I am sure you are wondering, how one is able to confidently realize the identity of a hockey team after just three games? Well the answer is quite simple… YOU DON’T! So let me just put the most obvious disclaimer out there before continuing. In any other year, this version of the Toronto Maple Leafs would be about halfway through their PRE-SEASON schedule after finishing their 3rd game with a 3-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators.
In reality however, they are now just over 5% through their 56-game schedule where they will continue to exclusively play their Canadian divisional opponents. So in other words, the Leafs must find the balance between PATIENCE (in realizing this roster is only 3-games-old) and URGENCY (in realizing that the margin for error shrinks that much more with every poor performance they have). With every point available staying in the division, every game becomes a traditionally known “4-point-game”, so the intensity meter needs to be dialed up to 1000.
With that being said, first impressions go a long way, so let’s dig into some of the things we can infer from this first week of the season. (All statistical references are courtesy of Natural Stattrick)
A line that no one really expected to be put together going into camp have been incrementally improving each game. A large reason for their success can be attributed to the play of Auston Matthews. We started to see it in the bubble and the mentality of this teams franchise player has carried over into this season, he is a man on a mission. On top of what we notice most in Matthews, the high danger chance generation, the ability to change the game with one shot… it has been his command of the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone, tracking pucks back into the defensive zone, and getting more involved physically that have been prevalent as well.
When it comes to Thornton, I must say that I was worried about not having a known puck retriever with Matthews and Marner seemed counter-productive because “who was going to get the puck?”. Well it was clear that when Dubas and Keefe spoke to the media about asking for a different type of commitment from their core players, it is becoming clear that a part of that conversation was “You’re not going to have the luxury of Zach Hyman every shift to do the grunt work for you”. It has seemed to work so far this season as this line has had a 5v5 xGF% of 76.89%, 79.97%, and 85.16% to start the season off.
John Tavares and William Nylander
It is amazing how much potential this team has when this pair can get going in a game. There aren’t many teams in the league that can match the talent of this duo on their first line, never mind their second line. Two main reasons for their success right now, Tavares is clearly back to full health and in mid-season form and Nylander has been consistently involved in the play and all around the puck over these last 3 games. Along with Matthews and Marner, it is important that this duo can continue their success and have Thornton and Vesey tag along because it allows for Keefe to deploy a deeper third-line that can chew up those difficult minutes and continue to have a domino effect throughout the rest of the lineup. Something to keep in mind lineup wise going forward is that Tavares and Nylander have 5v5 xGF% of 70.96% without Vesey on their line as opposed to 55.24% with him.
Nothing else more to say here other than thank the Los Angeles Kings every day for giving us a player that makes Justin Holl a viable option on great shutdown pair for this hockey team. Also known as Jake Muzzin! Like the rest of the team, this pair has had their moments over the last week but they have a 61.25% 5v5 xGF% but the true test will come when they need to matchup against a steady dose of star talent like Sheifele, McDavid, Draisaitl, Gaudreau, Tkachuk, and Pettersson over the next 10 games.
Sheldon Keefe seemed to have one goal above the rest this off-season and it was to have a third line that was much more difficult to play against, similar to the Coleman-Gourde-Goodrow line that Tampa Bay deploys. This line has seen a heavy load of defensive zone starts (70% of the time) and has still has a 51.42% 5v5 xGF% and 55.96% CF%. That tells me that they are eating up the hard minutes on this team and succeeding at it, which is all you can ask for form a third line at 5-on-5.
This pairing is most definitely a work-in-progress still, and I almost still put it in the good section because I feel defense pairings take much longer to develop chemistry compared to forward lines. However, the numbers speak for themselves and the fact is that this pair is sporting a 5v5 xGF% of 46.42% and they have played two teams with arguably the least star power up front in the division. I was a huge fan of the Brodie signing because I just feel the fit is too perfect on Rielly’s right side… he is someone that can take some of the load off Morgan when it comes to puck retrievals in the defensive zone but also be effective in transition and help improve the defending of the cycle.
They got absolutely torched against Ottawa on Friday night which is part of the reason their season-to-date metrics are so underwhelming but I am encouraged by the fact that they have had two other games where they looked like a legitimate top pairing in the league.
Zach Bogosian might have had the worst Maple Leafs debut in memory but I still believe in the utilization of this pair and the fit that can be had. Pairing two guys that defend at a very high-level in their own different way seems perfect in theory. Dermott’s skating ability makes him fantastic at defending in transition through the neutral zone and pairing him with a big bodied cycle breaker like Bogosian should prevent a lot of goals from going in the Leafs net when they are on the ice. An atrocious game against Montreal has pushed their seasonal numbers down but this still sport a 55.12% 5v5 xGF%, but both players still have a lot more to give.
Putting up a 14.44% 5v5 xGF% when you are getting 66.67% of your starts in the offensive zone is inexcusable for any line on any team. Spezza and Simmonds are going to be important players from this team in terms of the attitude they bring every day but they also need to start having some more dominant shifts against opposing teams fourth lines for them to be true factors in the lineup. The truly unfortunate part of this topic is that the fourth line looked reinvigorated to start on Saturday with rookie Nick Robertson jumping on board in place for Alexander Barabanov. But Robertson went awkwardly into a collision in the first period and will now miss some time.
I will say it louder for the people in the back… THERE IS NO GOALTENDING CONTROVERSY IN TORONTO! The fact of the matter is that both have been bad (All stats are measured at Even-Strength which includes 4v4 and 3v3):
|Metric||Frederik Andersen||Jack Cambell|
|Save Percentage||0.860 (36th)||0.867 (34th)|
|Goals Against Average||3.84 (33rd)||2.67 (28th)|
|Goals Saved Above Average per 60||-1.38 (36th)||-0.88 (33rd)|
|High Danger Save Percentage||0.714 (31st)||0.800 (25th)|
I think this team still believes in Andersen, the only thing that has changed from years past is they also believe in their backup goalie. I do believe the leash should be a little bit shorter when it comes to evaluating Andersen’s play but I don’t think Campbell’s performance on Saturday warranted giving him the net for the foreseeable future either. With the news of Aaron Dell going on waivers and many other teams goalie situations being underwhelming, he is unlikely to clear waivers but we won’t know for sure until Monday at noon.
The Leafs seem to want to create more of a tandem as opposed to a starter and a backup relationship, which I am in favour of. They ran Andersen into the ground the last 4 seasons and it clearly started taking a massive toll on him at the beginning of last season. I stand by my take that he has been a genuinely good goalie in the playoffs when you look at the numbers but unfortunately the bar in the playoffs is “Did you out play the opposing goalie when it mattered?” and less about your save percentage.
I said this on our Season Preview podcast, but I will say it again… there are 6 teams standing in the Leafs way from being in the Conference Finals, 6 teams in the way from being 8 wins away from a Stanley Cup. The path is there, the talent is there, it will just be a matter of recognizing the moment for this team.