There have been no Toronto Maple Leafs surprises early in the season. The team is doing what just about everyone expected of them. From MVP performances to bottom of the barrel defensive woes, the Maple Leafs have shown both ends of the spectrum so far this season.
No Early Season Toronto Maple Leafs Surprises
Three games is a small sample size to judge from. But the Maple Leafs are having the same troubles they had last year. They are giving up a lot of shots and their October goaltending is suspect. They are also scoring goals in bunches and getting excellent contributions from their best players.
Auston Matthews defensive play isn’t where he, or anybody, wants it to be yet. Especially in the first game of the season against the Montreal Canadiens. Matthews’ 5-on-5 shots were 13-5 against. But he scored two goals, including the overtime game-winner and now has eight points in three games.
John Tavares has been exactly as advertised. He has four goals in three games, including a hat trick against the Chicago Blackhawks, and he’s been solid defensively. He’s sporting a Corsi-For of 56.8 percent and a relative Corsi-For of +7.2.
Opposing coaches are already having a difficult time finding matchups to contain the Maple Leafs centremen. And that’s with the Nazem Kadri line not yet hitting the scoresheet.
Part of the reason Matthews got off to such a slow start 5-on-5 may have had to do with his wingers. Specifically, Tyler Ennis, who may turn out to be a great depth player for the Maple Leafs, but isn’t suited for top line minutes with Matthews.
Early in their third game against the Blackhawks, Mike Babcock promoted Kasperi Kapanen to Matthews’ line and the two clicked almost immediately with two quick goals in the first period.
With William Nylander still sitting on the sidelines, this is as good a chance as Kapanen is ever going to get to show he can deliver while playing top line minutes.
There may be some growing to do yet, but Travis Dermott has looked good so far this season. Specifically his breakouts. Unlike players of old, Roman Polak, and current, Ron Hainsey, Dermott seems to have much more poise in the defensive zone. He can skate away from players and make short passes rather than relying on stretch passes and dump outs. Both of which frequently end up with the puck coming back into the Maple Leafs’ zone.
Dermott’s Corsi-For is 61.1 percent and he’s second on the team in relative Corsi For at +12.3. Tops on the team in Corsi is Kapanen.
The Maple Leafs have scored in 42.8 percent of their power play chances so far. And they’ve killed 88.8 percent of their opponent’s chances. Both sides of their special teams are off to a hot start, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue throughout the season.
The Maple Leafs have allowed 97 shots on goal. That’s 32.3 shots against on average per night. That’s good for 15th in the NHL right now. But that’s going to trend downward as teams tighten up defensively. The Maple Leafs will need to follow suit if they want to keep up with the league’s heavyweights, two of which are in their division in the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning.
Ron Hainsey is showing his age already. There is a place for him on this team. He has experience and has proven to be a great penalty killer. But he is not suited for the top pairing. If the Maple Leafs want to compete, they’re going to need someone else to pair up with Morgan Rielly. Rielly has been great with six points, including the overtime winner in Chicago. But that’s despite having Hainsey as a partner, not because of him.
It’s a contract season for Jake Gardiner, but that hasn’t stopped him from being his own victim. Some of the giveaways he makes aren’t forced by pressing players or due to poor decision making. They seem to be due to a lack of attention. He’ll just whiff on the puck at random points throughout a game. He’s not the only one, but he seems to do it the most and at the worst moments.
The Third Line
The line of Kadri, Connor Brown, and Josh Leivo has yet to find much chemistry at all. Kadri has looked his usual self for the most part. But the trio is a combined -14 and has two assists, both from Kadri. With Tavares and Matthews scoring at will, getting production out of the third line isn’t as big a necessity as it may be with other teams. But if they’re not keeping the puck out either, it will be a problem when the top two lines cool down.
If Kapanen is moved to the top line, there could be some more shuffling between the bottom two lines. Andreas Johnsson may get a chance with Kadri, although he hasn’t really shown much to deserve a promotion so far this season.
Frederik Andersen looked great in the first game of the season. The Maple Leafs stole one from the Canadiens and it was mostly thanks to Andersen. But in his next game against the Ottawa Senators Andersen reminded fans of his usual October play.
Andersen alone can’t be blamed for a poor start to the goaltending situation in Toronto. Babcock and Kyle Dubas put all their eggs in one basket when they named Garret Sparks the backup after training camp. They subsequently lost Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard on waivers, leaving them with no backup for their backup.
It was a calculated decision. McElhinney is 35 years old and Sparks won every trophy available to a goaltender in the AHL last year. But his first test in the NHL this season did not go well. Sparkes allowed 6 goals on 31 shots. Of course, unsurprisingly, his team bailed him out by scoring seven to win the game.
The Maple Leafs are scoring their way out of trouble again this season. And, as expected, they’re even better at it this season than they were last season with Tavares in the lineup. But the same questions linger on the blue line. It’s no surprise the Maple Leafs need to improve a defence that has to be good, not great. The good news is they have 79 games left to figure it out.
Embed from Getty Images