5 Christmas Wishes For The 2016/17 Leafs

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

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

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

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

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

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.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      I know it is Christmas and a happy new Year. Jeff is sitting on the fence. Fuck this their will be pain. Lets ignore how frigging good our guys are. Hey! did anyone notice every team that beat us next time we kicked their ass. It seem for some no mater what we see on the ice our guys are not ready for the big time, I know this if you and I had to play against the our Leafs I would saying to you. We can beat them but we must work together. Even then it would not be easy/ I don’t believe there is really a better team in the NHL

      • Stan Smith

        The Leafs are doing a lot of things correct right now, and the funny thing about sports is you never know what will happen. Look at the Sens a couple seasons ago road the back of a goalie who got waived this season, to a streak, that vaulted them into the playoffs. The Blue Jackets are doing the same thing right now. If a team reaches the level of synergy where the unexpected happens, then anything is possible.

        Having said that I still don’t think the Leafs are a playoff team quite yet. I think they have the offence and the primary goaltending they need. I think their weakness on the defense, and by that I mean the defensive play of the whole team, not just the 6 dmen, and their lack of a quality backup, will be the stumbling block that prevents them from making the playoffs.

        But, you know what? I hope I’m wrong. I hope they go on a 10 game streak that puts them in the middle of the hunt, and end up getting a round or two of playoff experience to whet their appetite and give them a desire for more.

        • LukeDaDrifter

          There always is a Cinderella team every year in the playoffs. The Leafs are definitely fragile. We do have some depth in some positions. Other key positions like backup goaltending, are either unproven or a major concern. There are some teams like Dallas who are still looking for a number one goalie. It should come as no surprise the pool for a really good backup is thin. As for “the defensive play of the whole team”, it is a work in progress. I do see it progressing little by little every game. Those really bad turnovers we were constantly doing at the start of the season have been kept to a minimum lately. That is why I feel we have a very good chance to make the playoffs.

          • Stan Smith

            Hope springs eternal, and for once we actually have what I call reasonable hope, but you know what? It doesn’t really matter in the whole scheme of things if they don’t. For years we had the type of team where if everything went right we might be in a fight for the last playoff spot, and if we can squeak in then anything can happen. Now our hopes go well beyond that. When I look at the Leafs right now I see a young Blackhawk’s team or a young Penquin’s team in the making. As I stated earlier it would be nice to see the Leafs make the playoffs this season, but if they don’t, it’s totally ok.

  • LukeDaDrifter

    Jeff don’t you feel it is a little smug referring to teams we beat as bottom feeders or just bad, considering they also beat us? Merry Christmas and enjoy all the nice homemade food.

  • Harte of a Lion

    Jeff, thanks for the good read and happy holidays.
    Already experiencing hockey withdrawl/Leaf withdrawal so I thank everyone involved in the WJC. Let’s Go Canada!
    I hope Martins Dzierkals has truly rehabbed his groin and not playing because of the importance he places on this tournament for his home nation. Without him Latvia never would have qualified. He inspired the Latvian team with his “buzz-saw/hummingbird” energy, his never quit style, his offensive flair plus the ability of playing a 200′ game. Anyone who hasn’t seen this kid play, make certain you catch one or two of these games.

    December 26, 2016/ 15:30Latvia v United States
    December 27, 2016/ 16:00Russia v Latvia
    December 29, 2016/ 20:00 Canada v Latvia
    December 30, 2016/ 19:30Latvia v Slovakia

    He is 5’11” but still only 175 pounds. I’m hopeful on Christmas Eve none of my esteemed associates who contribute here would start the “he is too small to play in the NHL” argument. You could put a fireplug at centre between Marner and Dzierkals and it would score 25… now that would be an interesting goal celebration.

    As an avid follower of the junior programs in North America and over seas when I can get the info without too much difficulty as well as a longtime fan and devotee of both the ECHL & AHL, it is only summer vacation where the true lack of hockey news is crippling.

    After the NHL draft and 24-48 hours of Free agency, unless we pop onto the twilight zone for a day or two, (Larsson/Hall/Subban/Webber/Roswell/Area 51/The Dark Side of the Moon) there are approximately 30 days of hockey in a vacuum.
    Of course we all know Steve Simmons and Dave fish truck, uhmmm Feschfuck uhmmm you all know who… will start something. Simmons will report that a source close to the family reported Nylander disrespected his mother then punched and kicked a puppy that was attempting to steal his hot dog (remember how reliable a source his hotdog vendor was last year) That damn Kessel and his hotdogs, influencing our young stars again, a guy who spends his Cup day with sick children in the city he no longer lives in and for a team he “no longer plays on”. How classless… aren’t there sick children in Pittsburgh? He even attempted to keep it under the radar as he seems to have developed an irrational fear and lack of trust towards the local sport media…
    Then not to be outdone, Woodchuck will go into the empty Leaf dressing room, start a confrontation with a toilet by shouting at it, then blame said toilet for the ineffectual way it does its job never grasping the importance of that simple function. Someone ought to flush both these jokers!

    First week of August the prospect reports begin in earnest. Shortly thereafter reports questioning the originals, and the ‘my prospect reports are better than your prospect reports’ and then Steve Dangle tries to quell the bickering by throwing gasoline onto the mix. ‘By changing how we rate/rank prospects will eliminate the need to rate/rank prospects…so… let’s no longer rate/rank prospects as such… but just accept that every prospect in the Leafs organization is the next coming of McDavid, even the goalies, and leave it at that’.
    This way we have will far more time to spend arguing whether Matthews 40/40 is more impressive than Marner’s 25/55, Nylander’s 35/45 or Andersen’s 40/40… jk, a bored, semi sober mind with access to the internet is a dangerous thing.

    Seasons Greetings, Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah to every Leaf fan far and wide, I look forward to the best 120 +- days of Maple Leaf hockey anyone born after the new century has ever experienced. It has been too long coming.

    Thank you Mr. Shanahan, for restoring hope to he Maple Leafs faithful fanbase. Hope is a powerful gift and though in my heart I believed someone would eventually turn this team around, seeing the progress you have made in less than 24 months is astounding.

  • Kanuunankuula

    Most of the games this year, they’ve been “in it”. Much better than last year. Andersen really turned it around, as most predicted, and is now playing like a top ten goalie in the league. Matthews really closing in on being the #1C spot. Kadri doing great in his shutdown role. If this continues and guys come up from the marlies to take some spots, I really do think that this team is going places next year in the playoffs. Really wish we can snatch a RHD during the spring or the summer.

    • Stan Smith

      It’s funny, we can argue about certain aspects of this team. but I think we can pretty much all agree that this is the best this team has looked in years. For once the team actually seems to in possession of more pieces than they are in need of. Once Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and crew have a few years under their belt it is really exciting to think about what that will be like to watch.

      • LukeDaDrifter

        Stan it would be fair to say they need a few more years to make it happen.These guys believe and know there is not another team in the NHL that is really better than them. Forget about they shouldn’t be able to do at 19 on twenty. I will guarantee you if myself or by brother LukewarmWarter were to show up at a practice Babcock wouldn’t write us off right away.

      • Harte of a Lion

        Stan, when you consider that 2014/15 was the year Shanny sat and watched while guzzling Maalox, the true rebuild didn’t start until April 12, 2015 when he fired everyone. Consider what Shanahan has assembled in the 629 days since Bloody Sunday 2015, the true enormity become apparent.
        Everyone should check our prospect lists, B.S vs A.S (before Shanny/after Shanny)
        For those who grow impatient due to the early success of the ‘Shanaplan’ I will remind you to “chill”. We can all see where the organization/team continues to show weakness however if I told anyone where we would be Boxing Day 2016, I would have been crucified.
        Patience grasshoppers, whether developed within the organization, signed as a free agents or traded for, there will be improvements to our defensive core in the near future… I’d love for that to occur immediately so the Leafs become the Cinderella team of the 2017 playoffs but, and this is a huge (__!__) success is achieved incrementally otherwise young players aren’t prepared for the mental/psychological demands.
        The Marlies have a few d-man who I believe are capable of playing 4, 5, 6 in the NHL. Loöv (L) Valiev (L) and Holl (R) all have some AHL experience. Dermott (L) and Nielsen (L) are experiencing some rookie growing pains but both show great potential.

        I’m hiding out for a few days after I tore into a few Habs board commenters who floated the idea that since Montreal needs help at centre while we need help on the back end, specifically RHD, Montreal would be doing us a huge favour by allowing us to trade “little Willy” for Noah Juulsen. They are all in agreement that Juulsen is their next Norris winner and he is far superior to all the Leafs other options so let’s get Willie packed up A.S.A.P.
        Basically I told them to stop smoking pot as it is addling their brains and that I’d rather patiently wait while Shanny builds a winner, than help them in any way… unless it’s a ginormous overpayment. Let’s all watch with glee as Therien wastes the rest of Price’s career. Not glee for poor Carey Price, but glee for the fact that without him the Habs are a lottery team at best and not a single fan of the Montreal Canadians accepts that fact. Is it wrong to revel in the idiocy of the fans of a team I despise? Don’t know, don’t care. What I do know is within a year or two, the standings will be flipped with the Leafs as the top Canadian team while Montreal is watching the Leafs/Senators tail lights.

        ps: I think we can get Charlie Mcavoy plus a second from Boston for JVR. Jakob Zboril could also be available but we should be looking for RHD first and foremost. With Lou at the helm I have no doubts that he will turn JVR into the assets we need to take the next step. Love to hear thoughts and opinions on trade partners to acquire a young, potentially top pairing RHD and what it will take in terms of players/picks to finalize a deal. Try to be realistic unlike Canadians fans.

        I cheer for only 2 teams,
        The Toronto Maple Leafs
        Any team that beats the Habs!

    • LukeDaDrifter

      I know we often disagree on little small things regarding the Leafs. I recognizes your passion for the game of hockey and the Leafs. I do apologize if I sometimes I was hard on on your opinions. We often get in to how many times Jesus Christ dropped the cross marching up Calvary Hill. I don’t write your opinion off for one second, I wouldn’t waste a moment of my time responding to your comments if I thought for a moment you were stupid.

    • Harte of a Lion

      Kanuunankuula, Matthews is already playing #1C minutes. His production for a 19 year old is amazing to watch however he needs to continue working on his face offs.
      Fun fact, in almost every game Matthews has played, his FO% improves as the game progresses. In a nutshell, he is a quick learner but unlikely to be a true #1C until he is above 50% on the dot no matter how many points he acquires. (Why Malkin will never be considered a bonafide #1 NHL centre)
      The coaches must have confidence that with the game on the line, with 15 seconds remaining and a faceoff in their end, he can win the draw and force to game to overtime.

      Bold prediction, next year Matthews will hit 49% on the dot and by the final year of his ELC, he will be above 50% and the team will have finally found a replacement for Matts Sundin.
      Matthews, Nylander, Kadri, Gauthier seems like fabulous centre depth… Marner can also play centre.

      • Kanuunankuula

        Minutes yes, I’m saying he’s been fed the 2nd lines like Malkin and Getzlaf and Duchene. He’s done well against those lines, but Kadri is still taking the hard matchups.

        I’m not saying he’s bad or anything like that, but he’s not yet taking on the full responsibilities. He’s also been pretty dominant against those lines, if you can get 60% possession against Malkin and Getzlaf, as 19 year old, your pretty goddamn good.

    • Tecari

      Dom’s model has them out of the playoffs while DTM’s has them in. Dom’s is newer and looks good so far, but DTM’s has been very accurate in the past, specifically calling every single playoff series correct last year with the Panthers vs. Isles series as the only exception, so there is definitely still a shot.

  • Stan Smith

    Was thinking that this article would be all about positives, and 80% of it was. I also know that Jeff is still driving the Hunlak conspiracy bus. I was hoping he could maybe let it go for one article, but was once again disappointed.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      I hope Jeff realizes if Polak or Hunwick get injured and Corrado gets into the lineup. Corrado better look good out there. I lot of curious minds will be watching him closely. If it happens, who plays the PK ?

      • Stan Smith

        You never know. Jeff and crew might actually be right. It might turn out that if Hunlack (I know consider them as one. lol) were to get hurt, Corrado might come in, Marcincin would get healthy and the Leafs might win the cup this year.

  • LukeWarmWater

    Well there goes that big sucker of a turkey. Merry Christmas to all the posters and I hope you got some maple leaf gifts under the Christmas tree or your stocking. The grand kids came through in style as they know what Grandpa likes. Now the funniest gift I ever got was a few years ago when the leafs were terrible and a friend figured I needed a new garbage can. He got me a maple leaf garbage can.

    The only thing going in that can these days are the leafs opponents. Brother Luke I totally agree that Babcock wouldn’t write us off. As a matter of fact he would be impressed with our physical prowess at our age.

    Jeffer that indeed was an excellent article. To think this team with up to 8 rookies including the big goat now in the line up is not only playing entertaining but winning hockey. Let us not forget that the back up failed miserably and Andersen took a while to get in game shape after that injury. Throw in the fact that these kids early in the year played well like kids and gave some games away in the third period. That ain’t happening now and one particular club is going to get some pay back and that is soon, namely the Habs who will be playing in our barn and not that homer refereed Bell center.

    Now when I wasn’t being ambidextrous munching on two turkey legs I had to take out the dog for his long walk. The dog is a member of Mensa and knows what trees to lift his leg up on. One neighbour is a Yankee fan and the dog makes a bee line for that tree which the neighbour decorated with lights. I’m training him to visit another neighbour who is a Hab’s fan. Like I said the dog is a loyal Toronto sports fan, I trained him well.

    Just a delight to see the leafs improve this quickly with our absolutely solid management and all the rookies in the line up including the number 2, 3 and 4 rookie scorers leading the way.

    As George Bailey always says on Christmas Eve it truly is a Wonderful life.