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Amid illness and injuries, the Leafs are finding ways to get it done

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Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
2 months ago
Fresh off of collecting three out of a possible four points in New York this week, the Toronto Maple Leafs are 15-6-5 on the season. They’re 6-1-3 in their last ten games, 10-2-3 in their last 15 games, and have the second-highest point percentage in the Eastern Conference, trailing only the Boston Bruins. 
Here’s the reality of the situation. The Toronto market, specifically in hockey, is so starved for success that, quite frankly, no regular season success will be enough to satisfy the fanbase. They would have to play perfect hockey night in and night out, with no margin for error whatsoever, and would have to take that success and apply it to their playoff performance as well. 
But, if you look at what the Leafs have done in the last month or so, considering the adversity they’ve had to deal with in the process, they’ve actually played some pretty good hockey. 
Everybody remembers that stretch in late November and early December last season – you know, the one where the Leafs were missing half of their defensive corps and had to rely on a defensive corps led by a top pair of Mark Giordano and Justin Holl. From there, they filled in the cracks with the likes of players like Victor Mete, Jordie Benn, and even Mac Hollowell at certain points.
This season has been shockingly similar, except it’s been the pair of Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie leading the charge on the top pair. And, instead of Mete, Benn, and Hollowell, the depth players who have stepped up include William Lagesson, Simon Benoit, and Max Lajoie. Timothy Liljegren has been out since Nov 2 with a high ankle sprain, and Jake McCabe missed much of the first month of the season with a pulled groin. And, we all know what’s gone on with John Klingberg this year. 
Lagesson and Benoit have both been instrumental in keeping the Leafs’ defensive corps above water amidst all the injuries. You probably don’t want either of those guys playing big roles as we creep towards the playoffs, but at bare minimum they proved that they can step up and be reliable depth options, if nothing else. Benoit, specifically, carried some skepticism with him given his awful possession numbers with the Anaheim Ducks last season. That skepticism, for as much as it was warranted, was also heavily clouded by the fact that he was playing on a HORRIBLE Ducks team. 
His defensive numbers are night and day compared to last season, especially from a puck possession standpoint – which is surprising. He logged 60 minutes of time on ice with Lagesson, his most frequent defensive partner, good for a Corsi-for percentage of 68.50%. These numbers will almost certainly even out over time, but it’s a testament to how sturdy he’s been in his 13 games played so far. On top of that, he’s provided some much needed size and bite in front of the net, and he’s been throwing the body too – his 35 hits in 13 games are good for fifth on the team despite having played half the games the rest of the team has. 
With Giordano and Liljegren sidelined for the next few weeks at least, and Klingberg out for the season, the fact that the Leafs have not only been treading water, but keeping up with the tide, should bode well for them once they get healthy – especially as we get closer to the trade deadline. The post-deadline roster is often night and day compared to the one that the team ices in the first few months of the season. 
While I’m sure the Leafs still want some more out of their depth forward additions, namely Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi, there are signs that both of those players will thrive in the second half. The former has had some of the best possession metrics on the team despite the lack of scoresheet offense, and the latter has found a home on the third line with Calle Jarnkrok and Nick Robertson. Matthew Knies’ offensive production has been spotty, but he’s leading the team in hits with 47 in 25 games on the year, and his forecheck game is among the strongest on the team.
And, while there are always going to be concerns in the crease, the Leafs likely have enough to keep them afloat while Joseph Woll is hurt. Ilya Samsonov has shown in the past that he can heat up and generally plays better when he doesn’t have any real threats to his ice time from within the crease. And, while veteran Martin Jones had some of the ugliest individual stats among qualified goaltenders in 2022-23, he still limped his way to 26 wins with the Seattle Kraken. The Leafs should have enough weapons to outscore any issues the goaltending situation might provide. 
Has the 2023-24 season been perfect for the Maple Leafs so far? No, far from it in fact. But, while lots of people will point to their lack of regulation wins, they’ve also been among the teams with the lowest amount of regulation losses. In fact, the only two teams with less regulation losses than Toronto are the Boston Bruins and Vegas Golden Knights – two teams I’d say fans would like the Leafs to emulate their game after.
One might suggest that the Leafs’ ability to stay in so many of these games bodes well for the team, too – there were signs of it in last year’s playoffs. In each of the team’s three road wins in the first round over the Tampa Bay Lightning, they came away with three overtime victories. They scored the game-tying goal in the final minute of Game 3, they mounted a comeback from down 4-1 to take Game 4 in overtime by a score of 5-4, and they snapped a 19-year franchise curse in Game 6. It’s a nice change of pace when you consider that the Leafs’ entire brand over the past few years has consistently been not showing up in games like this and finding ways to choke in pivotal moments. 
While they didn’t have much to show for things after the first round, it’s encouraging that their ability to stay in these games seems to have carried over to this season. Auston Matthews scored with six seconds left to force overtime against the Boston Bruins two weeks ago. Morgan Rielly scored with four seconds left to force overtime against the Islanders and get John Tavares his 1000th point. They went on to lose both of these games in extra time, but the point is that they’ve managed to spawn extra points out of games they probably should have lost in regulation. All while missing half of their defensive corps and their starting goalie. It’s all about finding ways to get it done, and they’ve been doing this more often than not lately.
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