The Toronto Maple Leafs are 6-1-0, have scored the most goals in the league and have the best goal differential. Everything is looking up in Leaf Land as the team looks poised to hit on the anticipated step forward from their wild-card berth and first-round exit from a season ago.
Just don’t expect Lou Lamoriello to get excited about it…yet.
“It’s too early for me to make any judgments or comparisons,” he said Thursday on Hockey Central at Noon.
It’s hard to find much of a downside to anything going on with the Leafs these days, but if you want to nitpick then, sure, allowing an average of 31.6 shots against per game isn’t ideal. Only one time in six games has Toronto’s defence held the opposition to less than 30 shots and as a result, Frederik Andersen’s save percentage is sitting just below .900 even after Tuesday’s shutout.
Coach Mike Babcock made a lineup change to try and address this defensive deficiency by breaking up the struggling van Riemsdyk-Bozak-Marner line as the three had the worst plus-minus ratings on the team. The two veterans stayed together, but Marner moved to the fourth line in favour of the more defensively-responsible Connor Brown.
As a result, Marner’s ice time has dropped from a season-high 18:30, to 11:21 in Wednesday night’s win over Detroit.
Lamoriello made it clear he’s still a big believer in Marner and that this demotion, which he believes is temporary, does not signal that the 20-year-old has become a less important part of the team’s big picture plan. For such a young team, these kinds of changes are common as players grow and learn how to excel at both ends with greater consistency.
“Mitch is an extremely important part of our team, there is no question about that,” Lamoriello said. “I don’t feel in any way whatsoever that Mitch will not get back to where he was in a short period of time. He’ll determine that, the coaches will determine that, I’m extremely comfortable with that, but he’s a very very important part of this organization and an important part of any potential success that we have the ability to have.
A great example of this working for a player, Lamoriello said, is the maturation of Nazem Kadri from the time the GM got here in 2015 to what Kadri has become today as a $4.5-million player signed for the long-term.
“If you go back to that first year we went through a lot of players,” Lamoriello said. “You really find out a lot about each individual. The one thing Naz had from Day 1 was his competitivness on that ice. I know he had some situations he had gone through in the past, we’ve all spent time with him and he needed some guidance, but the most important thing was his receptiveness to it how he’s embraced it.
“And now he’s so comfortable in his own skin that he goes out and plays with the abilities he has, and he has some abilities that a lot of people don’t like to do. He goes to the dirty areas on a consistent basis despite his size…he gets the toughest match-ups each and every night and he’s really embracing it and loves it.”
If the winning continues and the Maple Leafs remain at or near the top of the conference, trade rumours will inevitably surround the team. This is seen as a year to be aggressive and go for it if Toronto lives up to the regular season hype, and make sure they use all their cap resources to acquire players to push them forward now, before the likes of William Nylander, Auston Matthews and Marner get their large paydays in the next year or two.
At that point, the focus will be around acquiring at least a top-four defenceman, and a right-handed shot at that. But if the team gets aggressive in this regard, they’ll have to give up something to get something good.
Lamoriello also spoke about the trade market and his philosophy that if you make a trade to address one need, you need to make sure you’re not potentially opening up a new weakness. And that’s the difficulty with the trade market these days: the salary cap has put everyone on near equal footing, and it’s becoming harder and harder to find a willing trade partner.
“Sure it’s more difficult because of the cap era and also because of parity. Everybody feels they have a chance and certainly at this time of year everybody feels coming into the season they have just as much of a chance as the next guy,” Lamoriello said.