The first half of the 2018-19 season has been a whirlwind of emotions. From worrying about contracts and refreshing your twitter every five seconds to being in awe of some amazing offensive hockey – it has been a blast.
Amidst some panic after their worst loss – a 6-3 beating from formidable rivals the Boston Bruins – some people might have seen it as the end of the season already, but it’s just getting started now.
As a team, they have the second-highest scoring rate at even-strength among all teams in the league, with a 3.11 GF/60, only trailing their own division rival and the hottest team in the league, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Defensively, the Leafs have been a surprising team as well. They rank seventh in even-strength goals against per hour, definitely not the “horrible team in their own zone” that so many people are still thinking they are.
So far, this team has some very minor holes that can be fixed, but when the team is performing this well, why bother?
It has been an exciting first half of the season and these are some things that we have all noticed.
Andersen is a Top-5 Goaltender
We all knew that Andersen is a solid option in between the pipes since he arrived in Toronto, never getting the full starting role in Anaheim, he would surely blossom with the Leafs. But we had no idea that he would be this good.
Ranking fifth among all goaltenders that have played at least twenty games this season in save percentage, Andersen has completely bounced back as a starting goaltender after a rough beginning to his season.
He has completely robbed opponents of some wins in the thirty games he played so far in the 2018-19 season. Sporting the second-highest number of goals saved above average (GSAA), Andersen’s 14.29 has already surpassed his career-best in that statistic, a 12.06 from last season.
If it wasn’t for Andersen’s performance this season, the Leafs would have a much larger number in the losses column.
Tavares is Even Better Than We Thought
On that fateful day of July 1st, every single hockey fan knew that John Tavares would make an impact with the Leafs this season, but we did not expect him to set career-high numbers.
He is only eleven goals away from tying his career-high of 38 and is most likely going to surpass his career-high of 86 points. Tavares has been an absolute monster on the scoresheet, but his impact goes even deeper than that.
He leads the Leafs and is fourth among all NHL skaters in Game Score per hour (GS/60), a statistic that thoughtfully sums up a player’s offensive contributions beyond just point totals. He isn’t just skirting by with some favourable opposition as well, Tavares is facing some tough matchups along the way.
On the other end of the ice, Tavares has been extremely solid as well. Being just defensively responsible enough for them to keep the puck and work their magic. Leading the Leafs in CA/60 relative to his teammates, Tavares has usually been the best defensive player on the Leafs when he’s on the ice. Or at least the best player for keeping the puck.
Every single night we’re seeing Tavares unleash his skill and what he is able to do with the best winger he has ever had in his career. Speaking of which…
Marner is on a Whole New Level
It was destined even before the season started that Marner would be on the wing of Tavares for probably the entirety of this season, and it has worked wonders.
Everyone knew the skill that Marner had, playing alongside Bozak, JVR, Kadri, and Marleau, but putting him beside one of the most complete centers in the entire league is something special to watch. He seems to have so much damn space out there to make his moves – it honestly looks like he’s back in London some nights.
On pace for a casual 110 points, Marner has impressed everyone around the hockey world for his skill so far this season.
He currently leads the Leafs in powerplay goals above replacement and is first among forwards in even-strength goals above replacement (GAR). Among all forwards in the league, Marner is sixth in total GAR this season – just behind some skaters like Brayden Point, Jeff Skinner, and a little forward named Sidney Crosby.
Even beyond the point totals, Marner’s season this year is going to earn him a big piece of the cap hit pie – but who cares when you’re winning this much?
Selling Low Will Be Inevitable
As the Leafs slowly become more of a contender every day, they have to make some moves that most contending teams just have to make. Promising a player like Josh Leivo either a spot in the lineup or a trade that will see him get that ice-time, is a necessary action from a successful front office.
Sure, Leivo’s underlying numbers looked so damn good and he looked to be their answer in the middle-six, but who was he going to displace in this lineup? Johnsson, Marleau, and Ennis were performing too well at the time to warrant any sudden jump for Leivo up the depth chart, so why not move him to a team like the Canucks?
The Leafs will need to think more short-term with some moves they make in the near future. Contending windows don’t usually last long and moving out Leivo who “could be a good NHLer for the next couple years” for a player with control years in Michael Carcone, is just necessary.
Optimized Lineups Might Take a While
The main concern with this Leafs team right now is their blueline. It’s been obvious from the beginning among every single hockey fan, this blueline is just weird and not quite as good as they can be.
Other people say they need a new player, but before they even do that, why not just play your best defencemen the most? It seems like a simple idea, but it’s causing more problems than it should.
The fact that we have gone through 41 games with Hainsey playing next to Rielly and the 37-year-old still playing around twenty minutes per game, is just troubling.
It took Babcock until this time last year to take Leo Komarov out of the top-six forward group, so maybe we will see a change soon, but defencemen are weird and coaches are weird about them.
Overall, the Leafs don’t have a massive problem, but if you look at exactly how many chances they’re giving up as a team, there should be some necessary actions made. They rank 23rd in the league for expected goals against per hour at even-strength (xGA/60). They are clearly out-scoring their problems right now, but that usually leads to some regression and they crash back to Earth with a losing streak in hand.
When Rielly and Hainsey have been the worst defensive pairing in the entire league, with a 27.81 xGA when iced together, there needs to be something changed before the playoffs hit and Hainsey gets absolutely turnstiled by a random third-liner.
The Leafs have been one of the best teams in the league so far this season, scoring at an absolutely insane rate and being average defensively is enough for them to maintain a top-5 position throughout the first months of the 2018-19 season.
There might be some worry in the future after they have a random three-game losing streak (or something), but this team has been as entertaining as they get in the NHL.
Of course, there are more things with this team than the five listed above, but these were the standouts and the massive improvements above expectations that we had back in October.
This team is so damn exciting, so let’s enjoy the trade speculations before the February 25th deadline and the records broken before they make the playoffs and try to make a run out of it. This might just be the beginning of some extremely fun years.