Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY SPORTS
It’s Christmas Eve! That means a lot of different things to a lot of different people; for me, it means seafood, pasta, and games with my stereotypically Italian-Canadian family at my Zia’s house. You might have your own traditions, or you might just have some time off, and that’s totally cool too.
Before I go stuff my face, though, I come bearing some Christmas wishes for the Leafs. Here’s what’s on my mind on this holiday Saturday afternoon:
1. Keep The Momentum Going
Everything is happening for Frederik Andersen these days pic.twitter.com/uZuD39pxLt
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) December 14, 2016
The Leafs are in a really good spot right now. It took some bottom feeder teams, but they finally won both games of a back to back; on the road, no less. They have points in 5 of their last 6. They’ve taken 30 or more shots in 10 of their past 11 games, including three outings of over 40. They’ve given up fewer than 30 in five of those and gone over 40 just once against San Jose.
Auston Matthews is filling the net. Mitch Marner and William Nylander have snapped their droughts, the first pair is finding their groove, and Frederik Andersen has evolved into his final form, the self-proclaimed “F*** You Freddie”.
But they can’t just let this be an exciting stretch akin to the one in early November. If the Leafs are due to finally live up to their top-half to borderline elite underlying numbers, they need to come out of the Christmas break and turn attempts into shots, shots into chances, chances into expected goals, and expected goals into real goals. They have a unique game-in-hand opportunity to catapult up the ladder of a sputtering Atlantic Division; if this is a wave they’re on, they need to ride it.
2. A Re-Evaluation Of Depth
Shane Doan’s goal, from a Leafs perspective, aka the Hunlak experience pic.twitter.com/6XAfJROrGC
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) December 24, 2016
The Arizona Coyotes scored one goal last night. It wasn’t a pretty one; the Leafs’ forwards messed up their backchecking assignment, the Coyotes gained a 4-on-2 rush, Roman Polak made a huge mistake in choosing who to cover, and Shane Doan scored his 400th career goal.
Just like that, Polak and Matt Hunwick saw a big dent to their Goals-For Percentage. GF% has been used by defenders of Toronto’s depth players to prove that the Leafs are having success when they’re on the ice; a statement that is technically true but cuts a data sample into small, easily swingable numbers and does so in a way that has too many compounding factors to be very predictive.
Hunwick remains atop the Leafs in the stat, but the lead has closed in just a single shot. Polak is now 9th; 4th among defencemen. Jake Gardiner and Connor Carrick remain the far-away leaders as a combined pair, which matches up with more commonly used shot-based metrics.
Now that the highly polarizing “well actually” statistic has lost what little weight it had maybe this is a time of reflection. The two have struggled to maintain control at even strength, and while they remain solid on the penalty kill, they’re contributing a lot of the penalties that require those kills. Ben Smith is on IR, and both Byron Froese and Frederik Gauthier have looked better in their short auditions. Frank Corrado caused some controversy by speaking out about his lack of ice time, but he’s about as game ready as he can be right now.
I don’t think the Leafs are necessarily doomed if the current role players stick around. But if it’s a results-driven business, this is the perfect time to tinker a little bit and see what you got with some other guys.
3. Some Bounces For The Marlies
Colin Smith gets the puck away just in time to spring Kerby Rychel onto a breakaway, but he can’t convert. pic.twitter.com/zVnCNCVu5L
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) October 22, 2016
This year’s Toronto Marlies were never going to be as good as last year’s historically dominant roster, but they were expected to be one of the best teams in the AHL once again. That hasn’t happened; the team is currently just barely above 0.500.
A lot of that comes down to puck luck. The AHL’s league average shooting percentage is higher than the NHL’s, approximately 9.5%, but few Marlies are reaching that mark, to the surprise of many. Kerby Rychel, Colin Smith, and Brooks Laich are all shooting under 8%. Dmytro Timashov is shooting at just 6.3, while Gauthier was at 5.3 before his call up. Andreas Johnsson is at 13.5, but 5 of his 7 goals are powerplay tallies. Andrew Nielsen’s point totals are also special teams influenced; just 5 of his 19 points come at even strength. Josh Leivo went completely blank in his conditioning stint, and Toronto’s defencemen have combined for just four even-strength goals.
Something is collectively up here. I don’t know if it’s systems, given that Sheldon Keefe had success with his group last year. But a lot of these players can’t move the biscuit into the basket to save their life right now, and unless you’re expecting the rotating goalie carousel to bury them out, that’s problematic.
4. Good Health Down The Stretch
Appears to be fine now, but here’s the shot block Nazem Kadri made that looked injury-causing at first. pic.twitter.com/NqXBnsEUvA
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) December 24, 2016
The Leafs have been extraordinarily lucky in terms of injuries this season. Their top five forwards (Matthews, Marner, Nylander, JVR, Kadri) have only missed a combined one game this year, and scary situations have turned out to be stingers and bruises rather than breaks and fractures. Zach Hyman has played in every game too, as have Matt Martin, Connor Brown, Leo Komarov and their top three defencemen Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, and Nikita Zaitsev.
That’s pretty good for being at nearly the halfway mark. But the injury bug will chip away at some point; Matt Hunwick, Tyler Bozak, Martin Marincin, and now Ben Smith have all been examples, and hopefully it doesn’t bury the team in an area of crucial need down the line. That was a blessing in disguise for the team last year, when were bottoming out and van Riemsdyk missed a huge stretch of time, but now that the games mean something, the stakes are much higher.
5. Recognition for the Process
“Daddy, this game was the worst Christmas present ever”
“Yeah, says you, losers” pic.twitter.com/DheWqtkjUf
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) December 23, 2016
As much as we spend our days breaking down every nuance of the team, my biggest ask would be a moment of recollection. In the past 24 months, the Leafs organization has gone from being a disaster with no clear answer as to when the end-in-sight would come, to a rapidly rising team with some of the best young talent in the sport.
The team is not just more competitive, but one that’s fun to watch. Even the most catastrophic of losses make you feel like your time was well invested, and the biggest of wins invoke flash-forwards of what’s about to be. Being a fan of this team is quickly going from something that you’re proud of as an example of your ability to cope with pain, to one you’re proud of caring about. Being a fan is a situation of enjoyment, rather than tolerance.
There’s still four (plus?) months to go in this season, but as the league takes three days off from the madness, it’s nice to feel frustrated about having to wait for the next game, rather than relieved.