We’re at that halfway point of the season where teams are in the 40-44 game range (Maple Leafs are at 44). At this point, everyone seems to know where a team is at based on the first half. There are plenty of takeaways to partake in, so far. Based on what I’ve seen and what I know, I have a few thoughts from the first half. I’ll give 5 things that I liked, and 5 things I disliked based on the first 44 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Things I Liked
Anytime Auston Matthews line is on the ice
This seems like biggest slam dunk of all time but it still holds true. There’s not many players in the league that with one shot, can turn the tide of the game. Among players that have played 300 5v5 minutes, Matthews ranks sixth in goals/60 with 1.65, and also places sixth with 1.11 individual xGF/60. With 19 goals in 34 games, Matthews hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down and is only getting better.
One other part of Matthews’ game that slips under the cracks of his otherwise unworldly goal scoring ability, is his penalty differential. He’s drawn 11 penalties and only taken one penalty for a +10 differential (all situations).
He’s the most destructive player on the team and rates at the top (Game Score, primary P/60, goals) or near the top in nearly every category. We all knew he was great, it’s just nice to see him keeping this torrid pace.
James van Riemsdyk on the powerplay
Someone on twitter made an interesting point the other day, in regards to James van Riemsdyk on the powerplay (my apologies on not remembering who). What about throwing out JVR for every minute of the powerplay? It had me thinking that was a pretty radical thought, but it does make sense. He’s far and away their best player on the man advantage and I don’t think it’s that close. His size and skill in front and next to the net is almost unrivaled.
I say at least try it out for a game. JVR’s results on the powerplay have been eye-popping, and quite frankly, devastating. He’s 7th in primary P/60 while a man up. Pretty impressive, right? I can one up that. He’s first in ixGF/60 on the powerplay and when I say he’s in first by a wide margin, I really mean that. The difference between 1st and 2nd in ixGF/60, while up a man, is the same difference as 2nd and 136th. So, yes, one thing I have liked is JVR on the powerplay.
The promising trio of Andreas Borgman, Connor Carrick, and Travis Dermott
Sure, the Leafs could use a top-end talent in their defensive corps. But, some of the guys that play further down than depth chart have looked pretty darn good, so far.
I’d be lying if I said I was a bit skeptical of Andreas Borgman coming into the season. He had never played an NHL game and I didn’t know much about him. He has certainly eliminated my doubts. He looks like a capable bottom pairing defenseman that can move the puck and won’t kill you in his own end. It also helps that he has a CF% above 50 even though his most common partner is Roman Polak.
There is nothing more unfortunate than seeing Connor Carrick not in the lineup. He’s only played in a little more than half the games but I think he’s looked good when he does play. He rates highly in CF% and xGF%, relative to his teammates. We need more Connor Carrick.
So far so good for Travis Dermott in his only two games. Yes, the sample size is small. I get that. But you can’t tell me he hasn’t looked impressive. Playing his off side with Gardiner looks like it can be a enjoyable pairing.
Having special teams that are effective can go a long way. Most teams that are successful are teams that can have a high-end powerplay and penalty kill. Makes sense, right? Take advantage of having more skaters than the other team, and you’ll probably score more goals. Same applies to the penalty kill. Have a good frontline that can make sure that they won’t give up a goal while you’re a man down. It really is scoring and preventing goals, just in a different situation.
The Leafs haven’t looked like themselves at 5v5 this year so it’s been important they get help elsewhere. Enter the special teams. The JVR led powerplay is clicking at a 21.6% rate, while the penalty kill is able to successfully kill off penalties 83.7%, both rank 6th in the league. Frederik Andersen, in particular has looked exceptional on the penalty kill, rating in the top 10 in sv% and GSAA.
The one thing the Leafs do almost as well as any team is score. This shouldn’t come as much of a shock when there’s a players like Matthews, Kadri, Marleau, van Riemsdyk, etc. Having players that put the puck in the back of the net as well as they do will lead to that. But one thing to consider when talking about this goal scoring prowess is the shooting talent. As a team, they’re first in the league with a 9.2% sh% at 5v5. That also includes Nylander at being 6.05% and Marner at 5.08%. They also are 2nd in 5v5 goals score and 3rd in xGF%.
For the doubters that don’t think the Leafs can maintain this scoring, well, I have some bad news for you. If you take a look at where the shots are coming from in the offensive zone, they should have no problem keeping up this pace.
Bonus Like: William Nylander’s hair. Come on, it’s perfect.
Things I Disliked
Roman Polak getting meaningful playing time
Listen, I bet Roman Polak is a really nice guy. He seems like a good teammate, too. But, oh my, I have no idea how Roman Polak regularly plays in the NHL. There’s just too many variables with the Polak situation that frustrate me. My biggest gripe is him playing usually means Carrick comes out, and I think Carrick should be in the lineup every game. It’s going to be even more exasperating when Nikita Zaitsev comes back and that will mean that two of Borgman, Carrick, and Dermott will sit.
My other problem with Polak is Babcock probably views him as a stable veteran presence in the back end. There’s a few problems with that. Polak takes a ton of maddening penalties, the Leafs constantly gets shelled when he’s on the ice. So the combination of Polak not being very good and taking ice time away from superior defenders makes me a little irritated.
Leo Komarov’s usage
Leo Komarov reminds me of my old car. At one point, pretty reliable, limited in what they can do, and had plenty of flexibility. Komarov, like my car, started to get older and one day it seemed like both of them aged 10 years. The problem is you want something younger to replace it. That’s made even worse when the man making the decision is insistent that it’s still effective. Everyone realizes that it’s no longer a suitable option and, like my car (except with mileage), Komarov keeps getting more ice time. Kind of like when he inexplicably played 24:22 last week.
Fortunately, my dad helped me get a new car, so I hold out hope that Babcock can find his new car to ride along with Kadri.
I’ve always liked Leo. Right now, though, he doesn’t seem like a viable option to play in the top nine. I would love to see Kasperi Kapanen in Komarov’s spot, with Uncle Leo getting slid down to the fourth line.
The Leafs could really do themselves a huge favor by preaching a little more discipline. They spend the 8th most time on the penalty kill and have the 9th worst penalty differential in the league. This probably results from them having seven different players that are already in the double digits in penalties taken (huge shock, Polak is first). Some players like Nazem Kadri and Zach Hyman are at least able to counteract this by drawing plenty of penalties.
The last thing the Leafs would want to do come playoff time is constantly playing down a man against teams like Tampa Bay or Boston, who will absolutely make you pay for it. A little discipline will go a long way.
The 4th line
The fourth dislike of the first half goes to the fourth line. The fourth line has been an unmitigated disaster so far and I haven’t gotten a hint of enjoyment out of watching that line. Even when Nylander and Marner was on that line, you just felt bad that they had to subject themselves to that.
The best explanation for this brutal line is the pivot for that line, Domonic Moore. I’ve always liked Moore and he’s had a long career, but he doesn’t seem like feasible option as the 4C. Obviously having Matt Martin as the other third of that line certainly doesn’t help either. Even when Connor Brown plays down with them, the line looks like an ECHL line. Brown not looking like he did last year complicates that a bit, but still, this line gets absolutely hammered every time they step onto the ice.
Last but not least, we have to talk about the Maple Leafs shot share. Last season, the Leafs were a top half team in CF% with their percentage hitting 50.38. This season has noticeably dipped to 49.33 CF%. They give up about one more 5v5 shot on net per game and are taking about two less per game. They were the premiere high event team last season, but their style has definitely changed. With the skill level this team has, they should be back where they were last season in CF60.
They look like a middle of the pack team at 5v5 that relies too much on special teams. If they really want to allow themselves to make a postseason, they’re going to have to lock down on 5v5. Because what they’ve been doing on 5v5, especially as of late, won’t cut it.