
“We know what Roman Polak is. A couple of years ago he was coming to us as a number five or six. Now he’s coming to us as a bit more of a depth guy to support some of our young players, and he understood the role he’s coming into.”
– Brendan Shanahan, in the summer, on Roman Polak
For those keeping track, Polak has played in 65 of the team’s 70 games. He’s sixth in average time on ice among defensemen on the season, but he’s fourth since January 1 (35 games). Even when Carrick returns, it looks like his spot in the everyday roster is not in question.
“We had a heck of a lot more better looks than I think they did, and we didn’t give a ton of scoring chances, just everyone they had went in the net. It was a product of us just not defending – we were just too far away from our net, we weren’t men down low.”
– Lightning Head Coach Jon Cooper after losing 5-0
Doesn’t usually get said in a game that you win by five, but Andersen played really well and bought the Leafs time to build that kind of lead. A few nights later, they played Chicago, gave up 40 shots, and Andersen was the main reason they got a point out of the game. It’s no secret, but Andersen is going to be the main reason for either making or missing the playoffs at this point.
Video Tidbit of the Week
Alec made a great point after the game on Morgan Rielly not opening up on his overtime 2-on-1. His shot remains an overall issue and that, in particular, was just a basic mistake. Rielly has five goals on the season.
After the 2-on-1, the remaining time in the video is the only ice Nylander saw in overtime. He back-checked a Chicago 2-on-1 when the puck went up the blue line, he got caught calling for what should have been a too-many-men penalty, took himself out of position and got beat by Panarin, and that was it. Nylander sits fourth on the team in scoring and leads the team in PP points; he’s one of their most explosive players, particularly in open ice. At this point, if they are going to continue losing after regulation, at least do it with your best players.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. In overtime, I think I would have three pairings – Kadri-JVR, Bozak-Marner, Matthews-Nylander. That’s it. The Leafs are putting out grinders and killing the clock when they can’t seem to win a shootout to save their lives this season.
2. Similarly, I think everyone has to admit Babcock is being stubborn by continuing to play Hyman with Matthews. Hyman is tied for 10th on the team in scoring and tied for eighth on the team in even strength scoring despite playing over 843 minutes alongside Matthews at 5v5, who leads in both categories. Even against Florida when the lines were shaken up and Marner joined Matthews, Hyman remained on his left wing. I would swap Hyman and Soshnikov right now, putting both of those players back on their proper sides on the wing.
3. With this team, I think I would be focused on zone matching instead of line matching. Babcock has been steadily setting line vs. line matchups, with Brian Boyle’s line recently getting the top assignments. I don’t think they are good enough to be getting those matchups, so I would be managing it slightly differently. Instead of deploying players head-to-head, I would give Boyle’s line tough defensive zone starts, Kadri’s line tough offensive zone starts, Bozak’s line easy offensive zone starts, and Matthews’ line easy defensive zone starts. I’d build it out that way instead of line matching.
4. I think the Gardiner-Zaitsev pairing really struggles to retrieves pucks and hasn’t gelled for whatever reason, leading to a 46.CF% together. For that reason, when Carrick returns, I’d slot him back in with Gardiner, and keep Rielly-Zaitsev together even though they have had their struggles. At this point, their options are so limited and there is not much time left. The only other thing they could consider — which would be really drastic — is reuniting Rielly-Marincin, who were good together in meaningless games to end last season, and rounding out the defense with Hunwick-Zaitsev. That seems highly unlikely, though.
5. I think the Leafs have an interesting goalie decision ahead of them this week with a back-to-back in which the first game is on the road against Columbus and the second game is at home against New Jersey. Obviously, Devils are a much easier opponent for multiple reasons. They could start Andersen, play well and still lose to the Blue Jackets, and then play a rested Devils team with their backup. But the Leafs have played Andersen in the first game of every back-to-back this season, and I think I would stick with that. They are playing a great team in Columbus and it is a great challenge. Match up your best and see how it goes. I think McElhinney is good enough to get a result against New Jersey as well.