After a successful road trip in California, Toronto is leading the NHL in the standings before Saturday night’s games. Here is a Toronto Maple Leafs quarterly review of the first twenty games of the season.
Toronto Maple Leafs Quarterly Recap
The Maple Leafs are in first place. They just completed a sweep of the three California teams. They lead the league in goals for with 70. And they’ve done that without two key players for much of the season.
The Nylander Saga Rages On
The biggest story to come out of Toronto so far this season surrounds a player that has yet to play a game for the team this season. William Nylander remains unsigned, but with a December 1st deadline looming, most people paying attention expect a resolution in the near future. Although Pierre LeBrun makes an interesting case that another deadline may be just as important. The trade deadline on February 25th.
If the Maple Leafs can’t come to a deal to either sign or trade Nylander by December 1st, they could trade him to a non-contender at the trade deadline for help in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Nylander can’t play in the NHL this season if he doesn’t have a contract by December 1st, but that won’t stop teams that aren’t making the playoffs this season from trading for Nylander expecting him to play for them next season.
Auston Matthews Injured
Auston Matthews took a hard hit from Winnipeg Jets defenceman Jacob Trouba on October 27th and has missed nine games since. Before his injury, Matthews had 10 goals and 16 points. And that’s with zero points in the last four games he played, including the game he was injured. He’s still fourth on the team in points despite missing nearly half the games.
Adding Matthews and Nylander to any team would give them a significant boost. Adding them to the first place team is downright unfair for the rest of the league’s goaltenders.
Proving His Worth
Most pundits agreed that signing John Tavares to a seven-year deal with a cap hit of $11 million per season was a good move for the Maple Leafs. In the quarter-season Tavares has played for Toronto, he’s living up to some lofty expectations. He leads the team in goals with 12, although that probably wouldn’t be the case if Matthews hadn’t been hurt.
Tavares has also brought a little stability to the forward group from the defensive side of the game. While Matthews was scoring at an incredible pace to start the season, Tavares was steadily putting up some excellent possession numbers. Since Matthews has been out of the lineup, Tavares has seen tougher competition and as a result, those numbers have dropped. But for a team whose biggest weakness is team defence, Tavares has been a welcome addition both offensively and defensively.
But Those Shots Against
The Maple Leafs are 23rd in shots against per game at 32.1. Their shots for is only 31.7. They are frequently out-shot. Some of that is related to the score. The Maple Leafs are often leading in their games which tends to drive up shot counts against them.
But they also play a collapsing box type of defence. It forces pucks to the point. Since the forwards are down low, it gives opposing defencemen time to take shots on goal. It’s not to say that goals aren’t scored from point shots, but the Maple Leafs have been doing a good job letting Frederik Andersen and Garret Sparks see those shots. The result is teams are taking more shots against the Maple Leafs, but they’re low danger shots.
There is still a lot of room for improvement with breakouts. Simple dumpouts are like punts. More often than not, you’re just giving the other team a chance to go on the offensive. And the Maple Leafs defence, some of them, are punting instead of driving play towards the offensive zone. That gives opposing teams more opportunities against Toronto and drives the shot count up.
Morgan Rielly has 25 points in 20 games. He’s seventh in NHL scoring. What makes his scoring even more impressive is his consistency. He hasn’t gone three games without a point. That also means his scoring rate is sustainable. Maybe not at its current rate, but 70 points is not out of the question.
He’s also holding his own defensively while playing with Ron Hainsey. If the Maple Leafs can find a way to get a top-four defenceman to play with Rielly, he may perform even better than he has already. Rielly is definitely going to be in the Norris trophy conversation this year.
Right Side Defence, Still A Problem
The left side of the defence is comprised of Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and Travis Dermott. All of whom are having good seasons, including Dermott who leads the team in Corsi For at 56.8 percent. That’s excluding Justin Holl‘s single-game Corsi For of 57.1 percent.
The right side of the defence paints a different picture. Igor Ozhiganov has been decent and has room to grow as he learns the North American game and language. But after him, the right side is plagued with Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, and Martin Marincin. The three players with the worst Corsi percentages on the team.
The hope at the start of the season was that Zaitsev, who has the worst Corsi For on the team at 45.6 percent, would return to his rookie form. Instead, he’s looking even worse than he did last season. If Kyle Dubas can somehow rid the team of Zaitsev’s contract and replace him with a top-four right side defender, it would solve many of the team’s issues. For one, it would help with salary cap troubles they may have next season when they need to sign Matthews and Mitch Marner. And it would plug a hole the Boston Bruins were able to exploit in last year’s first-round playoff matchup. But if he can do all that and sign Nylander is a major question. It may take Nylander to plug that right side.
Team Leading Scorer
It’s not a surprise that Marner is performing so well, but it is a treat to watch. After leading the team in scoring last year, he’s back on top a quarter way into this season. If Matthews can stay off injured reserve once he returns later this month, he’ll probably overtake Marner. But don’t be surprised is Marner finishes the season again as the Maple Leafs leading scorer. And if that does happen, it may make Dubas’ job that much harder this off-season.
The Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning are still more likely to win the President’s trophy this season. Both are one point behind the Maple Leafs with a game in hand, but the Maple Leafs are in the conversation. And with Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy injured with a fractured foot, the Maple Leafs may have a chance to put some distance between them and Tampa Bay in the Atlantic division over the next month or so. If they can’t win the President’s trophy, an Atlantic division crown is a nice consolation prize.
Main Photo: TORONTO, ON – FEBRUARY 10: Mitchell Marner #16 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the Ottawa Senators during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on February 10, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Senators 6-3. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)