The 2019-20 NHL regular season is now four games old, which means there are four games of Toronto Maple Leafs hockey upon which to draw hard, definitive conclusions.
Naturally, some players have greatly impressed — either by meeting their already-lofty expectations or simply not being the abject disasters we projected them to be. Others, however, have been far less enticing.
After first taking a look at the Leafs who have started their seasons off on a roll, today we’ll be tackling those who would probably prefer a mulligan.
Marner does Marner things for his second of the night and it’s a 3-1 Buds lead!
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) October 5, 2019
1. Mitch Marner
After launching a nation-wide campaign over the summer to declare himself worthy of — nay, entitled to — “Matthews money”, expectations for Mitch Marner‘s 2019-20 season were naturally pretty high.
Why wouldn’t they be? He got exactly what he wanted.
The Leafs are now paying Marner $10.893 million per year — nearly $2 million more than his closest comparable — to definitively plant himself among the NHL’s elite. And, you see, the thing about cashing elite-level paychecks is that they tend to require elite-level production. Four games in, that hasn’t come. So when accounting for how much the Leafs catered to their young star relative to his peers, and how they effectively handicapped themselves in the process just to do so, Marner’s lacklustre start should be subject to some particularly harsh criticism.
In that case, let’s do precisely that.
Heading into tonight’s clash with the Lightning, Marner sits with one even-strength point. One. It’s better than zero, I guess, but for a guy earning more than any RFA in the history of the NHL, it’s simply not good enough. At all. An $11 million AAV means you should at least be outscoring Ilya Mikheyev.
That lone 5v5 point of Marner’s is, of course, an assist — a secondary helper on Auston Matthews‘ fifth goal in three games. And speaking of Matthews, it’s important to note that three of his aforementioned five goals have come in moments when there were an equal number of players from both teams on the ice. How ’bout that?
Case in point; Matthews is earning “Matthews money” because he both is Matthews and has continued to do Matthews things before and after his lucrative extension. Marner has the financial part of that equation down, sure. He just hasn’t conquered the other (read: more important) two.
When you hold your own team hostage for an entire summer, demand an earth-shattering amount of money, and then ultimately get it, you consent to a trade-off; namely, you waive your right to the benefit of the doubt. Grace periods no longer exist for you moving forward. They are fictitious myths. If Matthews had Marner’s numbers at this point, he’d be taking the exact same level of heat, too. It comes with the territory.
Marner is a terrific hockey player, one who will undoubtedly bust out of this slump in a big way very soon. It might even come tonight against Tampa. But at the moment, Mitch is a big boy cashing big boy cheques that comes with big boy expectations.
So far, he hasn’t met them.
2. John Tavares
To be fair, Marner isn’t the only Local Boy™ lacking the stat line to match his 11-million-dollar price tag. In fact, give Marner a hand for even earning an even-strength point at all. John Tavares has been completely shutout in that regard through his first four games, racking up just a single primary assist on the power play along with zero goals, and, most alarmingly, a paltry four 5v5 shots — six in total.
Those shot numbers are not normal. Like, not even a little bit.
To put Tavares’ recent volume (or lack thereof) into perspective, last season, the 29-year-old led the entire Leafs roster in both total shots and shot attempts. By a wide margin, too.
Tavares threw a whopping 286 shots on net over the course of the 2018-19 season — 35 more than his next closest teammate — while attempting to do so a total of 485 times, as well. It’s not as if the guy was just pumping out listless floaters, either. On the contrary, Tavares earned the fourth-highest Thru% (percentage of shot attempts that actually hit the net) on last year’s Leafs with 59%; the caveat being that no one who finished above him wound up attempting more than 260 shots of their own. Tavares, as you’ll recall, nearly doubled that.
So, not only does the newly-christened captain typically perform like a pitching machine loaded with pucks set on “Level: Punishment”, but the vast majority tend to make it through. Unsurprisingly, Tavares has experienced a STARK drop in that regard, which might help explain his limited production.
Only 30.8% of Tavares’ 24 total shot attempts have hit the net thus far. That gives him the third-lowest Thru% on the entire team, ahead of only Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl. Nick Shore is in there, too. He just, uh, doesn’t have any shots.
What seems to be the case here is a change in shot location. Below, you’ll find a pair of Tavares’s spray charts — one from 2018-19:
The other from 2019-20:
Charts courtesy of Hockeyviz.com
Corporate wants you to find the difference between the two pictures.
Good job! Whereas Tavares almost exclusively set up shop atop the crease last season, this year has seen him take the bulk of his shots come from far higher up, in the decidedly lower-danger areas of the high slot. Therefore, Tavares’ Thru% dip isn’t much of a shock. It’s naturally a lot easier to pepper goalies standing two feet away from you than 40 feet and with likely more than one body blocking your path.
It’s still early, which means there’s a good chance that things will revert back to normal very soon. Tavares is simply too good to be held down like this. Still, I can’t quite help but wonder if his dip in HD shot volume has anything to do with Zach Hyman not being around to tackle the heavy lifting in the corners.
Which brings us to…
3. Kasperi Kapanen
Look, I’m not even going to include the broken stick incident here. That was a careless act done in the heat of the moment, and driven in equal parts by frustration and adrenaline. I’ve done dumber things before; you’ve done dumber things before. One gaffe doesn’t define a player’s entire season.
Besides, if you’re looking to pick apart Kasperi Kapanen‘s performance, there’s a lot more to draw from than that.
Playing alongside two borderline-generational talents, Kapanen has somehow opened the season pointless through four games. Keep in mind, this is the same Tavares who once made Matt Moulson into a 40-goal scorer. The spots on his wings are among the most coveted by players in the whole league. And yet, Kapanen has done little to nothing with them. His run-and-gun, “skate first; think later” mindset doesn’t seem to jive with Marner or Tavares at all, aiding in just how out of sync and aloof the trio have appeared to be together in their limited action.
Like everyone in this column, though, Kapanen is a terrifically talented player. His speed is downright otherworldly, for instance — perhaps the best in the entire NHL behind only Connor McDavid. But Kapanen’s quickness can’t hide his flaws. In fact, it might even highlight them.
What Kapanen lacks, namely, is a sense of vision and awareness as a playmaker; gaps in which the world saw in their entiery throughout last year’s playoffs when the Bruins rendered him useless. The ability to attack in transition is a great one to have, don’t get me wrong. But Kapanen simply can’t be trusted to set up his more talented linemates. Be it a matter of willingness or capability (or both), he doesn’t take a second to gauge what’s around him before barrelling on ahead, often allowing the play to die on his stick.
Those blinders are fine for someone in a depth role. A first-liner, though? You have to do more.
Not to mention, Kapanen is also one of the NHL’s more confidence-reliant players. And while that trait absolutely factors into any athlete’s performance, when it comes to Kapanen, his trajectory tends to hinge upon confidence levels more than most.
When he’s feeling it, he’s feeling it. And right now, Kapanen is not feeling it. Not even a little bit. He’s stuck in a cycle; in which he plays bad, feels bad about playing bad, and then plays bad because he feels bad about playing bad.
That will likely stop soon enough. It has to, really. But the light at the end of Kapanen’s tunnel is far dimmer than the one in Tavares’ or Marner’s. He needs to pull himself out of this quick. Otherwise, Kapanen’s next assignment might be feeding Frederik Gauthier pucks on the fourth line.
4. Morgan Rielly
What the hell is going on here?
Morgan Rielly put up 72 points last season alongside Ron Hainsey. Do you have any idea how hard that is? Case in point; Rielly flirted with a point-per-game on the backend in 2018-19 all while spending the bulk of his workday next to an in-over-his-head 38-year-old playing his off-side who thought the objective of an outlet pass was to make the biggest possible indent on the glass with the puck. What gives?
To be fair, Rielly’s offensive numbers aren’t much different early on. His points-per-game pace, in fact, is even better. At even-strength, Rielly has racked up three assists through the Leafs’ first four games — two of which the primary variety — and has driven play at a 52.6% CF/60 clip. Not too shabby, though a relatively generous dose of offensive zone starts — 60% at 5v5 — likely doesn’t hurt, either.
Still, things have been off with Rielly. His dip this year has come primarily in his own end. Rielly will never be confused with a shutdown defender, but with the 25-year-old on the ice this season, the Leafs have been out-chanced 44-32 by their opponents at 5v5, slapping Rielly with a 42.11% SCF% that pales in comparison to the 53.39% he put up the year prior.
I know what you’re thinking, though: “Does Cody Ceci‘s arrival have something to do with this?” Probably, yeah.
Together, the Rielly-Ceci pairing sits with a 50.40% CF/60 at the moment through 55:31 of ice time. In their (albeit limited) minutes apart, however, both players have watched their metrics spike; though Rielly’s has jumped up to a 59.92% while Ceci’s rose to 53.49%.
On the surface, at least, Rielly has been a better player when playing without Ceci than with him. But that’s not all that’s at fault here. Ceci isn’t the sole answer to the uptick in head-scratching gaffes Rielly has put forth early on.
Ceci doesn’t explain why Rielly just stopped moving to watch Brayden Schenn pot St. Louis’s 2-2 goal here:
Or why Rielly completely lost his man on Montreal’s 4-3 goal here:
(I mean, Ceci lost his man on the play too. But he’s not WHY Rielly got beat)
Of course, it’s early. Rielly’s lapses could be due to rust, or the growing pains of adjusting to a new defence partner, or, heck, he could even just not be sleeping well enough at night. He’s human, after all. Sometimes, we’re just a little bit off. Rielly is experiencing one of those times. But for the Leafs to reach their ceiling, he needs to get through it.
Footage courtesy of NHL.com