By Ian Tulloch
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
Leafs Report Cards: Mitch Marner magic, power play dominance help Toronto edge out Columbus
By Ian Tulloch 18m ago
After a rough start, the Maple Leafs found a way to generate some offence and defeat Columbus 4-1. It wasn’t pretty, particularly at five-on-five, but thanks to a revamped power play and some stellar goaltending, Toronto was able to come out ahead.
Let’s take a closer look at how that came to be.
Key takeaways from the game
1. The new top power play alignment looks fantastic
With Auston Matthews on the right side of the ice and Mitch Marner on the left flank, it’s opened up both players for a lot more one-timer opportunities — which they’re really looking to take advantage of on the power play. We saw Marner score on one in the first period, then Matthews followed it up with a goal from his side. It’s obviously early, but it definitely feels like it could be a big year for Toronto’s top unit.
2. Toronto’s shot quality wasn’t great at even strength
We’ll break this down visually in the heat map, but Toronto relied on a lot of shots from the outside while giving up plenty quite a few chances to Columbus from the high slot. The Leafs were obviously lethal on the power play (which is why they won), but they’ll need to do a better job at winning the shot quality battle at even strength if they want to win with consistency.
3. “Starting on time” (again)
I know it was a major theme last season, but the Leafs looked flat to start the game. It’s frustrating to watch a team with so much talent take the first 10 minutes off. The inner coach in me never likes seeing players get rewarded for those kind of habits, which are something Mike Babcock and his staff will have to figure out. It’s not always easy coaching a team with as much offensive firepower (it’s easy for players to take their foot off the gas in an 82-game season), so it is definitely something to keep an eye on as we get deeper into the year.
Heat mapHere’s a quick look at where each team took its shots, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
Best player on the ice: Cody Ceci (RD, No. 83) -- It’s Game 2 of the regular season and we’ve already reached Armageddon among fans on Twitter. I for one am so here for The Cody Ceci Redemption Tour (I’m hoping this season can be a good example of how a player’s environment can drastically impact his on-ice results), but only time will tell if that becomes a trend over a larger sample.
When it comes to Friday’s game, Ceci played great. He was jumping up into the play, both at five-on-five and on a couple four-on-four shifts, which is something we typically don’t see from him. I still think he’s going to be at his best when he keeps his game simple and looks for the open passes to his dynamic forwards and Norris-quality defence partner, but I loved that he had the confidence to hop into open space when the situation called for it. That’s how he scored Toronto’s second goal, skating himself into open space in the slot and beating Joonas Korpisalo clean to put the Leafs ahead 2-0.
Mitch Marner (RW, No. 16) — There are some nights where the team isn’t playing that great at even strength and it needs one of its star players to make a special play or two to blow it open. We got to see that Friday from Marner. He had a beautiful give-and-go with John Tavares on the power play before ripping a one-timer top corner. He also made Zach Werenski look silly at four-on-four, spinning into open space, driving toward the net and finding a way to beat Korpisalo five-hole.
It wasn’t a dominant 200-foot game from Marner (or the Leafs), but sometimes, all it takes is a couple moments of brilliance to decide a game. We see it all the time in soccer.
Frederik Andersen (G, No. 31) -- The Leafs needed quality goaltending early on to keep them in the game and Andersen answered the call. He probably wants that Cam Atkinson goal back as he gifted the winger an open net after leaving his crease off the faceoff and misplaying the puck, but other than that gaffe, he looked excellent. Let’s call it the Jake Gardiner of goaltending performances.
The Fourth Line — All three forwards played well, so we’re going to group them together. Jason Spezza did a great job generating offence (and managed to draw a penalty in the first period), Frederik Gauthier was winning puck battles and creating some scoring chances and Nic Petan was finding soft spots in the defence and making clever passes to help his team maintain possession. I know Leafs fans want me to dive deeper into Spezza’s performance after being a healthy scratch in the season opener, but I’ll write about that situation on Saturday morning.
Morgan Rielly (LD, No. 44) — If there was ever such thing as a casual three-assist night, that was it from Rielly. He didn’t force anything offensively, moving the puck to open players on the breakout and in the offensive zone. My favourite play was his assist on Ceci’s goal as he waited an extra half-second to bait the Columbus forward before sliding it over to Ceci in open space. Those are the types of passes that open things up offensively, and Rielly’s become one of the better players in the league at them, straddling the blue line and making a crisp D-to-D pass under pressure.
Auston Matthews (C, No. 34) — What’s frustrating about Matthews is that he should be more dominant with his skill set. There are times he’s outmuscled by Werenski on the boards, or walked on a one-on-one by Josh Anderson, and you think, “How did he let that happen?” Then you see him go bar down off of a curl-and-drag wrist shot from the dot and it almost doesn’t matter.
Since I have such high standards for the star centre, I’m only going to give him three stars. I thought he could have provided much more value in other areas on Friday night. With that being said, I love the way he’s been creating open space for himself after gaining the zone. It used to be Nylander doing most of that for him, but he seems to be taking it on himself to lead the rush offensively, which teams love to see from their most talented player.
William Nylander (RW, No. 88) — He wasn’t as deadly at even strength as he was in the season opener, but Nylander did a great job of maintaining puck possession on the cycle and drawing penalties. I know his detractors will be happy to see he drew one of those penalties by driving the puck hard towards the net. Those are the kind of plays teams like to see their skilled players make.
The Muzzin-Barrie pairing -- It was a steady night from Toronto’s top pairing (and yes, it is the top pairing — Toronto’s coaching staff has been trying to give the two tougher competition so Rielly and Ceci can face facing secondary matchups). We saw some solid defensive plays and smooth breakout passing from Jake Muzzin while Tyson Barrie gave us a taste of his offensive prowess from the point, making a few great D-to-D passes and firing a big blast on the power play. It wasn’t a dominant game from either player, but I thought they looked solid.
Justin Holl (RD, No. 3) -- I didn’t notice Holl much on Friday night, which is probably a good thing. Whenever a No. 6 defenceman like he or Martin Marincin go through a full game without being noticed, it typically means they were making solid decisions with the puck. Then again, he only played six minutes at even strength.
Side note: Is that going to become a thing this season? I know the coaching stuff doesn’t trust its third pairing at even strength, but it’s two games in a row in which Babcock has essentially benched his No. 6 defenceman. That’s definitely something to keep an eye on over the next couple weeks, because until Travis Dermott returns from injury, one of Holl or Marincin will need to be playing every night.
Rasmus Sandin (RD, No. 38) -- If we’re being honest with ourselves, it wasn’t Sandin’s best game. He made a few slick plays with the puck on his stick, but he also had a few really ugly moments. At one point, he lost an edge and fell over on the breakout. Another time, he tried skating the puck out in front of his net and lost the puck, leading to a dangerous scoring chance in which Andersen had to bail him out. I believe in Sandin; I think he’s an NHL player, but it definitely wasn’t his night.
Andreas Johnsson (LW, No. 18) — As much as I love Johnsson’s aggressiveness, it can cost him when he doesn’t remain disciplined. He took a few dumb penalties — a slashing penalty in the offensive zone and a slew foot to negate a power play opportunity. I did like the way he was going hard to the net (had no problem with the offsetting minors he and Anderson picked up — that’s productive grit in my opinion), but Johnsson definitely needs to be smarter with his feistiness.
John Tavares (C, No. 91) — I loved his little give-and-go with Marner on the power play, but it definitely wasn’t Tavares’ most memorable game. His line got significantly out-chanced at even strength, which isn’t something the Leafs like seeing.
Kasperi Kapanen (LW, No. 24) — Much like Tavares, there was a play or two where I really enjoyed Kapanen’s game (particularly on the penalty kill), but for the most part, it was an underwhelming performance at even strength. The only reason Marner doesn’t find himself here alongside his linemates is because he created two goals out of nothing.
Par Lindholm Memorial Award: The Third Line -- As a huge fan of Ilya Mikeheyev, Trevor Moore, and Alexander Kerfoot, I was disappointed to see them not make much of an impact. They spent a lot of shifts stuck in their own end and couldn’t manage to generate much offensively. I still have faith in the trio; they seem to complement each other’s game well, but it was definitely an off night for the line.
Game scoreGame score is a metric developed by The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn to quickly measure a player’s performance in a single game.
It’s not perfect, but it can help give us a decent idea of how well players performed in a particular game based on their numbers (although I’d always recommend combining stats with video, since single game numbers can be wonky).
Most important clip of the night
Mark Masters✔@markhmastersJohn Tavares, this morning, on Auston Matthews: "No one can shoot the puck like that. It's so rare & unique & he continues just to kind of tweak & change it up just enough to keep everyone guessing & continue to improve."
Flintor@TheFlintorAUSTON MATTHEWS! That shot is just not fair. 4-1 Leafs.
I had to include that Tavares quote. It tells the whole story. If Matthews can stay healthy this year, 50 goals doesn’t seem like a reach to me.
Final Grade: C+