It seems like only yesterday that the 2016/17 NHL season just started. Yet, here we are at the halfway point of the season.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s what has been expected for a team going through a rebuild. For years, the team and fan base has gone through so much pain and disappointment. But now we are beginning to see the bright spots of the future based on what management has been able to accomplish with this roster.
Like last year, we are seeing a major improvement in terms of overall structure and performance on the ice.
Now, we didn’t expect the rebuild to be this smooth of a transition. I mean it’s only year two since Lou Lamoriello and company started to tear down this roster with the Phil Kessel deal.
However, the Leafs are currently in a playoff spot with a 20-13-8 record and are only three points behind the Boston Bruins for second in the Atlantic Division. What seemed too good to be true heading into the season may actually happen. 2016 was a rough year, but 2017 may turn out to be one to remember for the Leafs and their fans if they are able to make it. They’ve shown that they’re able to keep up with the best.
They’ve been making successful and rapid progress in their rebuild. If you told me that the Leafs would make the playoffs one year from being dead last in the league, I wouldn’t believe you. I had the team just missing out on the playoffs with a pick outside the top 10. But they continue to surprise everyone. It won’t be the first time I’ve been wrong.
The success of this team is astonishing, but what has made them successful so far this year? Here are a few things on what we have learned from the Leafs after 41 games and why the playoffs aren’t all that crazy to think about.
Andersen is the Answer:
While he didn’t have the start he wanted, Frederik Andersen appears to be in the same form when he was with the Anaheim Ducks. The Leafs finally have the number one goalie they’ve been searching for.
After going 2-2-3 in October and a save percentage of .873 in that month, Andersen has been providing solid goaltending throughout November to January, going 16-7-4 with a .924 save percentage in those months. Andersen managed to have a save percentage of .900 or better in 20 of those games.
We knew that it would take some time for Andersen to get used to a new environment, team and system. There were some concerns at the beginning that he was letting in weak goals, but that seems to be a thing of the past. Even when the defense fails in front of him, Andersen still manages to be backbone of the team, providing a strong outing to give his team a fighting chance to win.
Babcock wanted him to be more aggressive while in the net. I think that’s why Andersen struggled, due to the fact that he was trying to play a new style than what he was used to. Also, he just came off an upper body injury before the season started. So far, it’s working out for him, Babcock and the team.
If there is any hope for a playoff spot, the Leafs will rely on Andersen as they’ve done so far this year. Even if they do make it, he could be run down with all the appearances he’s made. He’s started in 34 of 41 games this year. That’s a heavy workload. The Leafs seem to have a viable backup option by claiming Curtis McElhinney off waivers after Jhonas Enroth couldn’t provide the backup goaltending the Leafs needed.
McElhinney has great experience in the back up role and he had great numbers with the Columbus Blue Jackets, going 2-1-2 with a 2.39 goals- against average and .924 save percentage. If he can provide great goaltending, then the Leafs will have a great duo in net.
Strong goaltending will get you to the playoffs and beyond. Andersen has been doing just that.
Rookies Leading the Way:
From the start of the World Cup of Hockey, we knew the Leafs young players would be a key factor this year. They’re going to be heavily relied on for a team where offense and defense were both going to be question marks heading into the start of the season. And half way through the season, they have yet to disappoint the coaching staff, management and Leafs Nation. And if the playoffs are the goal, then they won’t disappoint at the most important time of the year.
It’s safe to say these kids are the real deal.
Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander have exceeded expectations with the high end, elite level skill that made the Leafs draft them as part of the core. All three are currently ranked in the top five in rookie scoring and the Leafs have six in the top 20 in scoring. The Leafs have been getting the most offensive output from the rookies with 161 points among teams with rookies. Matthews, Marner and Nylander are combined for 100 of those points, 62 per cent.
All- Star Auston Matthews has been getting better and better each game. Despite a 13- game goalless streak, he’s had 15 in the last 22 games played, proving to everyone that he is the franchise centre that the team has been desperately waiting for.
Matthews is capable of making plays at such a fast pace that it throws the opposition off every time he has the puck. He uses his size to his advantage perfectly each shift while managing to display his elite level shot and vision. In any situation, be it grinding it out in the corners, on the fore-check or making a Norris Trophy winner look stupid while deking out the entire team. Matthews has been a treat to watch this year. Here are two plays where completely fooled the Ottawa Senators:
Mitch Marner’s year is just getting better. After leading the London Knights to the OHL Championship and Memorial Cup, along with other personal accolades, Marner is currently second behind Matthews in team scoring. His vision, speed, skill and awareness are what make him such a gifted player. Despite his size, he is able to hold his own, managing to use his speed to elude players in the corners and even on breakaways to fend off defenders:
Marner has been really consistent in terms of point production, with a 0.85 points per game in his rookie season. He can create plays like the ones in an NHL video game and leave everyone with their jaws dropped. This is one of the main reasons why Babcock doesn’t want to put Marner with Matthews (although that would be a thrill to watch). Like Matthews, Marner is clearly capable of driving the play on his own line. Like the Chicago model, Toews and Kane are on separate lines for the sole purpose of having two strong top six units with one person leading the play. It creates a great balance and it allows other players to find the open ice while everyone is drawn to Marner and Matthews.
I wouldn’t say that this is an issue, but the only critique I would say of Marner, is that he gets too creative in trying to make a play. This is an excellent sign considering that he hardly turns the puck over, but if he has an opportunity to shoot, he needs to be greedy and keep the puck for himself instead of trying to make a play.
Nylander is an interesting player. He was on a roll to start the season, and then he hit a rough stretch, like most rookies. Now, he’s trying to find himself. There have been a couple of times, where he’s found himself in Babcock’s doghouse, being demoted to the fourth line. There have been plays where he makes poor decisions with the puck and misses assignments on the back-check and in the defensive end. And when you make plays like that and aren’t playing well on both sides of the puck, you have to face the consequences.
Nylander tried to make a play up the middle of the ice in his own zone. He tried to make a move at the blueline, creating a turnover leading to Kase getting a chance on net and setting Nick Ritchie up for a goal. Nylander misses his assignment to tie Ritchie up.
Plays like these won’t sit well with any coach. Yes, he’s young and mistakes will happen, but a simple play like that needs to be executed properly. There was ample room to beat him to the outside instead of cutting in front of him.
Nylander is a gifted player and he will have a great career, but his decision-making needs to improve. It’s no doubt that Babcock will serve as an excellent mentor in helping him along the path to being successful.
Nikita Zaitsev is showing that the transition to the North American game has been a cakewalk. Although he has one goal, he has 15 assists and a powerful shot that will be a consistent part of his repertoire. He’s moved up in the lineup since his first game playing on the first unit with Morgan Rielly. We knew that he would be in our top four eventually, but we didn’t know that he would have this much of an impact on the top defensive pairing this soon.
Like most rookie defensemen, we still see some mistakes in terms of positioning and decisions, but for the most part, Zaitsev has been meeting the expectations of the Leafs organization.
Goals, Goals and more Goals:
As a result of the high octane scoring the Leafs are getting from their younger players, the scoring and offensive production has sky rocketed compared to last year. They’re gaining more time in the offensive zone thanks to relentless pressure entering the zone with speed and creating an effective fore-check to wear opponents down.
They’ve started their games off perfectly, leading the league in first period goals with 49. The way they start the game has a tremendous impact on the way the play for 60 minutes. Babcock must be happy the way they come flying out of the gate.
The offense struggled mightily last year, but they were following Babcock’s game plan to a tee with a more structured system that valued puck possession.
At the beginning of the year, I knew the offense would improve, but I didn’t expect it to have this much of an impact, especially from the rookies. They’re expected to surpass my expectations I had in terms of point production. Matthews already has 21 goals and there are no signs of him slowing down.
The Leafs rookies are leading scorers amongst teams with rookies with 161 points. Not to mention, they have assisted on 80 per cent of the Leafs 127 goals.
Like last year, we’re seeing a lot of controlled entries, patience with the puck, excellent puck movement and pressure on the opposition. The Leafs added speed and skill in this area, which is helping in catching the opponent off guard. With this, they gain a lot of offensive zone-time and they make the most of their opportunities.
Below is a chart comparing last year to this year:
|Goals For||192 (28th)||127 (6th)|
|Goals Against||240 (7th)||115 (16th)|
|GF/GP||2.34 (28th)||3.10 (6th)|
|GA/GP||2.93 (7th)||2.80 (13th)|
|SF/GP||30.7 (6th)||32.9 (3rd)|
|SA/GP||30.5 (10th)||32.8 (4th)|
You can already see a difference in terms of goals for, shots for per game and even the goal against per game. The Leafs are almost averaging three goals a game (a 0.76 increase from the previous year) and are in the top 10 in both categories, proving that they are capable of scoring every night against some of the best teams in the league. Despite having a young roster, Babcock is doing a fantastic job in making everyone buy into his system with a team first mentality. They force turnovers and are more aggressive in the neutral zone leading to more shots on net.
The thing is, it’s not just the rookies who continue to light the lamp every night. Tyler Bozak (10 goals, 28 points), James van Riemsdyk (15 goals, 35 points) and Nazem Kadri (18 goals, 28 points) are all contributing to the offense, while providing an excellent veteran presence for the rookies. The top six is meant to provide the scoring and they’re doing just that.
Leafs struggling to close out games:
If there’s one area that needs to be addressed for the Leafs, it’s defense.
So far this year, the Leafs have eight overtime/ shootout losses. Imagine what their record would be like if the defense performed better and shutdown some of the games to earn a win? They would have at least four of those games and would be much further up in the standings. Games against the Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets, Chicago Blackhawks and New Jersey Devils are a few games that deserved a better outcome.
|Opponent||Score After 40 minutes||Result|
|Oct.12 vs. OTT||4-3 TOR||5-4 OTT (OT)|
|Oct.19 vs. WPG||4-1 TOR||5-4 WPG (OT)|
|Oct. 22 vs. CHI||3-2 TOR||5-4 CHI (SO)|
|Nov. 23 vs. NJ||4-3 TOR||5-4 NJ (SO)|
The results could’ve been different for the Leafs, but the inexperience got the best of them. But, again, that’s to be expected with a young roster where mistakes are bound to occur.
Most recently, the Leafs coughed up another lead, 4-1 against the Detroit Red Wings at the Centennial Classic. That game alone is another reason why the Leafs need another reliable defenseman on the back end to help the younger defenders out.
And let us not forget the lead that was against the Washington Capitals, losing 5-4 in overtime. The Leafs had the Capitals out of the game and they allowed them to come back. If the Leafs want to talk about a playoff spot, they have to learn to be better defensively and need to play and close the game with the lead. You can be sure that this will be a lesson learned.
Like last year, this is a tenacious and resilient group that won’t go down easily. Their defensive play has been better compared to previous years, decreasing the amount of shots on net. But, there are still holes in their game. We still see the poor coverage and missed assignments from time to time from the younger players. However, there should be no excuses from veterans such as Matt Hunwick.
Too many times this year, Hunwick is at the centre of a goal and missing his assignments that just leaves you scratching your head. An example is this clip against the Penguins.
Hunwick makes a lazy tie up on Rust in front of the net. He has no idea where the puck is. As soon as he moves away from his assignment, Rust finds the loose puck and puts it by Andersen. Those are plays that make everyone question if Hunwick is capable at playing at this fast pace of a level. Although, he has been playing better in his own zone lately. We’re still going to see some lapses as the Leafs are leaning more on younger players like Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev. But the potential and promise is there.
Jake Gardiner has been known for his defensive lapses. However, at times, we’re seeing a better Gardiner who is capable of playing a strong two-way game, just like we witnessed when he first came over from Anaheim. While we still see the poor decisions from time to time, it’s not as evident as it was before.
On that play, Connor Carrick makes a poor decision to chip the puck up the boards and it leads to a turnover. The puck is thrown on net and Jonathan Marchessault is wide open for the rebound. Gardiner is at the middle of the circles, not knowing that there is man alone in front. Carrick makes an attempt to get back quickly to cover for Gardiner, but it’s too little too late.
The Leafs have a foundation set with their defense core in Rielly, Zaitsev and Gardiner. Help will be coming in the next year or so, with the stellar play of Travis Dermott and Andrew Nielsen with the Marlies. If the Leafs are set on pushing for a spot this year, they could be in play to land a young, top- four defenseman through a trade. If and when that piece arrives, then they should be set. Obviously if it’s a deal that makes sense and they don’t give up key assets, then it’s a win.
Over the last two games, the Leafs have done a fantastic job, closing out the games to secure the win. If they manage to decrease the amount of shots and get more offensive zone time, then they’ll have less pressure on them to kill time off the clock.
If the Leafs want to compete with the best in the league, they’re going to have to have success in these four areas. While their offense has improved tremendously compared to last year, the defense remains a key area of improvement, needing to close out games when they matter the most. 41 games have gone by and 41 remain.
Can they continue to provide the offensive flare and strong play that we’ve seen so far? That’ll be determined in the second half of the season. What we do know, is that this is the most excited that Leafs fans have been for a long time as the playoffs might happen sooner, rather than later.