NHL Quarter Mark Report: Maple Leafs developing into a scary team

Chris Johnston and Shawn McKenzie break down the Maple Leafs loss to Arizona, and after a few sneak peeks, wonder if we'll see Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner start a game on the same line.

Expectations for the 2017-18 Toronto Maple Leafs came in hot following last spring’s nail-biting playoff cameo and some aggressive off-season spending, but fans should feel encouraged by how their Buds have performed through the season’s first 22 games.

Winners of six of their past seven, the Maple Leafs’ spiffy record (14-8-0) and goal differential (+13) place them second overall in the Eastern Conference, behind the early Presidents’ Trophy favourite Tampa Bay Lightning. Anything but a first- or second-place finish in a soft Atlantic Division should be seen as a disappointment for a talented squad that is still searching for an optimal lineup, consistent effort, and improving its play without the puck.

Optimism abounds as this group still has time and space to improve.

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THE GOOD: Skill and scoring, for starters.

Auston Matthews leads the pack with 12 goals, 11 of them at even-strength, but Nazem Kadri (10 goals) is well on pace for back-to-back 30-goal campaigns, and James van Riemsdyk (11 goals, 17 points) is enjoying a contract year that should pay handsomely.

The Leafs’ power play rates among the NHL’s most dangerous, with both units equally frightening.

All of Toronto’s free agency signings—Ron Hainsey (nine assists, 22 minutes per night), Patrick Marleau (team-high three game-winners), Dominic Moore, Curtis McElhinney (2-1)—have met or exceeded expectations, and Morgan Rielly (17 points) has surged back from an underwhelming 2016-17 in which he hobbled through a high ankle sprain.

“He might be the Number 1 [defenceman] they’ve been looking for, the way he’s going,” a source working for an opposing team said Tuesday.

Starting goalie Frederik Andersen looked shaky in October, but recently put together 141 minutes of shutout hockey.

“Is it because our team was so loosey-goosey and we were scoring so much we didn’t care and we’d just race you to 10?” Babcock says. “I don’t know the answer.”

As the most-used player in the NHL, are the Leafs in danger of burning out Andersen?

“We’re monitoring [his workload],” Babcock says. “If we feel it’s getting too heavy we’ll back him off. Right now, it looks like he’s just starting to get in a groove, so that’s a good thing for us.”

THE BAD: Toronto’s gaudy scoring numbers—a league-high 79 goals, 11 different players registering at least 10 points already—obscure the fact that they’ve been outshot by about three pucks per game.

After a scorching, freewheeling start to the year, Toronto suffered from poor defensive breakouts and questioned its collective confidence during a miserable 1-3 reality-check road trip through California and Missouri.

MVP Matthews missed a week and a half due to a suspected back injury and hasn’t looked the same since. Stud sophomores William Nylander and Mitch Marner each endured scoring droughts, since snapped. Connor Brown (eight goals) is too good to be on the fourth line.

“They’re kids trying to get better and trying to learn how to play,” Babcock says. “Brownie’s level of consistency is different than Mitch’s. Mitch is still trying to find his game every day and what he’s going to be and the level he’s at.”

The Leafs’ team defence is average, as is their penalty kill, which relies too heavily on just two defenders, Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev.

Signing UFA Roman Polak was intended as a quick fix in this department, except Polak has looked too slow and thus has been mostly scratched. This leads us to believe Toronto will be an active buyer for blue line help at the trade deadline.

TRENDING: Up. With six consecutive victories—including two shutouts and four wins without their best player—the Maple Leafs were the hottest team in the league prior to Monday’s lacklustre effort against Arizona.

BOLD PREDICTION: Before he retires from the National Hockey League, Auston Matthews will win the following trophies — Hart, Maurice Richard, Frank J. Selke, Ted Lindsay, Lady Byng, Conn Smythe, Stanley Cup – but not all at once. That’s how special and well-rounded of a centreman he is.

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Remarkable as it is, coming off a standout performance in the Maple Leafs’ one playoff series last spring, Matthews has entered 2017-18 and upped both his wow factor and his defensive responsibility. He’s a born goal scorer with one of the snappiest releases in the biz, his takeaway and puck-hounding skills are among the best, and he always turns the other cheek.

With two beautiful OT winners already this season only adding to his get-out-of-your-seat moments in his NHL debut, the Centennial Classic and the Washington series, Matthews has a flair for the dramatic—and we’re only 100 games into his NHL life.

GRADE: B+. Flights of inconsistency, some alarming defensive lapses, and another sub-par start by Andersen remind Leafs fans that this is still a young, developing group whose flaws get exposed when running up against savvy, patient teams like Los Angeles, San Jose, and Ottawa. But when Andersen is dialled in and they don’t lay off the gas against beatable opponents, the scariest shooters north of Tampa Bay feel free to run wild.

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