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Photo Credit: © Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs’ secondary scoring has a lot more to give

Ask anyone about a week ago their thoughts on the Leafs season, they would have probably told you that the sky was falling, the team was not good enough, and the time was ripe for a significant change. Now the team is in the midst of a five-game win streak (a convincing one at that) and fans’ fears over the team’s rough four-game stretch are now just a distant memory. It’s thanks in large part to the big four players pulling their weight and leading the offensive charge.

It has been awesome to watch William Nylander continue his development into an all-around force capable of dictating the pace of play and Auston Matthews find his groove and make opposing goalies tremble in fear when he winds up to take a shot. Seeing John Tavares lead by example and provide a spark to rally the team around and Mitch Marner regain his swagger after it appeared to be lost under the outside pressure is such a refreshing sight to see. As a result of their strong play, they were able to pull together impressive victories over contending teams like the Golden Knights, Lightning, and Bruins.

One of the by-products of this is that all of the scoring seems to have dried up considerably from the rest of the roster, with the Leafs’ last 13 coming only off the stick of their big-four players and no one else.

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To me, this is a big concern in the bigger picture because it reinforces a long-standing issue that has plagued this team for the past few seasons: a lack of secondary scoring.

While it is awesome to see Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and Tavares lead the charge offensively, a lacklustre supporting cast means they will need to do most of the heavy lifting in order to ensure that the scoring prowess remains intact. This is something they can get away with during the regular season but becomes a major obstacle to overcome once the playoffs roll around, and the last two series were lost partially because the Leafs did not have enough alternative options to provide offence in the event that their big-four either go quiet or get injured for an extended period of time. Considering the state of the team facing an uncertain future should things yet again go astray in the postseason, Kyle Dubas cannot think that the team as constructed has enough offensive depth to pick up the slack in the event that the scenarios of the last two seasons rear their ugly heads again.

At the time of writing, the only three Leafs’ players to surpass double digits in scoring are Tavares, Marner, and Nylander. Matthews is not far behind with eight, and beyond Morgan Rielly and Michael Bunting, who both have six points thus far, there is a steep drop-off in point production from the vast majority of the other players. When five forwards on your roster have no more than three points to this point, it highlights a problem that the team can only go as far as the star players can take them.

It should be worth noting that not all of the forwards are not pulling their weight in the offensive side of the game. Bunting and Jason Spezza were the few players that seem to constantly show up when the big four went through a prolonged slump to kick start the campaign that saw the team fall below .500. Alexander Kerfoot seems to have found new life alongside Tavares and Marner, while David Kampf was never known for his offensive prowess.

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But for the rest of the forward core, they definitely have a lot more to give than they have shown up to this point. Nick Ritchie was an unmitigated disaster on the top line and looked out of place when slotted against the opposition’s best players. Ondrej Kase has plenty of talent to provide a spark in the bottom six, but only has two points to this point. Pierre Engvall has been an enigma for quite some time yet still has enough intrigue that perhaps he can one day put it all together, and Ilya Mikheyev was stymied every time he was on a breakaway last season, and that before a broken thumb he suffered in the preseason that has delayed his start to the new year back a while.

Obviously, this is a by-product of the Leafs dedicating over half of their salary cap to the same four players mentioned at the top of the piece and it’s a reality they will be forced to live with as long as they remain on the team. To Dubas’ credit, he always has a knack for finding valuable pieces that he is able to add far below their market value and gain a positive return on his investment into the team. So while the Leafs don’t have the luxury that the Lightning have in terms of maintaining a strong enough core under the strict salary cap that remains stagnant due to the ongoing pandemic, the pieces that they are able to add should at least be able to keep up the pace as best they can and not fall far behind.

If there’s any silver lining in all of this, it’s that a lot of these players are getting their chances but have yet to see it translate into results. Wayne Simmonds has the seventh most shot among forwards and has only found the twine once. Kase has been generated plenty of looks and the one goal he’s scored to this point was a pretty deke on a breakaway. Heck, even Ritchie has a 9.3% career shooting percentage, so he will eventually get on the scoresheet for the first time as a Leaf.

But this isn’t a high number of chances league, this is a results league and the secondary scoring has not gotten it done up to this point.

As the season progresses, there will be one lingering question that Dubas and company have to answer truthfully: do the Leafs have offensive depth to mitigate a prolonged slump from their star players?

If they believe that the answer is yes, then they have to hope and pray that the likes of Ritchie, Kase, and Engvall are going through a Mikheyev-esque stretch where they will eventually find results if they continue to play the way they have been in the offensive zone. If it isn’t, then a long look at some potential options on the trade market needs to be looked into and added as soon as possible. (Dylan Strome? Carl Grundstrom?)

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It has been great to see Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and Tavares find their groove and play a major role in the Leafs’ recent run of success. The big four can’t do it all along, and the supporting cast needs to up their game to ensure that the Leafs’ top guns have less pressure on them every single night. They don’t need to make their team become the 1980s Oilers and run up the score every single night, but at least keep up the pace with what the Leafs’ star players are performing at when they’re on their game.

Because if they don’t and the stars go silent, then don’t be surprised if the same problems of seasons past rear their ugly head when it matters the most.