Mirtle: Drawing some ridiculously early conclusions about the 2019-20 Maple Leafs
By James Mirtle
7h ago 39
Well, that was a, uh, hockey game.
For long stretches of Saturday’s loss to the Canadiens, it appeared the story was going to be the Maple Leafs finding a way to outscore their problems on the second night of a back-to-back.
Except then, all of a sudden, they didn’t.
Credit to Montreal for pushing back after what had to be some deflating goals against. Auston Matthews has been video-gaming it into the net of late, and already at times through preseason and the first three regular-season games, it’s felt like the Leafs have a weird, unfair advantage in which their scorers can turn nothing plays (and relatively limited chances) into something spectacular.
That’s going to cover their warts on a lot of nights. It happened to some extent last year, but if the power play improves and some of their depth players exceed expectations, it could be even more true in 2019-20.
It’s a big reason they’re 2-0-1 on the season.
I don’t know if there’s one unifying theme you can take away from the Leafs start so far, but let’s go with a few percolating Mirtle thought bubbles and then make some early conclusions — with caveats — as much as we can.
They look even more dangerous offensivelyMike Babcock was clear after the Leafs’ first loss: He’s impressed with his team, generally speaking, even if he didn’t like how it played.
“I’ve liked our team — not tonight — but even at the end of exhibition (season), I’ve liked our team,” Babcock said. “I think we’ve got a good team. I think we play pretty hard. I think we can put a lot of pressure on the opposition. I didn’t think we did that tonight; I didn’t think we had the same kind of juice we normally have for whatever reason. In the end, it showed.”
Reading between the lines of Babcock’s comments throughout camp and now after three games, what he seems to appreciate the most is the depth of skill he has to work with.
The Leafs were a dynamic team offensively last year; they produced 3.5 goals a game for a reason. But you can see clear indicators early on that they should exceed that mark this year.
Last year, they had to lean extremely heavily on their top two lines and Nazem Kadri to produce offence. They were getting all those goals despite the fact Patrick Marleau and Connor Brown were often in the top nine, William Nylander was a mess and Matthews missed nearly 20 percent of the season.
They also didn’t have nearly as dynamic a blue line: Jake Muzzin wasn’t on the team until February, Jake Gardiner played hurt (or not at all) and Tyson Barrie was in Colorado.
Think about the factors that are lining up for the Leafs to produce even more offence:
No. 4 was particularly evident Saturday. Trevor Moore was great. Alexander Kerfoot was effective at both ends of the rink. And Ilya Mikheyev continues to look like a revelation, making good on Babcock’s heavy praise all preseason. (He even got a spin as the lone forward on the PK in overtime.)
That’s a completely brand new line, with three players who didn’t know one another a few weeks ago, and the embers of something special are already glowing every game.
The Lightning produced 3.89 goals a game last season, the highest total for any team since 1995-96, way back in pre-Dead Puck Era. If what we’re seeing early on is a true reflection of how some of these newcomers can play, Toronto could well approach that number.
Which will make up for the fact …
)They have a lot to figure out defensivelySo, as we know, it’s early, and with so many new faces, it shouldn’t be a surprise.
But the Leafs have been kind of a mess in their own end through three games.
Cody Ceci, in particular, was bad on Saturday, but it wasn’t just his missed reads that cost the Leafs. Morgan Rielly was caught well up ice a couple of times, and Toronto lost some pretty important one-on-one battles down low with the game on the line.
After about 140 minutes of five-on-five, the Leafs have been a middling team — 51.5 percent expected goals and 46.5 percent scoring chance share — at controlling play at even strength.
And it’s not as if they’ve been playing high-end competition, with their first really difficult test Monday against St. Louis.
To my eye, the Leafs are trying to play a more skilled breakout style from the D zone, perhaps due to the fact they’ve got some better passers dressed back there. But it’s been when they don’t have the puck that there’s been poor positioning and decision making.
One of the tricky things with the way their new-look blue line is constructed is there isn’t really an obvious pairing to put out against other team’s top lines. Against Ottawa or Montreal, that’s not nearly the problem it will be versus, say, Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh, when the Nikita Kucherov and Sidney Crosby assignments become vital.
Having watched them through preseason and now after three regular-season games, I simply wouldn’t feel comfortable going with Rielly and Ceci against some of the league’s most dangerous players.
But it’s not as if Muzzin and Barrie are a natural fit for that assignment, either.
Those are going to be key questions for Babcock and his staff to answer in the first few months of the season, because if it’s clearly not working, making a move to acquire help is going to be very tricky given their cap situation.
Which brings us to …
They’ll have some hard decisions to make when Hyman and Dermott returnBabcock is playing his top-four defencemen a crap ton. (That’s a technical term.)
Rielly’s averaging nearly 25 minutes a night. Muzzin is getting 24, Ceci 23 and Barrie is at 22.5.
What that means is that the third pair is an afterthought, which means rookie Rasmus Sandin is making the bench mighty warm night to night, which hardly seems ideal for a 19-year-old in only his second season in North American pro hockey.
Sandin is averaging 10:36 a night, which would have been one of the smallest workloads in the NHL last season for a defenceman. Combine that with the fact his cap hit is nearly $900,000, and it’s feeling very likely he’ll be a casualty when Travis Dermott gets back from his shoulder injury sometime in early November.
The harder call is what to do up front. The Tavares line clearly misses Zach Hyman, as Kasperi Kapanen has been a poor fit on his off wing. (His stick throwing infraction Saturday was a clear sign of frustration, not just with the play, but his season to date. He’s pointless through three games and hasn’t exactly been getting a lot of chances, either. It might be harder for him to play his turn-and-burn style if the Leafs are trying to move up ice more as a unit than they did a year ago.)
If we believe Hyman is a given to resume his left wing spot there, who gets bumped off the Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Moore line to make room for Kapanen? All three have been earning their minutes so far and, as mentioned, the chemistry is building.
It could be that Kapanen goes back to where he started last season, before he broke out for 20 goals: limited to the fourth line and in top-line PK duty.
Which, again, speaks to the Leafs’ potentially enhanced offensive depth.
The other thing to keep in mind is Toronto has a 23-man roster right now and it’s highly plausible it’ll have to cut down to 21 players to get under the cap when everyone is healthy. That would mean dropping four players, at least two of whom would have to go on waivers.
I saw there were complaints about all the Jason Spezza stories in the comments over the weekend, but that’s a story line that isn’t going away. If Babcock decides the vet can’t play, and the Leafs can’t carry an extra forward in a few weeks, he might be one of those cuts.
That’s obviously a lot worse than not dressing for the home opener.
Sandin’s one likely cut at this point. Then Nic Petan, who has already cleared waivers and played just six minutes in his first game. Dmytro Timashov should probably go down, too.
Then you’re down to Spezza or Nick Shore, as I can’t see them carrying fewer than seven defencemen on road trips. And the Marlies will get even more overloaded with vets in need of ice time to stay fresh.
And another thing…The ice continues to be junk at Scotiabank Arena — especially late in games — and hardly anyone talks about it.
Marner wasn’t the only player affected by it.
“It felt like the puck was bouncing a lot, too, so it was hard to be a little extra creative,” Tavares said of his unsuccessful shootout attempt.
The conditions are the same for both teams, yadda yadda, but you have to think that, over the course of 41 home games (and more in the playoffs), better ice would benefit the Leafs’ skilled players and scorers more than many of the teams they’ll face.
I’ve tried to raise this question with MLSE a couple of times, but it’s not something they’re interested in commenting on. You wonder if it’s as simple as lowering the in-arena temperature by a few degrees and telling the folks in the platinums to pack some long johns?
Regardless, they should find a way to fix the ice. It might buy the home team a few more wins, especially when the weather warms up in the spring.