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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Five Takeaways from the Leafs exhibition game vs Montreal

It’s been over four months and I must say, it’s great to have hockey back.

Last night, the Leafs took on the Montreal Canadiens in a pre-season game. Despite it being July, the game was competitive and both teams looked good in stretches. In general, it’s tough to take too much away from one “exhibition game” but with that said, this was the first and only tune-up before the playoffs start. Sheldon Keefe and the Leafs needed to be in playoff mode, which gives us reason to find value in the different things we noticed.

Here are my five takeaways from the 4-2 victory for the Leafs. 

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1. Nick Robertson belongs in the NHL

Two of the biggest questions heading to this game: Will Nick Robertson look like he belongs in the NHL despite being 18 years old? And more importantly, will he look like one of the Leafs’ best 12 forwards? My answers: Yes, and yes.

Robertson didn’t score but he was noticeable on many of his shifts thanks to his work ethic off the puck.

This clip below was probably his most memorable. It was expected that Robertson would be able to be on top of defencemen on the forecheck, but his puck-retrieval and deception is what stood out to me in this play. Robertson retrieves the rebound, then holds the puck on his backhand for an extra second. This sucked-in the Montreal forwards as they thought he was about to pass it to Kerfoot in the slot. Robertson notices this, quickly passes it to the point, and it allows Dermott to step up into the new space.

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This is subtle, but it’s nice to see that level of confidence from Robertson this early.

Robertson finished the game with one assist and was one of the best players in terms of expected goal differential at even strength. He wasn’t particularly dangerous on the powerplay but he also didn’t have many opportunities to shoot. His one big blunder was the offensive zone penalty he took in the first period. Hopefully, that is a one-off scenario.

All things considered, it’s going to be difficult for Keefe to scratch Robertson on Sunday.

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2. The Leafs breakout is starting to look dynamic

It’s no secret that the Leafs breakout has looked different since Sheldon Keefe took over. The Leafs moved from longer stretch-passes to multiple short passes before exiting the zone.

Tonight, things looked different once again. The Leafs used multiple methods to exit the zone and were successfully able to overcome Montreal’s forecheck all night. Historically, Keefe has been known as a coach that is able to adapt to his opponent and this extended break might have allowed the Leafs to diversify their breakouts.

Full video on Sheldon Keefe interview from 2010

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Columbus is one of the best teams in terms of creating offense off the forecheck and the Leafs should be looking to stretch them out on occasion during this series. We saw some examples of this last night.

The obvious counter to the Leafs short-pass breakout is to clog up the offensive zone. Columbus might have to think twice about this if the Leafs have long stretch-passes in their tool bag.

3. We questioned the third line and they answered

Toronto has had trouble getting production from their third line all year, but tonight they were the difference makers.

Line combination

CF%

xGF%

Goals For-Goals Against
Robertson Kerfoot Kapanen 77.88 88.02 1-0

Kapanen and Kerfoot were excellent and arguably the Leafs best players. Kerfoot scored two goals and played solid defensively. Kapanen’s straightaway speed was apparent all night and he was involved in a few scoring chances. He also played with some grit which is a welcome sign so soon before the playoffs. The addition of Robertson gives this line a true goal-scorer and someone who can work hard off the puck.

This was a great start for the newly formed trio.

4. The Leafs were transforming turnovers into scoring chances

A lot will be said about Columbus’ puck pursuit this upcoming week but in this game, the Leafs were the ones who were puck-hungry against Montreal. They were pressuring in waves and Montreal had a tough time moving the puck for the majority of the game. Kerfoot’s first goal came off an offensive zone turnover.

The Leafs were also doing a great job transitioning from winning puck-possession to generating a scoring chance. They probably could have scored one or two more goals had they finished their chances better.

When at their best, Toronto’s intriguing mix of takeaway artists and hard-working forwards smother the opposing defenders. We have seen them do this in small flashes in the past but they will have to start doing this consistently if they want to move far in the playoffs.

5. The special team units looked different

The obvious difference with the powerplay is the addition of Nick Robertson on the second unit. He gives them a legitimate focal point to revolve their offense around. In this game, both units struggled to generate offense with the man advantage but a lot of that had to do with their inability to enter the zone with possession. That has to change by Sunday.

The penalty kill had a major difference in ice-time deployment than what we are used to.

Player 2019-2020: PK TOI/game PK TOI vs MTL
Mitch Marner 2:03 4:40
Ilya Mikheyev 1:53 3:22
Zach Hyman 1:50 4:43
Kasperi Kapanen 1:38 4:31
Pierre Engvall 1:17 1:10
Alex Kerfoot 0:17 4:04

The Leafs were on the penalty kill six times vs Montreal 

Throughout the season, Kerfoot didn’t spend much time on the penalty kill. In contrast, Engvall was a big part of it, partly due to Mikheyev’s injury. It was interesting to see how little Engvall was used at 4v5 against Montreal. Instead, Keefe went with Kapanen and Kerfoot. The pairing shut down Montreal’s powerplay and even added a shorthanded goal.

It’ll be interesting to see how Keefe lines up his penalty killing lines against Columbus. Kerfoot gives the Leafs a stronger faceoff option for the second PK unit, plus a player who has evident chemistry with Kapanen. Down the stretch, Engvall struggled at 5v5 and his decrease in PK time against Montreal makes me wonder whether Keefe will dress him in game one over the more stable center in Frederik Gauthier. Only time will tell.

 

Thanks for reading and stay safe.