We are just under halfway through the season and the Toronto Maple Leafs have been all over the place. The team has played well under rookie head coach Sheldon Keefe with a record of 7 wins and 4 losses since he took over in mid-November. The team is looking rejuvenated and ready to make their run to a playoffs spot and hopefully a deep Cup run. Let’s take a look at the team as a whole and see if there are any spots to improve (Hint: there are).
The Top Forwards
The Leafs are blessed with 4 top talents in the NHL in their top 6. Auston Matthews, William Nylander, John Tavares and Mitch Marner are the best forwards on the team and paid like it. Outside the top 6 however, it becomes more interesting. The Leafs have a boatload of cheap options in the bottom 6 and top 6 of the AHL. With names like Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall, and Trevor Moore all making impacts this season it creates a wealth of trade bait for the defence and goalie positions.
Players yet to play this season includes Kenny Agostino, Garrett Wilson, Mason Marchment and Egor Korshkov. The Leafs have two forwards that have appeared to be singled out as trade bait in the fanbase. Kasperi Kapanen has struggled on the top two lines this season and could potentially lose his third line slot if cheaper options can do just as much. Andreas Johnsson has been a strong asset on the wing of Matthews and Nylander. He has fit in well and hopefully will continue his strong play once he returns from his injury. The centre core is an interesting mashup in the bottom 6. We all know John Tavares and Auston Matthews are the top 2 undeniable centres on the team. William Nylander has slowly been bred to be a possible centre in the future.
The Bottom Six
The team’s bottom 6 centres consist of Alex Kerfoot, Jason Spezza, Frederik Gauthier, and formerly Nick Shore. Spezza, Gauthier, and the now-departed Nick Shore have all been platooning the 4th line centre role this season as Keefe is trying to get everyone game time. Spezza has appeared to be the best centre of the three with Gauthier usually being a winger or vice versa. Nick Shore played the least of the three, playing in 21 games, with Spezza playing in 23 and Gauthier playing in 30 of the 34 games this season.
Kerfoot has been a red hot topic on the team. He came over in the summer as a piece in the Nazem Kadri trade on July 1st. Kerfoot has not produced the same as Kadri has or brought the spark that Leafs fans loved about Naz. Kerfoot has been playing in a protective facemask the past month, as he is recovering from a facial injury sustained on November 5th against the Los Angeles Kings. Once Kerfoot is back to fully healthy he can hopefully return to what we hoped he could be, a Nazem Kadri replacement.
The downfall of the Maple Leafs has been touted as the defensive instability of the team. It is true that the Leafs’ defensive core is not the greatest in the league. Nonetheless, the group has some very obvious strengths and has been improving all season.
First, we have to talk about Justin Holl. Holl was a Mike Babcock castoff that looked to be never good enough for the hard-nosed coach. That all changed this season when he finally got his shot under Babs and most importantly under Sheldon Keefe. Justin sat in the pressbox 71 times last season under Babcock and looked out of his depth when he was thrown in. This season he has sat out just 2 of the 34 games thus far and has been the brightest spot on defence. Holl has found a nice fit beside Jake Muzzin as he rushes up and down the ice like a defensive power forward. His true spotlight game was against the Edmonton Oilers, where he made multiple great plays on the dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
His partner, Jake Muzzin, has struggled this season with his game outside of his own end. A defensively sound player, Muzzin has been way off on his passing and has many turnovers and unnecessary pressure on the team. Cody Ceci is not good. He has been a mess all season, but he is a necessary evil to dump the Nikita Zaitsev contract. Travis Dermott has looked good in his return from shoulder surgery after the Leafs were knocked out of the playoffs last spring. Dermott has paired with Ceci recently and has been improving his game everyday.
Morgan Rielly & Tyson Barrie
Morgan Rielly has been a letdown based on his production last season. It did not help that Ceci was shackled to his pairing for most of the season so far. With Tyson Barrie, Rielly has slowly been returning to his form from last season. His defensive deficiencies are still very apparent. This brings us to Tyson Barrie. Barrie was the other piece in the Kadri trade. Barrie was told to “reinvent himself” during the season by Babcock and that really soured his game. Since Keefe took over Barrie has found himself on the first power-play unit and on a pair with Rielly. If he stays for the season then that pairing could be a high-powered scoring machine come playoff time.
Now it is time to look at the depth that the defence has. Now, in all honesty, it is not as deep as the wingers, but it has very intriguing pieces regardless.
Martin Marincin is neither good or intriguing. He is merely a depth option that sits in the press box and will not become the next Justin Holl. The two kids behind him, however, are the future of the team. Rasmus Sandin was a surprise graduate from Leafs camp this year. He came into camp as a player looking for experience and left camp with a spot on the roster. Despite playing 6 games for the Leafs this season before being sent down, he was not out of his depth. Rasmus was on the bottom pair playing minimum minutes and has dominated with the Marlies playing beside Timothy Liljegren. Sandin has the potential to be the number two left-handed defenceman behind Rielly and a sound one at that.
Timothy Liljegren was drafted a year before Sandin and has yet to make his debut in the big leagues. Rumours from last season say that Liljegren was set to come up but was injured with the Marlies which halted those plans. He has top 2 pairing potential and has been a strong two-way defender for the Marlies. His play could see him become the natural partner to Rielly on the top pair either this season or next. Barrie hurt his foot during the game in Edmonton and that has opened up a spot for Liljegren to possibly make his debut very shortly.
Arguably the most valuable player for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season has been Frederik Andersen. The great Dane has just recently broken the record for the fastest European goalie to win 200 games. Freddie is the backbone of the Leafs. He has amassed 35 of the 36 points the Leafs have earned all season. Andersen is currently on track to break his personal best for save percentage as a starter. He is also on pace for ~35-36 wins this season if he plays 60 games. There is no question that Freddie is one of the best goalies in the league. It is clearly not Andersen who is the problem in the net it is the other guys.
The Backup Situation
Michael Hutchinson has been woeful this season. His stats are waiver-worthy with 0 wins, 5 losses, and a shootout loss. His save percentage is 4th worst in the league among goalies with five or more starts at .876 SV%. Not to mention his 4.55 goals against per game put him 2nd worst in the league. His one earned point this season was a blown 4-1 lead against the Montreal Canadiens that ended in a shootout loss. He has been given a chance to play without being on the second half of a back to back and he still looked dreadful.
The third goalie to play for the Leafs this season is Kasimir Kaskisuo. A Finnish rookie who was given a singular start this season. His loss was by no means his fault as the Penguins demolished a disinterested Leafs squad 6-1. The problem for the Leafs is trying to find a suitable backup for Freddie who won’t break the bank and can be depended on to win games.
The future for Leafs goalies is not all doom and gloom as Joseph Woll and Ian Scott have been touted as the next big thing for the team. Woll has struggled a little bit with the Marlies as the backup to Kaskisuo. However, he is only 21 and goalies do tend to have a later growth arc. Scott has yet to play for the Marlies this season. A recent development is that of the Leafs interest in 24-year-old Timur Bilyalov who has been dominating the KHL this season. Bilyalov has recorded a 1.10 goals-against average and a .957 save percentage in 16 games this season. He will be hotly contested for as multiple teams are looking to get him. For the Leafs, however, he could prove to be a long term fix to the backup goalie position.
Every Leafs fan should try to take the early struggles with a pinch of salt. The entire Atlantic Division, apart from Boston, has struggled. The Leafs still have one of the most skilled top 6 lines and a Vezina worthy goalie to boot. Their blue-line is slowly coming together and the team looks rejuvenated under head coach Sheldon Keefe. Everyone should remember that this Leafs team is well ahead of schedule on the rebuild and the team is still young. We aren’t at the do or die moments yet with this roster. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the games.
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