The Toronto Maple Leafs’ start to the season has been interesting, to say the least. On Tuesday night, they hosted the Minnesota Wild. A team that not only allowed 21 goals in their first five games but was also playing their second game in as many nights. All signs pointed to a Leafs victory and happily, there was no plot twist.
Here are my five thoughts about tonight’s game.
1. The Stars came to play.
I found it a bit odd reading some of the narratives that followed the last game against the Red Wings. Despite the high expectations we have for them, it’s unreasonable to believe that the Leafs superstars are going to be on their A-game every night and it was a good sign that the Leafs were still able to score five goals on the road even though their top-six was quiet.
The Leafs top players are too good offensively to collectively stay cold and tonight, they resorted back to their regular ways. The game included goals from Matthews, Marner, Johnsson, and Tavares. Morgan Rielly also tallied four assists.
The Leafs needed this and so did their Captain.
John Tavares ties up the game! pic.twitter.com/O6LpSSEIQl
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) October 16, 2019
Despite not being involved in the scoring, Nylander also had a terrific game. He looked dangerous all night and was creating scoring chance after scoring chance.
I love it when Nylander changes speeds on his entries.
It makes him so difficult to defend. pic.twitter.com/eexZUxoGfj
— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) October 16, 2019
There are legitimate reasons to be excited about the Johnsson-Matthews-Nylander line. Matthews looks like he’s elevated his game to a new level and his skill-set perfectly complements Nylander’s. Johnsson’s mix of skill and tenacity makes him the obvious third piece to this line. Johnsson’s had an underrated start to this season in my opinion, and I’m glad he was rewarded for his hard work tonight with a goal and an assist.
If the Tavares line continues to see the opposition’s top line, the Matthews line has the potential to really shine against other team’s second and third lines. Tonight they had another strong performance in terms of shot-share, as they were on the ice for 21 shot-attempts for and only 10 against. This has been a recurring theme so far this season and we will see if they can continue this domination when the Leafs play teams with deeper forward groups.
2. Kapanen didn’t work with Tavares and Marner, and that’s okay.
It looks like we might have seen the end of the Kapanen-Tavares-Marner line as Trevor Moore replaced Kapanen to start the second period. Moore looked very good alongside Tavares and Marner and there was a clear difference in the line’s productivity when the change was made.
Zach Hyman will most likely take this spot back when he returns but I’d like to see Babcock keep Moore there until that time comes. Moore is one of the most underrated players on the Leafs in my opinion. His all-around skill-set and work ethic will hopefully make him a favourite to jump into the top-six if there are any future openings due to injury.
Despite it being a small sample, Kapanen never really looked comfortable playing on the left-wing and his skill-set just didn’t mesh with what has made Marner and Tavares so successful in the past.
Tavares, Hyman, and Marner are such good players in tight spaces. I don't think I can say the same about Kapanen.
He's looked lost in the offensive zone thus far this year. I think playing with Kerfoot and Mikheyev is going to be a much better fit when Hyman returns. pic.twitter.com/ROPIPWdrUy
— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) October 15, 2019
Luckily for Kapanen, not only do the Leafs not need him to play on the left-wing, they don’t need him to play in the top-six either. Mitch Marner and William Nylander comfortably occupy the top two right-wing positions, and with Hyman returning to the lineup, Kapanen will be back to his third-line right-wing role.
I still strongly believe in Kasperi Kapanen. It’s easy to forget how good he has been at creating dangerous scoring chances and generating takeaways in his last two seasons. I’m sure Kapanen will look better as the season goes on alongside his new linemates Ilya Mikheyev and Alexander Kerfoot when playing against the other team’s third and fourth lines.
3. The Leafs bottom-six continues to impress
This offseason, one of the biggest concerns amongst Leafs Nation was whether the team would be able to adequately fill out their roster with such large contracts given to their top players. So far, the Leafs bottom-six has certainly impressed a lot of people, including myself. To start, Kerfoot’s all-around game has been nice to watch. He doesn’t really stand out in any particular skill, but just always seems to make a positive play.
Kerfoot is a much better at transitioning the puck than I expected.
I've really liked his game thus far this year. pic.twitter.com/lYtTFZrtkh
— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) October 15, 2019
There isn’t much to be said about Mikheyev that already hasn’t been said. This summer I watched a lot of his game, especially his time with Team Russia at the IIHF World Championships. I projected him to be a good fourth-line winger for the Leafs, who would win fans over with his work ethic and strong penalty killing. At that time, I questioned his offensive upside and whether his mediocre puck-carrying would translate to the NHL. It’s safe to say he has exceeded my expectations and I can’t wait to see how his game develops as he continues to adjust to life in the NHL.
The Leafs fourth line certainly didn’t look as good as they did Saturday but that was to be expected. I have been a fan of Babcock’s rotation of fourth-liners so far this season and expect to continue seeing it until Hyman returns to the lineup and the forward group solidifies.
4. When the Leafs are on, they are on.
Stereotypically the Leafs didn’t “start on time” tonight. The Wild and Leafs traded chances throughout the first period and it ended with the Wild heading into the first intermission up 1-0. In the second period, the Leafs woke up. They scored four straight goals and dominated the game for the majority of the period.
The Leafs in-game inconsistency has been a recurring theme in the past and could be one of the hardest things about this hockey club to analyze. At this point, we can only hope that the “second-period Leafs” is the team we see more often than not.
5. The Leafs haven’t looked great defensively but it might not be as bad as it seems
Jake Muzzin has clearly been the Leafs best defender to start the season and tonight, he was excellent. He is so positionally sound and is consistently making decisions that drive the game into the Leafs favour. For the time being, Muzzin and Barrie make a terrific pair and they have worked well together thus far.
Cody Ceci and Morgan Rielly had another questionable night defensively. They continue to look very shaky in transition, and Rielly has never proven to be strong defensively in his own end. For now, it’s certainly not an emergency as the Leafs will still be a top-three team in the Atlantic Division especially when Andersen’s save percentage rises closer to his norm.
I still believe that any conclusive statements about the Leafs current defensive core should be kept for after Dermott returns. Before getting injured, he was on the verge of stepping into the Leafs top four, and I don’t think it will take him long to be knocking on that door once again. Also, if Sandin can continue developing with the Marlies, he’ll provide the Leafs with even more depth later in the season when they start gearing up for the playoffs. The Leafs defense isn’t perfect, but they are in much better shape than they were last season.
At the end of the day, the Leafs season will be measured by their success against the league’s top teams and not teams like the Minnesota Wild. Tomorrow, the Leafs get a top-team, as they travel to Washington to play the Capitals. Hope it’s a good one.