TLN Roundtable: Room to Improve

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There’s no doubt the start of this season has been an exciting one for Leafs fans. Despite the club dropping three of their four opening games, any concerns about leaning on the rookies have seemingly been put to rest, and the brand of hockey being played looks like it’ll be about 700x more entertaining than it has the last few seasons.

That said, they have dropped three of four, and in each loss have blown a lead in the third period. These are close, winnable games, so I wanted to ask the TLN staff what they think has been the main reason for the Leafs’ struggles and what, if any, lineup tinkering they might do heading into the weekend.

KEEGAN TREMBLAY

I think one of the biggest problems for the Leafs has been collapsing into a defensive position too early when defending the lead. In the Winnipeg game specifically, there were instances in the third period, while Toronto was still leading, where our fore checkers were curling away from Winnipeg’s defenders even when those defenders were struggling to control the puck. The main focus became getting into a defensive position quickly, despite the puck being up for grabs in the Winnipeg zone.

In the defensive end, the team became more focused on blocking shots than breaking up Winnipeg’s cycle. This reversion to get into the shot lanes instead of challenging the attack was evident a few times during Ottawa’s comeback as well. Don’t get me wrong, it’s never a bad idea to get in the way of a shot but the Leafs’ skaters seemed to be planting themselves and hoping for a whistle a little too often.

Although it seems easy to blame inexperience, I believe that’s been the culprit. For all their talent, rookies like Mitch Marner haven’t had to deal with the offensive rally of skilled giants like Byfuglien, Wheeler, Scheifele, and Laine before. Perhaps they’ve run into a player or two like that on their way to the NHL but I’d wager they’ve never had to lineup against a unit close to that size or skill level. It will take time for the young guys to learn to anticipate opportunities to break-up a well-oiled cycle and spot a weak defender struggling despite his team’s momentum but that’s okay. They have time to learn.

Lineup change: Keep Roman Polak in just to see if he can maintain his 79 goal pace.

RYAN HOBART

The Leafs’ biggest struggle so far has clearly been their goaltending. Even though Andersen and Enroth have only let in one or two “bad” goals, they still have let in *a lot* of goals. Considering the talent level of both, and their history of quality goaltending, we can expect this problem won’t last. However, I have said it before and I’ll continue to say it, the tandem of Bernier/Reimer wasn’t any worse than the tandem the Leafs currently have, and that’s okay. Andersen/Enroth will level out over the course of the season to around the .915 we expect them to be, which is exactly where the Reimer/Bernier tandem has been. And that’s okay with me. You can have success with that. But for right now, the goaltending is what has been holding the Leafs back from getting what could have been a 4-0 start to the year.

JEFF VEILLETTE

I don’t want to throw the goaltending completely under the bus, but some level of responsibility has to be pointed towards the 4×6 in the defensive zone. Specifically, Frederik Andersen continues to concern me. He’s playing on the butterfly more than I’ve ever seen him do in Anaheim, and he’s coming much further out of the net than he did previously.

I wondered if that was something that the Leafs had told him to do, but Enroth didn’t look anywhere near as aggressive last night. My suspicion, as I’ve mentioned before, is that Andersen still isn’t comfortable with his shoulder and is compensating by playing low and coming out to regain height.

If it’s a pure stylistic move, I’d revise it. If it has something to do with health, he absolutely should hit the IR for a few days. Beyond that, most signs are good. A couple of gaffes and a certain defenceman wearing #2 looks very worse for wear, but we all expected that.

RYAN FANCEY

The Leafs really could not be any better offensively than they have to this point, so it’s clear their struggles are on the other side of the puck in the other end of the rink. Scoring 14 goals through four games and only coming up with one win is a little disheartening, and though this young team has looked panicked in their own zone at times, they really need a save or two. 

The thing about running into a rough streak of goaltending in the NHL is that you can almost always go back through each goal against and say “Well, that’s not entirely the goaltenders fault”, and you’d be right, sort of. This is happening a lot during Leafs games right now. 

But every team gives up prime scoring chances that are no fault of the goalie. It’s just the goaltenders that set themselves apart are the ones that make those difficult saves and bail you out. The Leafs were on the wrong end of it against Dubnyk this past Thursday.

Is it something to worry about? Nope, not yet. We’re four games into the season. But considering the Leafs have essentially been filling the net so far and not getting much to show for it, they’ll definitely want to have things tightened up defensively and in net before the goals aren’t so easy to come by.

As for lineup changes, I’d like to see the Kadri line have a little more punch to it, maybe in the form of Connor Brown. Michalek has looked really bad at times, and is easily the weakest player in that trio. Moving Seth Griffith into the lineup on the 4th line in Brown’s place and having Michalek sit out might make the Leafs a little more dangerous, but again, it isn’t like scoring has been a problem. And establishing Rielly-Carrick and Gardiner-Zaitsev as the top two defence pairings might be the way to go, given what we’ve seen from that whole group to this point.

  • Stan Smith

    The Leafs are pretty much doing what i expected them to do this season, score a lot of goals, give up a lot of goals, and play .500 hockey. The only thing I felt could change that is if they get hot goaltending, which they haven’t. I don’t know if you can blame the goalies, you might even say they were lucky to get a point in Ottawa, as Andersen made 3 great saves after the Sens tied the game, to get it to overtime, it’s just that it has been “average”. I agree with Ryan that the tandem of Benier and Reimer was probably good enough for where the Leafs are right now, and that I’m not sold on whether Andersen and Enroth are any better. But we are only four games in, Andersen is coming off of an injury, and Enroth has only played one game. I am hoping though.

    I chuckled at Jeff’s comment about Hunwick. It must be pissing him off that Hunwick is outplaying their so called best dman, Gardiner. And that Polak came in and clearly outplayed Marincin. 🙂

  • LukeDaDrifter

    Defence is our biggest problem. Leafs really only have 3 decent NHL calibre D-men. Babcock has chosen to play one on each line. Other coaches are well aware of this. Their obvious strategy has been to fore-check us to death, and get us running around in our own end. We traded Phaneuf and added Zaitsev. So there was no real gain on the backend. We drafted D but they need time to adjust to the pro game. Trade seems the the way to go. Problem with that is even for an aging veteran like Fowler (34) the price is likely to be high. Jets have a young one but rumor has it the price is astronomical, Maybe JVR- Nielsen- and Kapanen. Maybe worse like Nylander instead of JVR. One just knows that whenever Lamarrillo answers the phone GM’s want to know what it would take to acquire Nylander, Matthews, or Marner. Looks to me that we will just have to tough these games out until someone from the Marlies is ready to step in…..I think what has happened here is nobody really felt we would have 3 budding stars 18, 19, and 20, emerging this year. I am sure both Nielsen and Dermott are doing everything they can to learn the ropes and get up here.

    Half the league is looking for D. The other half is looking for top pairing D.

    • Tigon

      Fowler is not an aging veteran, he is 24, not 34. I don’t think the price would be too high on him and I’m sure it would be more reasonable than Trouba both in terms of trade cost and signing cost.

      • LukeDaDrifter

        Sorry about that. I miss-read the data. Sure at 24 he could definitely help. We have recently done a couple of deals with the Ducks. I am assuming Duck’s need to trade a D so they can sign Hampus Lindholm was discussed.

  • espo

    Did anyone really think the rookies wouldn’t be able to play in the NHL??? Was that ever th concern? I’m not worried about their level of play in the first half, it’s their ability to continue playing at this pace past game 55 of playing again’t grown ass men for the first time. Some have played against the big boys already and marner has played more games, but none have done both. Love the exciting hockey I’ve seen so far, the questionable d pairings and the potential wear and tear on the rooks is what I’m worried about.