Mirtle: Should the Maple Leafs trade from a strength — their forward depth — to help them on D and in goal?
By James Mirtle
Dec 14, 2019
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
— This was, yet again, one of the Maple Leafs’ better games of the season.
Even with a quiet night for the Auston Matthews line and even with Tyson Barrie going down with an ankle injury early on, so many others stepped up that the Leafs were able to dominate long stretches of the night.
Justin Holl played a career-high 26:10 — nearly six minutes more than he had ever skated in an NHL game — and was a key factor in helping shut down Connor McDavid.
Hyman-Tavares-Marner was hugely effective in that effort, too, limiting McDavid to just 20 percent expected goals in their head-to-head minutes at even strength.
Frederik Andersen was, again, excellent, too, bumping his save percentage to .921 on the season. He’ll enter the Vezina conversation if he continues to play as well as he has the past six weeks.
Of all the various Leafs storylines, however, the one that stood out the most to me was the third line. The Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Engvall trio was dominant on the puck all night, producing the first two goals and proving exceptionally hard for Edmonton to handle.
The mismatch in forward depth was apparent early and often, and while Oilers coach Dave Tippett tried to get his big guns out against MKE, they were more than up to that challenge, forcing the NHL’s two highest scorers to defend more often than not.
Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe had been counting on that as a positive factor coming in, too.
“We knew that we had to do a job against those top guys, but we also thought that our depth would be a factor in the game today,” Keefe said. “It seems like that’s how it worked out.”
The defensive performance was obviously important, but I think the goals were even more vital, given the droughts that they were in. Ilya Mikheyev’s goal was his first in 21 games, since all the way back on Oct. 25. Alexander Kerfoot had scored just once and produced only one assist in his last 17, in large part due to the broken facial bones he suffered in early November.
Not only did he lose about eight pounds off his already small frame, but he also has had to wear that awful fishbowl cage, which has limited his effectiveness with the puck.
The good news is he is almost healed — he had plates surgically implanted into his jaw — and soon the awkward face mask will go. Perhaps then the Leafs will have the 15-goal, 40-point man they thought they traded Nazem Kadri for in the offseason?
What should also help is the high quality of his wingers.
“Those guys have a ton of speed,” Kerfoot said Saturday. “Both Pierre and Mickey can fly and make it hard on the opposition. They get onto guys quickly and make them force plays. They are just tough to play against.”
Mikheyev is on pace for 43 points — all of them at even strength. In fact, only Matthews and John Tavares are ahead of him in that respect on the Leafs, and he ranks tied for 45th among forwards NHL-wide (alongside the likes of Sebastian Aho, Ryan O’Reilly and the Tkachuk brothers). He’s also tied with Buffalo’s Victor Olofsson for the rookie lead in even-strength points and has a decent shot of making the NHL’s all-rookie team at season’s end.
Pierre Engvall, meanwhile, has played only 12 games and averaged 9:58 ice time an outing, but his production translates to 34 points over a full 82-game season, despite zero power-play time.
Their chemistry with the diminutive Kerfoot has been really apparent early on here, something they can build on as they earn more minutes in games like this one. (Matthews skated in a season-low 14:34 as Keefe turned to MKE more and more.)
“They were great,” Keefe said. “They just skated. They skated. They worked. They made plays. They attacked the net. There was a lot of really good things they were doing. They were feeling it today. It’s a good sign for our team just with three guys like that that skate the way that they do and work. I felt comfortable no matter who they were on the ice against — even if it was McDavid.”
This road trip was a bit all over the place, with high points in St. Louis and Edmonton and a disappointing low in Calgary. But the Leafs finished 3-1-0 and now have some momentum to build off of after improving Keefe’s record to 7-4-0 through 11 games.
One challenge facing the new coach will be a logjam up front, as Trevor Moore is expected to return any day. With Engvall playing so well, it’s hard to see where he can find a top-nine role.
Even the Leafs’ fourth line is feeling a bit crowded with strong performers lately, after Dmytro Timashov and The Goat connected for a big insurance goal against the Oilers. Jason Spezza, too, has made a strong case to be an everyday player, given his sky-high P/60 and strong underlying numbers.
Once Andreas Johnsson gets healthy in the New Year, the Leafs front office is going to have some tough decisions not just about who is in the lineup but also who even gets to stay on the roster.
They can’t really demote Engvall if he’s producing like this and eating key minutes on a penalty kill that has suddenly become one of the league’s best under the new coach.
They can’t waive Timashov, Moore or Goat, either, without expecting to lose them to another club. (Heck, Nick Shore was claimed when they tried that manoeuvre a couple of weeks ago.)
If Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Engvall sticks as a trio, that’ll force either Kasperi Kapanen or Johnsson to the fourth line in January, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given their salaries and experience. If the third line keeps playing like this, however, those tough decisions could become trade chips, as that talk heats up around the league, thanks to the Taylor Hall sweepstakes.
Kapanen, in particular, is someone a lot of teams are keeping an eye on. You look at how talent-poor a team like Edmonton is on the wing, and you can see why.
He’s also proven a poor fit with a shot-first centre, which for the Leafs means he can’t excel alongside either Matthews or Tavares, who typically log 40 minutes a night.
A Kapanen-for-a-D deal might make sense here, if these standout performances down the lineup continue. I wondered watching the game Saturday night if someone like Adam Larsson might, at some point, be a fit, given Edmonton has room to subtract on the back end.
The Leafs have been hugely fortunate that Holl has emerged as the unexpected minutes-eater he is, but they still obviously need help on the right side. It’s one thing to shut down a one-line team like Edmonton; the task gets far tougher when the lineups Toronto will face have multiple threats spread out.
It’s hard to feel confident with Barrie or Cody Ceci in those minutes. In fact, it speaks volumes that one of the team’s best defensive games of the season came with one of them barely on the ice.
Bringing in another right-shot D could have the domino effect of making one of those two more expendable, which could help create more cap flexibility and the room to add insurance in goal.
The Leafs have a really soft schedule here over the next two weeks before the start of 2020. That should allow them to bank some points and climb the standings while also giving players like Holl, Engvall and others an opportunity to earn more minutes.
If they continue to prove capable, that provides a lot more options for Kyle Dubas.
Given the roster and cap crunch incoming soon, it may not make sense to wait for the trade deadline to make a move.
Emptying the notebook1. X-rays were negative on Barrie’s ankle after he blocked a shot, but Keefe said a full diagnosis will have to wait until Monday’s practice back in Toronto.
2. If Barrie can’t play for a couple of games, Rasmus Sandin may be withheld from the world juniors in the Czech Republic and recalled to play on the third pairing with Travis Dermott. The Leafs can’t afford to lean on Martin Marincin given how crucial these next two weeks are.
3. Michael Hutchinson is expected to start one of the back-to-back games against the Rangers or Red Wings next weekend. I have a feeling the Leafs will give him the sad-sack Red Wings, given how their last meeting went. That’s potentially a huge game for his future as the Leafs have only one more back-to-back series between then and Feb. 7-8. He needs to start putting up wins or the front office’s search for a replacement could pick up.
4. Nic Petan was demoted this weekend so the Leafs have roster room for Moore to rejoin the team without having to move out anyone else before Tuesday’s game against the Sabres. Pontus Aberg could be sent back to the Marlies shortly, too.