TORONTO – Between the time when the Toronto Maple Leafs dive into the trade deadline and their impending salary-cap headaches but after the time we all got over shock that the players are allowed to grow whiskers again, we’ve discovered much about this offensive juggernaut.
The 2018-19 Leafs’ 37 games leading up to Christmas have taught us much about their identity and where they might be headed in 2019. As we pause for a CBA-mandated breath and a holiday-mandated mug of nog, here are six things we know about this 25-10-2 force that flies into the break on a four-game winning streak.
If we had to submit our Norris ballot today, Rielly is on top
Sunday night’s performance encapsulated the incredible season Morgan Rielly is having. On a night the Maple Leafs were outworked and outperformed by the visiting Detroit Red Wings for long stretches, Rielly could never be accused of daydreaming of tinsel and mistletoe.
He skated a game-high 22:32, operated on both special teams, sniped another pretty goal (13, most among all defencemen), assisted on Kasperi Kapanen’s opening strike, and finished plus-4. No other player in the game was better than a plus-2. Rielly now leads the NHL in that category (plus-26).
It’s telling that nights like these have become so routine for the No. 1 defenceman, the media doesn’t even feel the need to request he speak post-game. Ho-hum.
"He’s been good all over the ice. He’s leading the league in points for defencemen [44, to match the back of his sweater], but it’s not just that. He’s been shutting down top lines. You can see it in his plus-minus," says Jake Gardiner, now firmly the No. 2 on the Leafs’ D chart.
"He doesn’t like to talk about it. He’s a pretty humble guy. He has success like this and doesn’t say a word about it. It’s pretty cool."
Kapanen (and, to a lesser extent, Johnsson) have arrived as top-nine wingers
Put aside the fact these RFAs will come knocking for raises when things get cap-crunchy in July and enjoy watching development done right.
The William Nylander contract dispute permitted Toronto to learn much about how impactful its other young, blond wingers can be. Kapanen is still killing penalties, but given a prolonged look on Auston Matthews’ right side (best bud Nylander’s former stomping grounds), his confidence and production have soared.
With both the opening and OT closing goals Sunday, Kapanen, 22, pumped his stat line to 14 goals, 25 points, and a plus-19 rating before Christmas.
Tagged as a key component in filling the forward void left by free agents James van Riemsdyk, Leo Komarov and Tyler Bozak, Johnsson began the season sluggish after his Calder Cup MVP performance. It was concerning.
"We talked about that," coach Mike Babcock says. "A couple of years in a row he hasn’t really got ’er going at the start. Why? Is it fitness? Is it your summer training program? Is it not getting back here [to Toronto] soon enough? Who knows?"
But Johnsson, who’s bounced all over the lineup, has thrived in the last five weeks on shifts with Matthews and John Tavares. Suddenly he has 17 points and is playing with aggression and pep.
"You’ve got ’er going, and you’ve got to keep ’er going. The biggest thing for him is he’s getting to the net," Babcock said.
"He’s greasy; he’s not shy. He’s getting in on guys, and he’s competitive. If you win races and you win battles, you have the puck way more."
Believe it or not, Matthews and Marner still have more to give
Auston Matthews (1.5) is averaging more points per game than Connor McDavid (1.49), and Mitch Marner (1.39) is right behind the consensus Most Outstanding Player in the World in the same category.
Matthews didn’t let another shoulder injury slow him down, and Marner — a 50-point guy (by Christmas Eve!) on pace to lead the club in scoring for a second straight season — is averaging an even-strength point per game. All those power-play apples are just a bonus.
"Every night he’s one of our best players, if not the best player," Babcock says. "He works real hard, he’s real good defensively, he does it right. In the end, if you do it right, you get rewarded. He’s getting rewarded."
Confident, cruising and not too cool to get silly along the ride, the dynamic duo was wise to wait on those contract extensions. They already own the town. Now, they get to decide how much of the Leafs’ payroll they’d like to control.
Tavares is the same guy, just on a bigger stage with a better supporting cast
Babcock says John Tavares figured out early in his career that all the goals are scored within a stick-length of the net.
The Leafs’ $77-million investment makes all the dirty, blue-collar work look clean, battling for critical face-offs, cycling and tipping and banging in rebounds, adding the necessary punctuation to all those Marner rushes, and backchecking like he still needs to prove something to somebody.
Longtime New York rival Henrik Lundqvist said something interesting this week, though.
"I think he looks pretty much the same. Really good player, surrounded by some really good players," Lundqvist says. "That makes him even more dangerous."
At 28, Tavares is on target for 53 goals. The most he scored in nine years on the Island: 38.
The right side of the defence is not in stone
The Leafs’ blue line is better than advertised. It actually ranks top-five in fewest goals allowed, although Fredrik Andersen’s netminding might have a little something to do with that.
Led by Rielly and Gardiner, the left side is solid. Travis Dermott is developing nicely.
The right side, however, has question marks. Ron Hainsey is safe but slow, and his deal is up this summer. Nikita Zaitsev is getting paid like a top-four defenceman, but hasn’t improved to the point where his job is indisputable.
Justin Holl made just his second appearance this season Sunday, and it was about as rocky as you’d expect for a guy who patiently sat weeks without action.
"Don’t confuse me being a real good guy with me accepting my lot in life," Holl told Babcock.
That kind of attitude impressed the coach more than Holl’s actual play has, limited as it is.
The plan is to develop rookie Igor Ozhiganov into a legitimate penalty-killer, and maybe he can further establish himself in 2019.
In Calle Rosen, Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin, there are Marlies pushing, too — but perhaps not fast enough, and the organization is now loath to rush its prospects.
"We have a bunch of kids down there now that we monitor very closely," Babcock said. "It’s going to be hard to make our team, we’ll add other guys as well, so it’s going to be a tough roster to make, but we encourage the competition."
Cheap depth is the way of the Leafs’ present and future
GM Kyle Dubas’s vow to sign Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander all long-term spells continued reliance on filling the gaps with cheap talent.
Ennis was a bargain delivering an inspired comeback and some appreciated bottom-six production prior to taking a puck off the foot.
Undrafted Trevor Moore, running on adrenalin and skating in his third game in three nights, helped orchestrate a goal in his NHL debut Sunday.
They all have something in common: None of them will be paid more than $1 million this season.
Sayonara, middle class.
The flip side of harbouring multiple superstars is scouting, developing and drafting cheap labour — and getting lucky.