As dominant and exciting as the resurgent Toronto Maple Leafs have been, blazing past the 41-game pole amidst a 10-game point streak, head coach Sheldon Keefe still believes the pedal hasn’t touched the race car floor.
“We’re still not close to where I think we can get to,” Keefe said Saturday, after out-defending the NHL’s best defensive club without his best defender.
“I think we’ve got a lot of room to grow as a team. That’s exciting and that’s what keeps us working.”
Amazing what a difference 20 games can make. (Psst… don’t look now, but the hot-start Boston Bruins are stumbling a bit.)
Team Record: 24-14-5, (5th in Eastern Conference)
Goals for: 3.58 per game, (3rd in NHL)
Goals against: 3.09 per game, (16th in NHL)
Power play: 24.4 per cent, (6th in NHL)
Penalty kill: 75.6 per cent, (26th in NHL)
Best surprise: Justin Holl, and it’s not really close.
Flying from the shelf — Holl squeaked into a scant 11 games in 2018-19 — to the top four, the late bloomer was no guarantee to make this roster out of training camp. Now he’s playing significant shutdown minutes against the likes of Connor McDavid and, thanks to last week’s $6-million, three-year extension, is the Leafs’ only right-shot defender under contract beyond June.
Were the NHL to take cues from my son’s tyke league and create a Most Improved Player of the Year Award, Holl would be a prime candidate. A fine example of hard work and persistent optimism paying off.
Biggest disappointment: That the injury bug finally caught up.
It should be noted that Mike Babcock was ousted before he had a chance to reunite his favourite, most effective line: Zach Hyman–John Tavares–Mitchell Marner. All three took turns dealing with significant injuries in the early going. Perhaps, had they been healthy, Babcock would’ve extended his stay.
But harm is part hockey. Just ask Mike Sullivan.
Extremely healthy compared to the rest of the league since 2016, the Leafs haven’t dressed a full A-list roster once in 2019-20 — and long-term injuries to rookie wonder Ilya Mikheyev (wrist) and shutdown defender Jake Muzzin (foot) on Dec. 27 all but ensure they never will.
Wingers Andreas Johnsson (leg) and Trevor Moore (concussion) are just now back skating.
The silver lining is twofold: A) a presumed cap crunch that would’ve meant losing a decent forward on waivers might never happen, and B) these injuries have given the organization a peek into the potential of deep prospects, like Mason Marchment and Adam Brooks.
“We’ve been resilient as a group,” Keefe says.
Hockey’s most expensive forward corps is proving that you get what you pay for. Each member of the Eight-Figure Three — Auston Matthews, Marner and Tavares — is now humming along at a point-per-game (or better) pace, despite two of them overcoming early-season injuries.
Straight up, Matthews is a weapon. He has an NHL-high 21 even-strength goals. A 50-goal, 100-point campaign is a reasonable objective.
William Nylander (19 goals and 38 points already) is throwing a shush finger to critics and proving he can strike the same chemistry with JT91 as he did with AM34.
More encouraging: A rash of depth-forward injuries – most damningly and gruesomely to Mikheyev — has reaffirmed the organizational depth up front, with a call-up like Pierre Engvall or a refreshed veteran like Jason Spezza finding flexible ways to fill the gaps.
“A lot of what we’re doing is just trying to put the good players in position to succeed, and they’ve done well with that. So whether that’s tactical pieces, or whether that’s ice time or situations that we’re putting them in 5-on-5 and on and on the power play, we’re just trying to have the right people out there and give them the chance,” Keefe explains.
“When those guys have opportunities, they tend to make good on it more often than not, and right now they’re feeling it.”
But Saturday’s disciplined victory over the New York Islanders, combined with the Leafs’ winning ways without Muzzin (broken foot), has offered hope that Toronto can play stingy when necessary.
Injuries and the coach swap have thrust a thin blue line into a state of flux. Cody Ceci and presumed top-four candidate Travis Dermott now make up the third pairing. Holl and a better-than-you-think Martin Marincin hold the fort. And the (too?) risky puck-moving duo of Barrie and Rielly try to drive play.
“When we do have to play on our own end, we recognize we’re probably going to spend a lot more time there than we would like, because we’re trying to prioritize the middle of the ice,” says Keefe. “We think that can limit the amount of time we spend in our end, and having the puck is one [way].”
The Leafs still rank among the league’s top third in giveaways, and cycle teams are prone to grinding them to dust in their own zone. Too often, breakouts have led to breakdowns. They’re one of the least physical teams in the sport. And the penalty kill, while making strides, is yards from elite.
Rielly, perhaps battling injury, has had his shortcoming exposed now that his Ron Hainsey security blanket is gone. Barrie is thankfully finding a groove after hopping off to an atrocious start. And Muzzin’s health should help on numerous levels.
If there is a trade to be made, it would be to upgrade here.
Who knows how far the Maple Leafs would’ve tumbled from mid-October to mid-November had Frederik Andersen not bolted the doors, and turned the type of performance that led him to become the fastest European-born goalie to 200 wins and earned the crimson-haired Dane his first All-Star Game invite?
Andersen is hardly the room’s flashiest star, but for vast chunks of his tenure he’s been its most valuable member. So, it is of some mild concern that the workhorse has surrendered at least three goals in five of his past six starts.
The 180-degree turnaround of backup Michael Hutchinson, who couldn’t buy an NHL victory for 11 months, has been a welcome relief. Hutch now has three W’s in a row, and the Leafs need him to ease the pressure off Freddie.
Individually, Andersen has a shiny .918 save percentage, but Toronto’s team save percentage is treading water at .906, in part due to the quality of chances it allows.
Of the NHL’s five mid-season coaching changes, none has made as sweeping an impact as the replacement of Babcock with AHL grad, Sheldon Keefe.
Since Keefe stepped behind the bench, the mood has been looser and upbeat, the offence has been a juggernaut, and the wins (15 in a 20-game sample) have been as contagious as joy.
Even skeptics are beginning to sense there is something deeper than a honeymoon period going on here.
Slow to start under Babcock, the Leafs now seize the lead most nights. Their power play looks deadly again. They’ve shown up on back-to-backs. And Keefe’s possessive style of play — which places a premium on active defencemen and exiting the zone as a five-man unit instead of spreading out on the ice for dumps — smartly aligns with the roster he was given.
“We really value having the puck,” Barrie says. “We realize when we have it, they’re not going to be able to score.”
Despite overseeing hockey’s hottest team and guiding the NHL’s best record since his arrival, Keefe isn’t resting on laurels. He knows the group must defend more diligently to survive the tight-checking affairs that await, and that the Leafs must draw more penalties and kill more off.
“Our play in terms of our ability to come out of our end, I think that can improve,” Keefe says. “You can still defend well enough to give ourselves enough time to wait for our chance to come.”
Overall Grade: B+