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.
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.
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.
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.
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.