Reviewing the Leafs skaters at the World Cup of Hockey

Photo Credit: Kevin Sousa/USA TODAY SPORTS

The World Cup of Hockey still has two or three games left to go, but as far as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ players are concerned, it’s over. Mike Babcock remains, but the rest are waiting for tonight’s game in Halifax to pass before joining their team in camp. We didn’t see much of the goalies; Jhonas Enroth watched from the sidelines after getting shelled in his first exhibition game and Frederik Andersen went from Europe’s projected starter to the IR. But we did get to see seven skaters play in preliminary, round robin, and in one case, knockout games; here’s how they did.

Player GP G A PTS +/- PIM S SH% Hits BkS GvA TKA
Nikita Zaitsev 7 0 2 2 2 2 6 0 14 15 5 3
Leo Komarov 6 0 1 1 0 4 7 0 21 2 3 2
Milan Michalek 6 2 2 4 -2 8 10 20 7 6 0 0
Roman Polak 6 0 3 3 -2 2 5 0 23 14 1 0
Auston Matthews 6 3 2 5 1 0 17 17.6 0 5 2 3
Morgan Rielly 6 2 1 3 1 0 16 12.5 10 10 7 2
James van Riemsdyk 5 0 1 1 -3 2 9 0 8 2 1 3

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way; Auston Matthews didn’t just look like a future superstar, he looked like he might be on the cusp of being a top-end NHL forward right this second. The 2016 first overall pick was used sparingly in the first exhibition game, but as the tournament progressed, became one of the go-to guys for Team North America, finding himself on Connor McDavid’s left wing.  Matthews was a well above water possession driver, threw a ton of pucks on net, and converted a bunch of points while playing a visually stellar two-way game. You couldn’t tell that he lacked NHL experience, and that’s a great thing to see heading into October.

Also on Team North America, Morgan Rielly had some ups and downs throughout the tournament, but when he was on, was he ever. Once paired with St. Louis defenceman Colton Parayko, the two became the most consistent pair for the young guns. Perhaps the most impressive performance was late in the second game against Russia, where Rielly scored one of the goals in the near-comeback band took over some shifts single-handedly. Also, his reaction to the OT winner against Sweden is fantastic, both for the youthful move of screaming at a sky-high pitch, and the veteran move of going to hug his goaltender instead of joining the main mob.

James van Riemsdyk’s tournament wasn’t overly amazing. He was left out of the first preseason game, only had a single point (against Canada) and was only slightly above his teammates in puck possession, despite being mostly deployed in the offensive zone and in situations where the US played more aggressive. But I’m willing to give literally anybody on Team USA a pass for putting up with having to go through the motions of being on that roster, whether they were good enough to be on it or not. What matters is that JVR looks healthy and will probably still be on the team once USA Hockey gets their act together. 

Leo Komarov wasn’t mindblowing either, but the Finns were perhaps the only team worse than the Americans at this tournament. Their top end players are in declining age and outside of Sebastian Aho and Aleksander Barkov, none of their youngsters were very impressive. Komarov was used as a caricature of how he’s used on the Leafs, as a forechecker at even strength sent out to slow down play, and as a net-front presence during the powerplay to pick up rebounds. Not many of those shot attempts got to him, though, and that was part of Finland’s downfall.

Player CF% CF60 CA60 CF%Rel CF60Rel CA60Rel Event Gap
Nikita Zaitsev 43.3 44.4 58.1 -7.6 -6.46 -3.86 -14.91
Leo Komarov 46.1 41 48 2.84 -1.9 6.98 -15.23
Milan Michalek 45.6 53.3 63.5 3.4 6.95 -2.86 0.51
Roman Polak 37.7 44.1 73 -8.78 -2.27 -12.4 -0.86
Auston Matthews 58.1 65 46.9 5.21 2.36 5.92 -7.19
Morgan Rielly 50.8 57.2 55.5 -5.4 -5.42 -2.72 -10.99
James van Riemsdyk 53.9 68.1 58.3 1.32 8.94 -5.67 7.04

Nikita Zaitsev’s situation is complicated. To the eyes, many who had doubted the 24-year-old Russian had those concerns erased. He looked composed, he was physical, he set up a few plays, and was particularly impressive at exiting the zone with control. Coach Oleg Znarok relied heavily on the Zaitsev-Orlov pair, and Zaitsev saw time on both special teams and in overtime situations. Analytically, he wasn’t overly great, but the pair’s main deployment was in defensive zone situations and Russia’s strategy with a lead mostly involved sending those two out and going into a shell. Mike Babcock mentioned that Zaitsev’s competitiveness and defensive game were way better than he expected, though, so it’s likely that those deficiences have been put into context.

A player who is on the bubble may for the lineup may have made a serious case for himself in this tournament, and that’s Milan Michalek. Michalek was one of the Czech Republic’s best forwards throughout, taking at least one shot on goal in five of six games and repeating that rate with both blocked shots and hits as well. Michalek had a very dominant three-game stretch of possession and when that was snapped, he still managed to score two goals to help send the Americans home without a win. He looks more engaged than he did with Ottawa and Toronto last year and if he keeps this up in the preseason, he’ll be on the Leafs’ roster.

I don’t know if the same can be said for Roman Polak, who old-schoolers will insist is a necessary piece of the Leafs heading into this year, but looked awful for the Czechs. Polak had three assists in the span of six games thanks to his hidden asset of being able to get his point shot into an open lane but spent most of his time chasing the puck. He had more hits than Leo Komarov despite not being looked at as a forechecker/displacer, and more blocked shots than anybody other than Zaitsev despite playing a game fewer and not in a shell with lots of lead-time. No Leafs skater gave up shots so frequently despite relatively neutral zone starts and game tempo and his relative possession numbers were easily the worst. To me, he’s still clearly the fourth-best option on the right side behind Zaitsev, Connor Carrick, and Frank Corrado, and this tournament affirms that feeling.

Overall, it was a solid group outing for the more internationally revered members of the blue and white in front of their home fans. Most of the players impressed, and it gave everybody a bit of a better idea of what we’ll see from these guys going into the new season.