Forty games into the 2017-18 season for the Toronto Maple Leafs are in the books and at the midway point of the year, there are probably more questions than answers in terms of who this team is, and what this team is capable of.
The Leafs are currently tied for 9th in the NHL with 48 points, tied with the Boston Bruins (the Bruins have 3 games in hand). They are 3rd in goals for, 12th worst in goals against, and sit at 21st in shots for, while being 3rd worst in shots against. The special teams have been excellent, sitting 5th on the power play and 10th on the PK.
They’ve suffered 2 three game losing streaks but have a 6 game win streak and won 5 of 6 twice so far. Their best performances were probably a 6-0 win in Montreal and a 4-1 win in Calgary where they dominated at both ends.
They have scored at least 6 goals in a game 7 times. Without a doubt, the Leafs offence can be potent. However, it seems more streaky, the goal scoring this year, than a consistent threat game in and game out. The Leafs started the season with 34 goals in 7 games. But they also fell into a lull in December scoring 11 goals only in a 7 game stretch. Granted, it does not help when your best player misses 10 games out of 40 so far this season, but, there should be enough talent here to have a dangerous lineup consistently.
The problem with the offence is likely attributed to their defence. They went through a stretch in late October giving up 25 goals in a 6 game span. Plus, there were many grade A chances. The result was an immediate change in philosophy and style that could arguably be not the best suited for the type of players the team has on its roster.
The speed game we’ve seen for the most part last year, has not really been consistent this season. The Leafs seem more choked off and have not been using their speed advantage at all against their opponents. Yes, opposing teams have adapted and we can point to a late October game vs the Sens where the Leafs were completely slowed. The NHL is a copycat league and others followed suit, or at least tried to.
But their own leaky D has also changed the Leafs play and specifically their offence. Its been nullified by a more safer defensive style where its more dump and chase. Instead of possessing the puck and making plays with it, the theme has been mostly trying to get the puck out in a safe area and keeping opponents outside, away from the danger zone in front of the net.
It has resulted in the Leafs possession numbers being a bit down from last season. It has probably attributed to the up and down offence, priority to the defence, and the abundance of shots against. Also not helping in that the Leafs have had 24 games where they’ve only had 2 power plays or less while giving up at least 3 power plays in 27 of their first 40 games. Constantly being on the PK means their top players are getting less ice time, and their role players, and for Toronto that means the same four forwards and three defenceman who kill penalties, getting extra ice time.
Last year alone, they had only 30 games total where they had 2 or less power plays. Less opportunities this year means less time for those 2 potent units to feast on opposing teams. Last year the ratio on power plays against was 34 games with 2 or less power plays against and 48 with 3 or more. That percentage is also worse this year.
This is an important note because it hurts the team’s ability to get into a flow. It hurts them to being able to roll their lines the way they want and get the desired matchups they want. If your star players are not killing penalties, and are not getting many chances to play on the power play, they’re rotting on the bench, getting cold, not getting into a proper rhythm.
We’ve seen some interesting tactics employed by coach Mike Babcock. Sure, being forced to kill more penalties hurts flow, but he’s also not been as vigilant in trying to get the matchups he desires and has instead spent a lot of time trying to fit 10 top 9 forwards into all the available ice time.
He spent quite a bit of the first half changing up lines to not only get his desired defensive balance through the lineup, but also to deal with the injuries that cropped up. It seemed though it didn’t have the most desired affect as players seemed uncomfortable playing out of position, playing in less familiar roles and probably not playing enough. Its probably why of late the team has gone back to their most common lineup structure.
Another thing we’ve seen from the coach has been using more often a top line vs top line matchup which differs from last season where he was fairly strict in trying to get a specific forward line out there to check the opposing team’s best.
While we have seen Nazem Kadri still face the league’s best players, we have seen as well Auston Matthews go head to head against top guys. It’s been intriguing to watch to see the second year star in that role as his growth has seen him show us how strong a player he can be all over the ice. But he’s best at scoring goals and let’s see if he’ll be given more favourable matchups in the second half.
One possible explanation for this is probably the schedule. The Leafs played 24 of their first 40 games away from the Air Canada Centre. In their last 20 games, they’ve played all of them in a span of 44 days, travelling to 4 time zones, including the West coast twice, and 15 of them were away. Also, 5 of their 7 back to backs in the first half were in this stretch and they also went a 7 day span playing 5 games. Its of little wonder why their record was 10 wins and 10 losses over those 20 games. It also probably explains why a) it was much harder to get the desired matchup, and b) why rolling 4 lines was probably necessary due to the travel and condensed schedule.
Yes, every team has scheduling issues and definitely complaining about the schedule or using it as an excuse doesn’t sit well for the Western Conference teams who’s schedules are borderline torturous. However, this was a tough test for the Leafs in the 1st half and to be in a relatively comfortable playoff position and still top 10 in the NHL overall is, as a whole, a victory in itself.
Thankfully though, the schedule is much better in the second half. The second half sees them playing 24 home games as opposed to 17 road games. Instead of 3 separate Western swings, they only play 3 games outside the Eastern Time Zone.
They only have one game outside the Eastern Time Zone after January 25th, in Nashville. This is as favorable a schedule as you can get.
They will spend the first 17 days in January in Toronto as they have a 6 game homestand to start 2018. This includes a 5 day break in between games. They also have a 5 day break for the All Star Game. That’s 5 days between 2 sets of back to backs.
They also have a stretch in March where they play one game in an 8 day span right before another back to back. Suffice to say, they should be much fresher in the second half when playing consecutive nights.
The Leafs will need that favorable schedule, and need to take advantage of it, in order to secure a good seed in the playoffs. That’s the most interesting thing for this team with plenty of question to answer, they’re pretty much secure for a playoff spot barring an epic second half collapse.
Hopefully the less travel, the less of a grind will mean more of the Leafs better forwards getting increased ice time. Their skilled guys have the ability to push the pace, to push teams over the edge. Rolling four lines and playing everyone evenly sounds nice, but most teams play their stars to death, and in reality, those star players love it. When push comes to shove, the Leafs should be shoving a more than regular dose of sublime skill down opposing team’s throats, carrying the action, and taking it to other teams. It shouldn’t be the other way around which we’ve seen more often than not.
Also important for their second half will be to stay healthy. Granted, the team has been lucky in that regard compared to other teams, however, the losses of Matthews for 10 games, the recent absence of Nikita Zaitsev on D and the last couple games without Kadri, who leads their checking line, have really tested the team’s depth.
The blueline especially has been tested the most and has the biggest questions heading into the second half.
Even with Zaitsev, the Leafs were probably still 2 defenceman away from really vaulting themselves into a so called Stanley Cup favorite.
It will be imperative for Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello to address this problem pretty much immediately. Yes, playing strong defence is a team game where all 5 skaters much contribute as a unit to defend their goal. But, the lack of smarts, talent and depth on D hurts the team and stops them from being effective both offensively and defensively.
So, where could this help come from? Well there are certainly options, and the list will grow as more teams are slowly but surely eliminated from contention. But it’s not likely the team can wait that long.
Here are some names to consider:
Chris Tanev – a RH shot who plays a steady defensive game, and is a good skater. He could definitely fit in the top 4 and provide a calming presence to the lineup while not slowing the team down.
Eric Gudbranson – A big tough customer who’d add that element to a Leaf team that lacks it. He won’t provide offence and is not a great skater, but he could help at the defensive end.
Niklas Hjalmarsson – currently injured, the veteran D man would offer plenty of cup experience and steady defensive play. He’s exactly who Toronto probably needs.
Mike Green – would be only a rental and provides offence but can be a defensive liability.
Ian Cole – gritty, stay at home D, has plenty of playoff experience and blocks shots. He’d help But isn’t the most glamorous upgrade.
Justin Faulk – probably would cost a pretty penny to get, but he’s extremely skilled and an upgrade on what they have. Canes could use more offence up front and have a terrific young D to allow them to maybe trade Faulk.
Ryan Murray – another upgrade who could offer both short and long term help. He’s playing 3rd pair in Columbus but would be much more than that here. The Jackets desperately need help at centre.
Niklas Kronvall – a grizzled veteran who Babs knows very well, he can carry some of the heavy and potentially could offer a similar impact like Hainsey.
There’s also been a few high end options that have been thrown out there. Shea Weber’s name has been mentioned. Kris Letang was briefly talked about. And you couldn’t go any higher than Erik Karlsson, a former Norris winner.
While each would be absolutely tremendous additions and change the face of the East, it seems quite unlikely, actually improbable that any of these players could be acquired. Yes, Lou is a crafty, ingenious GM, but it seems doubtful he has the magic to pull this off without breaking up the current team’s core, severely overpaying and potentially impacting the Leafs long term goals.
That being said, an improvement is absolutely needed. So some of the less glamorous names could be had and they’d definitely improve things here. Or perhaps, for now, a player within, like Travis Dermott, who is currently with the Leafs AHL affiliate the Toronto Marlies, can help.
Dermott has been the team’s arguably strongest defenceman and player overall when he’s been healthy. Just coming off injury, he’s back, performing at a high level and seemed most primed for a callup. The Leafs don’t really have much to lose in perhaps bringing him into the fold as probably four of the Leafs current, healthy blueliners are either not trustworthy from the coaches standpoint, or shouldn’t even be playing period. And none of them are even named Jake Gardiner who has not had the best of seasons so far.
Toronto needs to do something, and calling up a top prospect may be as good of an impact as any trade they can make now, and could give them the boost they need until they actually can make one.
Trades take time, thought and patience. Lou is the best at playing the game. So if there’s something out there, be it the names mentioned, or someone else, Lou and the Leafs better get their defenceman.
So finding that elusive D (or three of them), finding the right mix up front, finding a way to get that vaunted power play on the ice, finding their game and the right way to play, as Babcock puts it, is all on the agenda for the second half.
That’s an awful lot of questions for a top 10 team. But, there is another level this team can reach with the talent they possess. Being a playoff team is one thing, being a playoff contender is another, and that’s where the Leafs need to find a way to get to that level.
Their play so far doesn’t really bring that confidence they can win a cup, and neither especially does that defence. But 17 months ago they were selecting 1st overall in the NHL draft. Lots of growth has happened then and they have some of the best minds building this team and building this roster and the talent within it.
They’re a work in progress and have an excellent chance at a strong second half to make that work in progress be even better. Despite the troubles and concerns, there is a lot to like about this team and its chances. They’ve survived the worse of their schedule and some of their key guys are finding their footing.
Seems like a big ask for a team to challenge for a Stanley Cup, which less than 2 years ago wrapped up last overall in the standings. But standards and expectations have grown a lot since then. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with expecting more. And off the heels of championships by other Toronto sports teams, like the FC and the Argos, lets expect this Leaf team that is as talented as anyone to deliver big; provided they answer all their questions correctly.
1st Half Grades:
Auston Matthews A+
31 points in 30 games and his absence from the lineup during the middle of the first half put a huge hole in the lineup. He’s what stirs the drink for the Leafs. If fully healthy, expect a huge second half, with hopefully heavy minutes as Leafs drive for the playoffs.
Fredrik Andersen A
The backbone of the team. Though the numbers aren’t spectacular or league leading, Andersen getting hot from November onward kept the Leafs where they are now. His workload is managed well, but he’s facing a heavy barrage when he does play. They’ll need him to be even better if the Leafs can’t clean up their defensive act.
Ron Hainsey A-
Arguably the team’s 1st half MVP not named Andersen or Matthews. He’s been beyond what the Leafs expected. He’s been an absolute rock and heavy presence on the PK. He’s helped Reilly’s game immensely and if he is going to continue at this level, the Leafs better get him some help to ease the workload.
Morgan Reilly B+
Reilly has taken his game to a different level. They’ve needed it due to some others regressing. Still prone to some defensive positioning miscues but he’s been driving the play and driving the offence. He’s already surpassed last year’s point totals.
James vanRiemsdyk B
Say what you will about his defensive game, and perceived no care way he looks on the ice, JVR has piled up the goals and is on pace to beat last year’s goal output. He is doing it with less ice time. Think of the opportunities he could have if the team drew more penalties.
Mitch Marner B
Marner had a rough start to the season, struggling to score, getting demoted to the 4th line and having his confidence take a hit. But he has 16 points in his last 20 games, looks confident again and could be set for a monster 2nd half. Those who love Corsi, love Marner who’s been driving the possession game most of the season, despite those early struggles.
William Nylander B-
Nylander, like Marner, struggled at times to score, struggle to defend and also found him self demoted. If anyone was affected the most by Matthews absence, it was Nylander. But Auston is back now, and hopefully the offence can take off. That will need the help of young William. If anyone can increase the pace and push team’s backwards, its him.
Nazem Kadri B-
Kadri struggled badly the last several games going pointless and is now hurt. After a strong start, his goal pace is now less than last season’s. The struggles have hurt his overall game a bit. A normally strong possession player, those numbers are down. Perhaps once he returns to health, and with all those home games, he can get back to being the major irritant who can drive offence again.
Patrick Marleau A-
What more can be said about the 38 year old? On pace for 30 goals, Marleau has played all over the lineup be it wing or centre and up and down each line. He’s been everything the Leafs could have hoped for and yet we probably could see even more from him. Like what could we see if he was actually paired with a top notched playmaker or possession driver?
Zach Hyman B
The guy the traditionalists and the possession lovers love to hate, but the man the coach absolutely loves. The most tireless worker on the team seems extremely miscast on the top line beside the team’s best player, but don’t expect that to change.
Connor Brown B
Another Babcock fav, Brown is on pace to equal last year’s offensive output while filling in multiple roles with this team. When fully healthy, he’s been the odd man out, yet that doesn’t stop his motor from running.
Matt Martin B-
Martin has already passed last seasons point totals. While he’s fought less, he’s still taking the body and providing energy. He’s the biggest lightning rod on the team among fans who feel he should be replaced. But he’s proven to be fairly effective.
Curtis McElhinney B-
Though only 3-4, McElhinney has performed well with a shutout and a .916 save percentage. Currently injured, the team has 7 back to backs remaining and will need a few wins from him (or Calvin Pickard) to keep pace in the East.
Nikita Zaitsev B-
Zaitsev has played a ton leading the Leafs with a 22:51 average ice time. He has though struggled some and is now hurt. He could use a Hainsey type partner to give him a steady hand rather than having to try an cover for Gardiner.
Dominic Moore C
Moore has been a solid pro, going in and out of the lineup but giving his all when he does play. He’s chipped in the odd goal and helped the PK.
Leo Komarov C+
Komarov has been really good on the pk but has struggled 5 on 5. He has stunted the offence on that line and hasn’t been as lock down as in previous years. His possession numbers are atrocious.
Jake Gardiner C
Among the Leafs top players, Gardiner has been the most disappointing. He’s struggled with giveaways leading the team with 51 and his miscues have been more often than ever. His possession numbers are also down. He probably benefits most from any blueline additions.
Tyler Bozak C-
Bozak has struggled the worst among forwards as his points are way down from last year. It couldn’t come at a worse time with it being a contract year. He’s also struggled on draws and the new faceoff rules.
Andreas Borgman C+
Borgman has been ok as a rookie but we’ve seen his ice time dwindling with each passing game. He’s not trusted on any special teams. While he’s shown grit and some skill, he’ll likely be replaced in the short term if Toronto can upgrade.
Roman Polak C
Polak returned early this season and added needed toughness to the D. He provides a physical element on the PK and blocks shots. But if he has to play more, that’s going to spell big trouble for Toronto.
Connor Carrick D
Carrick has failed to seize the opportunity to stick in the lineup a couple of times. He looks shaky and lacks confidence. He will likely be the first pushed out if a new defenceman is acquired. The team though is 16-4-1 when he plays.
Josh Leivo D
Leivo is another who hasn’t taken advantage when in the lineup. Though some feel he hasn’t been given a fair chance, he’s really a player caught in the numbers game as he needs ice time and skill to play with, but is 11th on the depth chart to play on the top 3 lines.