I was a St. John’s IceCaps season ticket holder for a couple of years. When the Winnipeg Jets were in town I told myself the AHL is a different league, it’s okay to cheer for the minor league affiliate of another NHL team. I even bought an IceCaps hat. Then the Jets picked up and left, and the Montreal Canadians affiliate came to town. I immediately bailed on my season tickets because I knew I had been lying to myself the entire time, there was no way I could cheer for the Baby Habs, there is crossover between the NHL and AHL. What I can do is put my Leafs jersey on and head to Mile One Centre every time the Marlies come to town. I can cheer on the guys in blue and white and watch the kids as they work towards making it to the NHL, and, hopefully, becoming great Leafs someday.
So that is exactly what I did, and I’ll share what I saw from the youngsters in that back to back set.
The offense ran through two players in particular. It’ll come as no surprise to find out they are Leipsic and Kapanen. Leipsic was especially impressive. He has never been afraid to go to the dirty areas of the ice but his vision and shot seem to have taken a step forward. Aside from that, his first few steps seem much more explosive since I watched him last. On a few occasions, on broken plays in the neutral zone, I watched as he ended up with the puck and was at, or near, a standstill. With little time, he didn’t panic, but instead he waited for the defenders to engage. When they got close the jets came on, and he left them behind with ease by getting to top speed within a few strides. That’s just one of a few different ways he would create controlled zone entries. He’s willing to work with and without the puck, and I believe that’s something that will get him another look in the NHL sooner, rather than later.
Kapanen brings skill and then more skill to the ice. We all know this, so I won’t spend much time on it. However, I would like to point out that he is spending a lot of time on the penalty kill and looked great doing it. This, in my opinion, shows a lot of confidence in his defensive acumen. Kasperi isn’t just an offensive player, he is far more rounded than that.
The biggest surprise for me was easily Andrew Nielsen. His game is far from polished. He got caught overhandling the puck a couple of times, and lost the puck in his feet, which lead to turnovers on other occasions. However, the raw tools are there, and you get more than a few glimpses of a really solid defender. He is calm in his own end and can play a big mans game. He takes the body at the right times and has the size and strength to engage in net front battles. His offensive game is apparent, but he may never be a big scorer. Just a well rounded young man. When I watch him play all I can think is the sky’s the limit.
Lastly I’ll touch on the goaltending. Antoine Bibeau seems to have taken a giant leap forward this season. He gets set and lets the play happen in front of him. This shows a guy that is confident in his ability to get in the right position, and react if he needs to. Conversely, Sparks is constantly moving. Whether it’s a pad jumping off the ice for a split second, or his glove hand constantly on the go, he doesn’t seem to stay still for a moment. Hopefully he settles down. From all reports he is a great team guy, so it would be nice to have him in the room as a backup one day, if that’s his ceiling. Afterall, Frederik Andersen will always need a good backup…..
When I spoke about Frederik Andersen last time I asked Leafs Nation for a little patience. He was taking a lot of heat for the losses that were piling up. I knew from watching him in Anaheim that he was much better than he had shown in his first few games. I felt he just needed time to settle in and find his game.
Since then he’s been solid almost every night. He’s gone 7-4 in his last 11, with a 0.927SV% and a 2.69GAA. This is the Frederik Andersen I’ve come to know, and the guy I wanted the Leafs to trade for over the summer. He handles the puck very well, uses his big frame to block pucks, and also uses his agility to make the tough saves when he needs to. Eventually, we’ll assume, Mike Babcock will have this team playing a much more responsible game. That might mean getting some help from Lou Lamoriello via player acquisition, but when that does happen it will only mean getting even better games from Frederik Andersen…..
The Problem With Defense
The Toronto Maple Leafs are dead last in the NHL in shots against (5v5). They’re also dead last in shot attempts against (5v5). If that’s not bad enough, they are also towards the bottom of the league in goals against, behind only Calgary, Philadelphia and Dallas. Three teams that have below par goaltending so far this year.
On the other side of the coin, they are towards the top of the league in goals for per game, shot attempts for (5v5), and blocked shots.
To me this looks like a team that is willing to trade chances at will. It also means that the great run I just spoke about from Andersen could come to an end before long. You can’t expect to hand your goalie this much work and not have him eventually burn out. So where’s the solution? Most fans and media have been pointing towards the defense for answers. While the Leafs aren’t supporting a top end blueline cast, is that the full story? The blueline group doesn’t seem to have any trouble killing penalties, as indicated by their 13th overall PK%. So why the 5v5 frustrations?
The worst SF/SA differentials on the team belong to Polak, Smith, Zaitsev and Hunwick. This means that when they are on the ice, there are far more pucks being directed towards our net than the opponents. That’s half of your defense group in the bottom 4 in this stat. Towards the top we have Gardiner, Matthews, Carrick, Hyman, Nylander and Rielly. Three more defense in the top 6. With that major split from the blueline, and with players on both ends of the spectrum playing a lot of minute together, it’s tough to point a finger at one player or another. We can assume that Polak, Smith, Hunwick and Zaitsev don’t drive possession as well as we could hope, but that, to me, isn’t all there is to the game of hockey.
One thing I have been noticing? The Leafs are failing at holding the zone when they get in and gain possession. Play after play, game after game, the opposition is clearing the zone by wrapping the puck up around the boards from anywhere. One play in particular, versus the Montreal Canadians on Saturday, November 19th, a Canadian defender had the puck behind his net. Two Leafs forwards closed in on either side, which gave him zero passes to make because his teammates failed to give him an outlet. This left him with two options, wrap the puck up the boards towards the Leafs left defence, or wrap the puck up the boards the other way, towards their right defenceman. Instead of recognizing this and cutting off the walls, the Leafs defence stayed a couple of feet off the wall. The puck was wrapped around the boards, the Leafs defence chased and didn’t make it in time, the puck cleared and the threat to score was gone. If you can’t maintain pressure, and make the other team chase the puck for a while, you aren’t going to win in this league. Say what you want about the Canadians, but they effectively closed off the walls all night versus the Leafs, which meant more zone time and more scoring chances for. So, while Babcock is doing a great job activating his defensemen on the pinch, and has the forwards covering them very effectively, there are still adjustments to make in the game plan in my opinion.
Game Plans That Can Stay The Same
While some things could use improvement, the special teams are looking pretty good. As of this writing the Leafs powerplay is sitting at 9th in the league. While they have been up and down the rankings over the past few years, this years group looks different. There has been consistency there, rather than a streakiness you would expect from a young team. Aside from a three game, seven powerplay goalless stretch, in which they won two games, there are no droughts to speak of. Some will tell you it’s early in the season, and technically they aren’t wrong, but I’ll tell you that we’re very near the quarter mark, and this is around when you know what a team is all about. Maybe you have a team turn it on (Nashville? The Islanders?), and maybe you have a team fall back to earth (Columbus?), but for the most part we’re getting a good picture of what you can expect this year. So what I expect from the powerplay is steady, but not elite production. Maybe they fall to the mid level, or climb a few spots, but generally we should convert at around the pace they are converting at now. The only wild card here is if the kids find a new gear and produce even more as the year goes on.
So, they look good with the man advantage but they also look good while down a man. The Leafs currently sit 13th in the league in PK%. While there can always be improvement to a mid-pack standing, I don’t feel like a goal is imminent every time a penalty is called either. The Leafs use their speed well to close gaps and pressure the puck carrier. They attack as a unit, often having four men deep in a corner while the points remain wide open. So, while it’s only a matter of time before opposing coaches figure out how to take advantage, and Babcock has to change the plan, for now, this is fairly efficient. Player usage has likely been the driving force behind their success. Zach Hyman has proven to be a very effective player when down a man and Leo Komarov has long been a mainstay on that unit. Connor Brown and Ben Smith have also been effective, but the real surprise for me has been Matt Martin.
Martin has done well on the penalty kill because he skates well and isn’t afraid to sacrifice the body. Now, in a perfect world, he wouldn’t be out killing penalties. I’m not saying he is a top guy on that unit, or that I’d like to see him out killing a penalty when we’re up by a goal with only two minutes to play. However, what I am saying is Mike Babcock has found a use for him beyond what I expected, and Martin has delivered as best as he can, which has been pretty good.
I will also applaud him for his dirty play in Vancouver. The NHL determined the Morgan Rielly hit to be clean. They also determined the Nazem Kadri blindside hit clean as well. Which was a shock to me. Aside from that, you had Burrows spearing Rielly and Dorsett, a known fighter, jumping Komarov, a guy that is not known to fight. The one incident from the game that has been overlooked? Gudbranson throwing Carrick to the ice, hard, after a whistle. That happened much earlier in the game. Things like that don’t get overlooked by a player like Martin. Gudbranson is much bigger than Carrick and Connor hadn’t done anything to deserve that type of hit.
So, when all of that is done, and you have two guys like Burrows and Dorsett going after Rielly and Komarov there needs to be a response. Martin delivered in spades. “Enforcers” have been weaned out of the league for a simple reason, you don’t have to fight them. Players like Dorsett, Kaleta, Marchand, Gallagher and Komarov prove that point. What I always said was needed was a guy that didn’t give players a choice. If you go after the Leafs skilled players, then you put your own skilled players at risk. This is exactly what Matt Martin did. Don’t ask, don’t give Stecher the chance to say no, just jump him because that’s exactly what Burrows did to Rielly. He speared him and then fought him. Same goes for Dorsett on Komarov. In my opinion, the reason the NHL stayed out of it, through zero disciplinary action, is because the players handled this on their own. As for Gudbranson saying “Martt Martin is ____ dead,” I’m sure a league representative will chat with Vancouver management, who will talk to him before their next game. I expect no further action here. Statements were made from both sides, now it’s time to move on.
Funny how things go. While I was vehemently against the Matt Martin signing, the more I watch him, the more I enjoy what he brings to the team. Meanwhile, I see some other fans trending in the opposite direction. This is me waving to you as we pass each other on the way by.
Last point, because my ramblings seem to have gone on long enough.
There are a lot of fans talking about trading for blueline help. In particular, they are asking for a legit top 2 defenseman. Many of you that visit Leafs Hub regularly may know my stance on this, I’ve talked about it on more than a few occasions. For those that drop into this fine corner of the internet to read the articles and nothing more, I’ll restate how I see things.
The Pittsburgh Penguins just won the Stanley Cup. For 4 years before that it was split between Chicago and Los Angeles. While the Blackhawks have a legit top pair, the same can’t be said for Pittsburgh or Los Angeles. They run a different set up on their blueline. What they have is a legit #1 defenseman followed by great depth. Letang in Pittsburgh and Doughty in Los Angeles are the #1 guys. After that it’s a flurry of solid, but not top pair, defense. While players like Dumoulin, Daley and Muzzin are fine players, they aren’t legit top pairing guys. They are legit top 4 players on just about every team in the league.
The question is, what do we have that can compare? Can Morgan Rielly be a legit #1 defenseman? I know where I stand on this, I’ve made it clear in previous articles that I think Rielly can be counted among the best in the world one day, it’s up to him. If he can then it’s not out of the question for Lamoriello and co. to look for top 4, rather than top 2 defense. Zaitsev fits the bill, Gardiner as well. Can Carrick be counted as a top 4 guy in the future? How about Nielsen, Dermott and Valiev? I’m going to be very interested to see what they do with the blueline moving forward, I just wonder what shape they want it to take.
If they do want a legit top pair guy to go with Rielly it’s not a bad idea. I’m simply saying it’s not as necessary a piece as some will have you believe if Rielly continues to improve. It’s a luxury at that point.
For the sake of discussion, here are a few teams that could move defense.
The Islanders would need to have a few more wins for somebody to say they stumbled out of the gate. More like they got blind drunk before the race started and fell down before the gates even opened. With Boychuk, Leddy, De Haan, Hamonic and Pulock (who is set to break in) on the roster they could spare defense for offense.
Calgary has goaltending issues, again, so maybe it’s not the goalies fault but their defense? It looks good on paper. Giordano, Brodie, Hamilton, Wideman and Engelland are the grey beards. Kulak and Jokipakka are just breaking in. There could be a piece that shakes loose there.
Anaheim has long been rumored to be willing to move Fowler. Gotta think if they wanted to move him for “John” Van Riemsdyk it would be done by now though. However, the last time I made a statement like that it was about Enroth as a free agent signing, so maybe (hopefully) I’m wrong again?
Vancouver is also rumored to be looking for scoring help. Besides Tanev is there anything there of interest though? Tough to make a deal there in my opinion.
There are likely other teams that are willing to make moves, such as St. Louis and Colorado, but for now I’ll leave the speculation up to you, the reader.
If you could buy a defender right now, who would that be? Or would you prefer patience, and hopefully an internal solution?