Maple Leafs good but not good together, AHL assignments, and plans for Woll: Leaflets

Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
5 months ago
One more game until the All-Star break. While Matthews, Nylander, Rielly, and Marner get ready to strut their stuff at the NHL’s celebration of skill, pretty much the rest of the Leafs group will find themselves heading out for vacation. There is definitely some hope that this is good opportunity for the Leafs to recharge and refocus before what will wind up being a critical month of hockey. The Leafs return to play on February 5th and that’s just over a month until the trade deadline. It’s 16 games in 32 nights over that stretch that only involves three situations with two days off in a row and includes playing on back-to-back nights twice. It’s intense and having the four players you’d like to rest the most involved in the All-Star festivities is part of the reason why I always thought kicking off the season with an All-Star game made the most sense.
Here are some stray thoughts focusing on the Leafs big February.

Who will be putting in work with the Marlies?

As the Leafs head into the break and most players are off on vacation it is worth considering this as an opportunity for some players to put in work with the Marlies as well, if they need it. Pontus Holmberg, Nick Robertson, and Matthew Knies do not require waivers, and would be easy to assign to the AHL. That being said, it is entirely possible that Matthew Knies’ drop off in production of late could be his adjustment to a fuller schedule than he has ever experienced in the NCAA. Rest could be more beneficial than keeping him in games.
Robertson isn’t in a different situation as injuries have kept him out of the lineup in recent years and he’s played more hockey this season as a pro than ever before, even with healthy scratches. Letting him have the time he’s earned makes sense as well, although with the recent string of healthy scratches by Keefe the Leafs might view things differently.
Holmberg seems like an important piece for the Leafs down the stretch and I’d avoid sending him down as well. He’s certainly been with the Leafs the shortest of this group this year but he’s presently playing the biggest role. If the Leafs want to increase his icetime maybe they want to get him playing 20 minutes a night a couple of times with the Marlies before returning to the NHL.
Where it gets interesting for the Leafs is with their waivers group that could potentially be bound for the AHL. William Lagesson hasn’t played for the Leafs in a while and this could be an opportunity to get him playing again. Though if teams are claiming Nick DeSimone they are certainly claiming Lagesson as well and that is a deterrent. Conor Timmins is a bit more waiver proof with his $1.1M cap hit and extra year of term. There is still some risk there but if the Leafs were to chance a defenceman it might be him.
The obvious player to send to the AHL is the one that the Leafs have seemingly been reluctant to demote all season and that is Ryan Reaves. Reaves hasn’t played since the middle of December and testing his knees in a game situation would actually make a ton of sense. There is also the fact that if he was claimed it would be a blessing for the Leafs not a risk. If the Leafs don’t do anything here there is still hope that Treliving has something else in the works because it is painfully obvious that status quo with Reaves isn’t good enough.
Beyond that, Bobby McMann is now on the injured reserve and won’t be going anywhere and while Noah Gregor hasn’t stood out in the past couple of months, he has been an above average penalty killer and the bottom six could still use his speed. It would be a surprise to see the Leafs risk anything with him now that the McMann injury has made Toronto’s roster compliant with the 23 player limit.
The Leafs might just be content to let their roster enjoy the time off, not that they all deserve it.

The Leafs’ players are good, just not good together

I think this is something that I’ve been trying to organize in my brain for a while and one that typically doesn’t come through well because for the most part it is gut over eyes or evidence, but the Leafs do not equal the sum of their parts.
Players like Matthews and Rielly are somewhat immune to this discussion because they are players you build around. I feel like you can exclude Nylander from this discussion as well as he has shown an ability to thrive wherever he is placed, and Calle Jarnkrok also has a bit of Swiss Swedish Army Knife quality to him that makes it feel like he is both good and good with others. The rest of the Leafs seem like a collection of good individuals who leave you wanting when deployed in different situations.
I know I’ll immediately draw heat for including Marner in this group and I should. Marner is someone who like Rielly and Matthews is someone that should be built around but given that he’s often with Matthews that has thrown up some real limitations on what can be done with the rest of the roster and that particular line. I’d say most of issues with Marner are on how Keefe has used him (and the rest come from his current and upcoming contracts.)
That leaves us with players like Bertuzzi, Knies, Domi, and Robertson as the most critical forwards that need to be addressed. Looking at Domi’s numbers, he’s doing what Domi does and what Toronto should have expected. He’s been fine. The same is true largely of Bertuzzi and if you look at his 30 goal season as an outlier not the expectation of him, he’s doing what he often does as well. Knies and Robertson are perfectly fine young players that are going to have the same issues that befall most young players and they too have been fine, but none of these four forwards have done much to elevate the Leafs. We’ll excuse the fourth line from this conversation as the goal for them remains play eight minutes a night without getting scored on.
The defence is equally tricky, Benoit has stepped up and most reasonable people would say that McCabe and Liljegren have been fine as well. Benoit has taken a big step and he’s been better than expected but is best suited as a 5th defenceman. McCabe and Liljegren also walk that line of maybe being a 4th defenceman but could still be best suited for the bottom pairing as well. There hasn’t been a combination of two Leafs defencemen that equal something working as a second pairing exceeding what should be expected of them and that should be fine, it’s just that it leaves the Leafs without an internal path forward to deal with the drop off of TJ Brodie and the complete whiff on the John Klingberg signing.
Really the point I’m trying to make with all of this is that there are two directions that need to be taken. The first is Sheldon Keefe needs a more aggressive trial and error approach to see if there are different combinations of Leafs players that can work together. Some of that means trying Marner with Domi for an extended period or seeing if Simon Benoit can be this season’s Luke Schenn to Morgan Rielly, and if moving Brodie into the second pairing is enough to maximize what is still left in his tank.
The second part is that Brad Treliving needs to be comfortable moving on from players that are good but not good fits. He has a talented team but it is questionable that it is talented with players that fit the way Keefe and company are coaching the team and that means deciding if he wants to take a chance on Keefe or take a chance on the players responding to someone else. I’m not sure that we see Treliving make up his mind on either in-season which is understandably a bummer for Leafs fans who have been patient enough with this franchise.

Planning for Woll or the lack thereof

As of right now the latest update from Sheldon Keefe has Woll rejoining Leafs full Leafs practice after the All-Star break but with the caveat that games are still a long way off. Long is certainly a loose term and one that seems like a qualifier for not yet knowing how Woll will look in practice.
The urgency to get Woll back into games has certainly been quelled by a strong return to the NHL for Ilya Samsonov and with the Leafs having an eight game stretch before hitting back-to-back games there could be some potential for Toronto lean strongly on Ilya to see how well things are truly going for him. Of course, there is also the small matter that leaning into Samsonov for every start has previously had physical challenges that could supersede even the mental challenges. In short, it’s not a good idea to have Sammy play every game.
The Leafs benefit a bit from their schedule in not having to go too hard on any one goaltender and while testing Samsonov will probably equal him getting the majority of the starts, opponents like St. Louis, Anaheim, Arizona, and even Ottawa, Buffalo, and Montreal between now and the trade deadline open up the opportunity to continue playing Martin Jones, no matter what version of him is in net that night.
In theory this seems like Toronto can afford to be patient when it comes to Woll but it doesn’t change one thing and that is while Samsonov and Jones can and have played well for periods of time, neither has the confidence or consistency that Woll has demonstrated. If Toronto isn’t able to get a good look at the state of Woll’s play prior to the trade deadline, it seems that a goaltender would still be a target worth exploring, assuming Toronto is committed to attempting a playoff run.
It might be a tad 11th hour and the Leafs options might be limited, but I’d say ideally the Leafs are getting a look at Woll in one of the Boston games, and at least two others before the March 8th deadline to know how they want to deal with their goaltending situation. That could be as simple as the March 2-6 stretch of NYR, BOS, and BUF belonging to Joe.

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