21 Takes to close out the Leafs season and to usher in the playoffs

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 year ago
Here we are, the final 21 takes of the season for me. We started doing this back at the quarter mark and checked in again at the midpoint, and the trade deadline. Now the grand finale to give me 82 takes on the year. Personally closing out this series is as exciting as closing out the season for me, and it’s nice having a forward look to the playoffs. Now, let’s get to those takes.

1. No matter what, this team doesn’t need to be blown up

This season has been a good reminder of one thing that seems like a very cold take to start things off. It’s that the Leafs are incredibly good. They are a well-built team and the success they have had is earned and not lucked into. If the Leafs find themselves out after the first round there isn’t a need to “trade everyone” or “blow it up” or any of the other drastic things I will call for in my moments of peak hyperbole.
That’s not a plea to keep the band together, it’s just a reminder I’ll potentially want to look at later this spring to remind me that any changes made should be thoughtful ones that keep Toronto competitive.

2. There are plenty of reasons to have high expectations for the Leafs this spring

The Leafs have clinched the fourth best record in the NHL this year. That’s outstanding, especially when one of the teams in their division is the President’s Trophy winning team. Getting a record that good isn’t easy, and pretty much anyone other than Florida or Colorado, or Caroline with a healthy goaltender Toronto is going to be considered to have the advantage. I’m not sure how comfortable the Leafs are with being the favourites, but they are, and that means getting away from playing down to their opponent’s level. Not that it has been a problem with the better teams in the league.

3. Overwhelming the opposition with skill is the path to victory

Do the Leafs need to play a more physical game come playoff time? Absolutely. Should it be their dominant style of play? Definitely not.
The Leafs are a team that can burn their opposition no matter which line is on the ice, and that needs to be their approach. Whether it’s a style you personally agree with or not, they have to play the way they were built and they were built to keep their opposition cautious about making mistakes.
The fatal error last year seemed to be the Foligno signing and introducing a style of play into their top nine that didn’t fit. The Leafs didn’t do that this year, and while Foligno was a flawed signing for a number of reasons, the one that stands out the most is Toronto not staying committed to the approach that got them there.

4. I was wrong about Mikheyev and Kampf and now expect a lot of them

I was all prepared to write off Ilya Mikheyev after last season, and I can certainly be counted among the many who didn’t expect him to have good enough hands to be a top-six forward or threat on the penalty kill. I was pleasantly wrong.
When it comes to Kampf, I spent a good part of the first half of the year making the case that he’s a 4th line center the Leafs insisted on dressing up as a third-liner, but seeing the value he adds in letting Nylander & co. create when he’s on the ice with him, I no longer see him as an offensive hindrance and his value as a defensively minded 3C is appreciated.
Both of these players are going to play big roles as the Leafs move into the line matching time of year, and Mikheyev’s ability to keep players honest on royal roads passes is going to be huge.

5. Jack Campbell just needs to be Chris Osgood

There are plenty of recent examples of Stanley Cup winning teams going on runs based on the performance of a hot hand in net. Jack Campbell is certainly capable of those runs, but requiring one is putting too much on him. It’s more about the Leafs avoiding other goaltenders having those runs against the Leafs. Campbell just needs to channel his inner Chris Osgood, and be a cool, steady presence in the net and not try to exceed his abilities. Reliable goaltending combined with one of the hottest offenses in the league is all we’re going for here and I don’t think it’s asking too much.

6. Justin Holl isn’t as bad as people are making him out to be

I might still have some residual appreciation of Justin Holl from when he was a savvy AHL pickup by the Leafs that developed into the player he was drafted to be. I always saw Holl as a potential NHLer, but admittedly even I had some reservations about him playing top-four minutes in the NHL. On paper, he’s living up to the top four role, but with our eyes, we can certainly see a player who at times looks very lost in the high danger areas of the Leafs’ end. If Holl gets bottom pairing minutes, he’s not a solid part of the Leafs’ blueline and Toronto is in good shape. He’s statistically done well with all of the Leafs’ lefties too and offers some flexibility in how he’s deployed in the lineup. Don’t panic if he plays.

7. There’s no reason pairings need to stay intact the full game

Toronto has some great options for shorting their bench. The Leafs can lean into Rielly, Brodie, Giordano, and the best of the rest that night and have two very strong pairings to eat minutes. There is also a lot of incentive for Muzzin, Holl, Lyubushkin, Liljegren, and Sandin to play their best when they are in because they know if they lose that spot they might not get it back.

8. I really want to find a way to bring Giordano back next year

We don’t know what he’s going to do in the playoffs yet, but if there is a way that Toronto can get him back at a reasonable price and without much term, he’s certainly a player who has shown his value. He’s especially a great option if a replacement for Jake Muzzin is needed.

9. The Leafs load management this year brought tears to my eyes

Sitting Matthews at the slightest sign of trouble, keeping significant players out of the final game against Boston, and most importantly, giving Jack Campbell a workload that would keep him fresh but not overwork him was a great move on the part of the Leafs. Even easing Muzzin back in, giving Liljegren a game when he could use it, all of that is tops. The result seems to be that Toronto will be about as healthy as they can be heading into the playoffs.
Even if load management might have cost the Leafs a game or two, it wouldn’t have been enough to make up the difference in Florida’s lead in the division, so they were always destined for second in the Atlantic. Prioritizing health is something we’ll hopefully see more of.

10. There’s value in low scorers in the playoffs

Last year we as a fanbase were relentless on Matthews and Marner for their lack of production in the postseason. While some of that is warranted, it’s worth noting they were still keeping the play in Montreal’s end and exhausting their top defenders. That’s not nothing. As long as players are playing high-pressure hockey there is value in what they are doing, and considering that top players are going to see top defenders more than they do in the regular season, some production drop-off is going to occur. That said, having it completely disappear is still nightmarish.

11. I’m so excited, but I’m so scared that Petr Mrazek is close to being back

Mrazek has been working out a lot more frequently before Leafs practices and that could point to him being ready to return at some point in the playoffs depending on how far the Leafs get. While there isn’t much to feel confident about with Mrazek, his streaky nature and unknown quality still seems like a potential upgrade over Erik Kallgren at this point. If something were to shut Jack Campbell down, it at least feels like Toronto can make a last stand before throwing up their arms in defeat. Also having Kallgren as a Plan C instead of a Plan B is comforting too.

12. The powerplay is going to look like the best version of itself soon enough

With all the load management, injuries, and not really requiring the top unit to run itself into the ground on a regular basis, Toronto’s PP numbers have slipped of late. They’ve also been playing a lot more conventionally, and presumably, all of that is going to end. Even if the results don’t come back right away, the fact that Toronto will have two minutes of force-feeding their opponents their offense, and they can throw some speedy fresh legs like Engvall or Mikheyev over the boards afterward is an encouraging thing to think about heading into the postseason.

13. The unheralded MVP

Given the improvements in defense and special teams, the Leafs best pickup off the offseason might have actually been Dean Chynoweth. When you look at what he’s done on the defense compared to what Hakstol has done in Seattle, you can’t help but feel good about this move.

14. Alex Kerfoot is my darkhorse favourite for a playoff impact player

Kerfoot is a lineup card chameleon and he blended into the surroundings of every line he’s been on. He’s responsible enough, he’s offensive enough to hang on any line, and with line matching, injuries, and the need for someone to step up in a place you don’t expect it, Kerfoot seems like the guy to do it. He certainly showed signs of it last year against Montreal, and hopefully, he can do it on a bigger scale this year.
If you have a deep playoff hockey pool, don’t sleep on Kerfoot.

15. Liljegren’s accolades as a rookie aren’t talked about enough

When it comes to rookies on the Leafs it’s Michael Bunting’s name who comes up in the Calder conversation. When you talk about top rookie defensemen in the league, Moritz Seider is rightfully the player who stands out. When you look at who else has had a big year defensively as a rookie, it’s hard not to put Timothy Liljegren at least in the conversation for potentially making the All-Rookie Team. Sean Durzi (sigh) and Jamie Drysdale have had better boxcar numbers, but it’s interesting when you look at who hangs with Seider the most analytically…

16. I should probably say something about Marner…

At this point I would like to formally acknowledge that anytime I said “trade Marner” I was being an absolutely 100% wrong horse’s ass. Even if there have been moments when Marner is frustrating (he had a stretch this year). Even if I don’t particularly like the idea of spending too much money on the wing. I was wrong. Marner this season has been everything that he was ever promised to be, and we’re damn lucky he’s a Leaf.

17. Expect to see some situation defensive deployment

I’d have to imagine that Sheldon Keefe already has plans for how he wants his defense when he has the last change vs. what he’ll do on the road. I’d very much expect Ilya Lyubushkin to be a road defenseman, and to some extent, I’d expect more frequent usage of Jake Muzzin to occur on the road as well. I’d expect Holl and Liljegren to get the nod at home where Sheldon Keefe has a bit more control over who plays.

18. Ditto for the fourth line

At home, we might see a fourth line that pushes for increased offense, but on the road, it could be a bit more of a traditional checking/energy line. Spezza might be the 4C at home and Blackwell could be the road option. I’d expect Wayne Simmonds to be in for game one no matter what, as there is probably an appetite to set the physical pace for the series.

19. I can’t imagine we see Nick Abruzzese in the lineup

Given the nature of how Abruzzese could be used following his signing, it was the Leafs or nothing, and the Marlies couldn’t factor in. That meant it was a nice luxury to use him to help with load management and get Abruzzese an understanding of what the pace of an NHL game is like. He hasn’t looked bad, but he hasn’t really made a case for being in the lineup either (although it was nice to see him score his first last night). Unless there is a run of injuries, Abruzzese is a black ace.

20. The lack of parity this season will make for a more interesting offseason

There are a lot more teams that view themselves as contenders, there are significant teams like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Montreal that aren’t going to want to spend a lot of time at the bottom of the standings, and teams like Arizona and Seattle have few players under contract for next season.
No matter what happens in the playoffs, I hope Kyle Dubas chooses to embrace the potential chaos of the offseason as there are still opportunities for giant leaps forward, especially when they’ve got so many of their top players under contract.

21. It will be nice to feel things again

Not that Auston Matthews hitting 60 goals wasn’t a chance to feel things and it certainly gave the late games of the season a bit more meaning than they’ve had in previous years, but it has been a long ass season and when Toronto has been locked into the middle of the Atlantic since late November, it’s hard to care about games especially after the “x” appears next to Toronto in the standings.
I feel I can get through most of the regular season with a clear head, but the playoffs are a time to start frothing at the mouth and speaking in hyperbole, and I miss that. It probably brings out the worst in me rather than the best, but sometimes it’s fun being at your worst. Now is that time.
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