A Time of Reflection For Leafs Nation & Maple Leafs

HERE WE GO AGAIN! It seems like every month or so, Leafs Nation finds themselves at a crossroads. Personally, at times where it seems the narrative around the Leafs can get very polarizing… I like to take a hard look at the team and point out the cold hard facts that I see when watching the game, that other people I trust see when watching the game, and of course what the analytics are showing. With that being said, I thought it would be interesting to review these topics as a whole and see if there were some common themes that can be pointed out.

At this point in the Leafs season, these are the 10 most important statistical facts in my opinion (metrics courtesy of nhl.com and www.naturalstattrick.com):

  1. They have the 6th best Points % in the NHL with a record of 32-14-4
  2. They have the 7th best Goal Differential with +38 (4th in GF/GP = 3.54 & 12th in GA/GP = 2.80)
  3. They have the best Power Play % with 30.4% (3.7% better than next best St. Louis)
  4. They have the 6th best Penalty Kill % with 84.3% (5.5% worse than the best in Carolina)
  5. They are 6th in the league in Shots per Game with 34.9 (1.6 worse than the best in Florida)
  6. They are 10th in the league in Shots Against per Game with 30.6 (2.0 worse than the best in Los Angeles)
  7. They are 7th in 5v5 Corsi For % with 53.23% (2.77% worse than the best in Florida)
  8. They are 4th in 5v5 Expected Goals % with 54.23% (5th in xGF/60 = 2.81 & 11th in xGA/60 = 2.37)
  9. They are 13th in 5v5 Actual Goals % with 52.23% (7th in GF/60 = 2.84 & 22nd in GA/60 = 2.60)
  10. They are 15th in PDO when ranking the league in ascending order (implying they have not been a lucky team nor have they been unlucky this year)

In terms of the eye test, I am seeing the following:

  1. Justin Holl has become unplayable this season. His poor decisions with the puck have drastically outweighed one of his few skills of closing on opposing forwards and keeping up with their foot speed. His brain is moving in slow motion and it has gone on for so long that it has affected his confidence to the point where he is not only letting offensive plays die on his stick, but he is directly causing numerous high-danger chances for the opposition.
  2. Sheldon Keefe needs to take a hard look at adjusting the top 2 lines again. The Tavares line has been cold for over 10 games now and that could be the difference between winning and losing a playoff series. There needs to be a Plan B that exists for Sheldon Keefe if that line goes stale again for a game or two come the spring.
  3. The Leafs are not generating too much off the rush. It seems like the Leafs have too many forwards that are deferring to the old-fashioned dump-and-chase method of gaining the zone and although that might seem like the way to go in the playoffs, it would still be nice to have someone more lethal off the rush in the bottom-six to offer something different than guys like Mikheyev, Kase, Kämpf, Engvall and Simmonds.
  4. Goaltending has been abysmal for the better part of 3 months now. Mrázek has not been able to find his footing since he put on the uniform. The only positive to take away from him is that he is known to be streaky and that is more than you can say about the realistic alternative goalie options out there in the league. Campbell on the other hand is going through his first rough patch since he was traded here. He looks unstable in the net, his glove hand looks heavy, and his rebound control has been erratic. I think Jack’s issues are between the ears, you can see how hard he is taking it with every post-game interview… but the bottom line you can’t win shit with this level of goaltending.

After taking the time to digest all of this information, we have to now ask the questions of “How did they get here?” and “How do they fix it”.

How Did They Get Here?

If we take a look at the Leafs offseason, there were 6 major decisions Kyle Dubas made:

  1. Traded Filip Hållander + 2023 7th Rd Pick for Jared McCann (1 year at $2.940M) in order to have insurance if Seattle chose Alex Kerfoot. All the while, choosing to protect Justin Holl.
  2. Signed Michael Bunting to 2 years at $950K
  3. Signed David Kämpf to 2 years at $1.500M
  4. Signed Petr Mrázek to 3 years at $3.800M
  5. Signed Ondrej Kase to 1 year at $1.250M
  6. Signed Nick Ritchie to 2 years at $2.500M

Looking at these 6 decisions, it is pretty easy to point out the obvious wins thus far. Michael Bunting has found a home beside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and is even locked up for next year on the same AAV. David Kämpf and Ondrej Kase are best friends who have become two thirds of a mostly dominant third line who handles difficult assignments each night.

On the other side of the coin, the losses can be pointed out quite easily too. Petr Mrázek has flat out not fulfilled the role he was intended to when the Leafs signed him to a multi-year contract. He’s only been able to play 20% of the games due to his health, although you can’t blame him entirely for being injured… the signing itself has to be deemed a loss thus far as the intention was to have Petr and Jack become a tandem and not allow either to be overrun in terms of workload. However, Petr’s lack of availability has forced Jack to take on a very extensive workload more extreme than anyone could have imagined and we are now seeing that fatigue catch up to Jack. I’ve already shared how bad the both of them have been since December, but among goalies with at least 10 games played, Petr specifically sits 58th in terms of Goals Saved Above Expected Per 60 (courtesy of Money Puck).

Furthermore, let us not forget Nick Ritchie. The guy got just about every opportunity to succeed with the Leafs, starting with a top line LW opportunity… all the way to fourth line LW duties. It just didn’t work for the poor guy.

Lastly, but certainly not least the decision to protect Justin Holl over both McCann and Kerfoot has turned out to be a complete and utter failure. In the summer, when the Leafs made the move for McCann, Dubas received praise from everyone. McCann, a former SOO Greyhound fit the profile of exactly what the Leafs needed in their forward group. A middle-six guy who can play on the wing or down the middle, but most importantly can put the puck in the net with his tremendous shooting talent. For what it is worth, Jared McCann’s 21 goals this season would put him 2nd on the Leafs… he’s on pace for just over 35 goals! Just take a look at what the Leafs could have looked like at the beginning of the year:

Alternate Universe where the Leafs keep McCann & Kerfoot and expose Holl

Now I know we have the benefit of hindsight, but to me it just seems like Dubas was too loyal to Holl, and he frankly didn’t deserve it. The signs of Justin Holl not being an ideal second pair shutdown guy have been evident since the 2020 Bubble. Recent guest on the podcast Jack Han, summarized my similar thoughts on Justin Holl perfectly on Monday with one single tweet.

It seems like Holl’s defenders forgot that he didn’t become a full-time NHLer until the 19/20 season, NINE years after he was drafted into the league. He didn’t sign an NHL contract until he was 24 years old, 2 years after he left the University of Minnesota and like Jack mentioned, he took another 3 years to break into the league. He is the epitome of a “late bloomer”, and the Leafs trusted him to be a staple on their shutdown pair.

We all saw the drop off in play the moment he didn’t have Muzzin by his side to babysit him. Those that have followed us for a long time know where I stood on the player last summer, I remember saying something along the lines of “If the plan is to have Jake Muzzin baby sit someone again on that second pair, you might as well give Liljegren his shot and sign someone for cheaper than Holl as insurance.” Someone like Mark Pysyk comes to mind, he signed a 1 year deal in Buffalo for $900K, analytically he grades out well and by going this route you have changed virtually nothing on your backend while drastically improving your scoring depth. Not to mention, this “Alternate Universe” team would leave the Leafs with more cap space at the deadline to go out and grab a more reliable top four defenceman. Guys like Kerfoot and Dermott would still be trade pieces in this alternate case, and the Leafs would have definitely been more equipped to adjust in-season if Muzzin declined similarly to our reality.

How Do They Fix It?

Now that I have given you all the bad news, I thought I’d reaffirm the good news! Kyle Dubas is not your prototypical NHL GM, he is not afraid to admit a mistake as soon as possible and go out and fix it. As we saw this past weekend with the Nick Ritchie trade, Dubas has alread begun fixing the decisions he missed on during the off-season. In addition, he might also have another unplanned piece to find as Jake Muzzin suffered another concussion on Monday in Montreal. The reports indicate that he is out indefinitely and could possibly be a candidate for LTIR, he has now suffered a neck injury and two concussions in less than 2 years and those concussions have happened inside of a month. Assuming the Leafs take the rightfully precautious route and put Muzzin on LTIR for the rest of the season, this is what the current roster would look like:

Current Roster With Jake Muzzin on LTIR

A few things stick out with this roster, the defence is absolutely not good enough and the forwards could definitely use an improvement with some depth scoring. The good news is, the Leafs can be super aggressive with fixing these issues with $5,991,884 of cap space and on top of that, they will likely move on from Holl and even possibly Dermott which could be another $3,500,000. Knowing that the Leafs can and will be aggressive on the trade front under these circumstances, we can start building out a template for the roster once the trade deadline has passed:

Roster Build Template with Muzzin on LTIR, and trading away Holl, Dermott & Mikheyev

You’ll notice I moved out from Mikheyev, Dermott and Holl. The two defenders can be explained by the points made earlier in this blog but I just wanted to quickly explain why moving on from Mikheyev could be a prudent move as well. Overall, I don’t think Mikheyev is returning next season, although it is not a reason to move on from him now but since there is this sudden flexibility on the cap for the Leafs, they should be looking at any and all possibilities to optimize each line for their particular role.

With that being said, Mikheyev has shown he is not an optimal choice in the top-six, therefore his options are on the wing beside either Kerfoot or Kämpf in this scenario. If we are indeed looking to become a deeper team offensively, we’d need the 3rd line to be more of a scoring threat, hence Mikheyev is not an option there. That leaves the 4LW spot beside Kämpf and Kase, or in other words, the same line Ilya is currently on. Which leaves us the decision to go with Engvall or Mikheyev on the fourth line and frankly it shouldn’t be that hard of a decision! Engvall would be the optimal choice… he costs $395K less on the cap for this season, he will be an RFA this off-season as opposed to Mikheyev being a UFA, he can provide spot duty at centre if needed, and last but not least… he grades out a lot better beside Kämpf and Kase. See below that line’s 5v5 metrics with Mikheyev and with Engvall:

Kämpf & Kase Line Metricsw/ Mikheyevw/ Engvall
Corsi For %50.00%53.58%
Goals For %42.86%50.00%
Expected Goals For %37.01%56.45%
Scoring Chances For %46.38%57.72%
High-Danger Chances For %30.00%50.00%
DZ Faceoffs / 6029.3131.95
OZ Faceoffs %26.09%11.36%
Courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

To end this off, I thought it would be fun to give into the report that Dubas will be very aggressive on some potential trade targets and actually allocate these empty slots to some real names that are available out there. To review, we would need to fill two LW spots on the second and third line, as well as two top four slots on defence. When you say that out loud again, it seems unrealistic for a contending team like the Leafs to have so much turnover within a couple of months before the playoffs. But we must keep in mind that losing Jake Muzzin possibly for the entire year changes everything for this team and I have no doubt Dubas will use every dollar available to maximize his team’s chances.

David Pagnotta, has been quite reliable in the past when it comes to Leafs news so let’s take this report at face value and see where Copp, Domi and Giordano can fit within this hypothetical roster. In addition to this, let’s add in one target that our guy Pat Lorusso suggested earlier in the year like Scott Mayfield.

Based off these guys coming in and factoring in the retained salaries, we can now also get an idea of the overall acquisition costs to bring in these individuals based off prior trade history (keep in mind that these are just my thoughts on the players value based off prior trades around the league and for the sake of this exercise I am not going to include Holl, Dermott, and Mikheyev in these hypothetical offers and just assume they are moved for draft picks but they absolutely could be included in any one of these deals):

  1. Andrew Copp coming in at 50% retained seems like it would cost a very similar price to Nick Foligno from last year (1st Rd Pick + Two 4th Rd Picks). He is younger than Nick was but he carries a smaller cap hit for retention. Alternatively, Paul Statsny is a player I think is worth targeting if the Leafs aren’t happy with the price of Copp and are unsure if they could extend him in the off-season.
  2. Scott Mayfield definitely has the reputation to fetch a price similar to what David Savard costed the Lightning last year (1st Rd Pick + 3rd Rd Pick). Given that Scott is signed for the 22/23 season and there is no need for the Islanders to eat any salary here to make the money work, it could cost a bit more for the Leafs to get something like this done. He would be my most coveted player out of anyone mentioned in this exercise.
  3. Mark Giordano coming in at 50% retained is a tricky one to nail down. I wasn’t able to find a past trade that fits the characteristics of a near 40-year-old defenceman who is still showing he can handle top four minutes. The good news for Leafs Nation is there has not been any reports of Giordano costing anything around a 1st Rd Pick so I can see this happening if the cost wasn’t too steep.
  4. Lastly, I think Max Domi coming in at around 25% retained would cost just a bit less than Taylor Hall last year (Hall + Lazar for Bjork + 2nd Rd Pick). It would seem something like this is the most likely move Dubas would make given it’s low acquisition cost. We all know Domi’s reputation, as well as his father’s legacy with the club, I have very little doubt the fans wouldn’t feel his impact if Max got a chance to don the Blue and White.

I know this is all pie in the sky discussions and the acquisition costs might seem very high, but the thought of it is too enticing! If the Leafs can bring in these types of players, all of whom (except maybe Giordano) could possibly be extended past this season, it would most definitely make the Leafs a more playoff ready team now and even in the future.