With the Toronto Maple Leafs dropping the two games they’ve played against 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs teams so far this season, one of the narratives around the team has been how difficult it can be for a contending franchise that brings in a number of new players to hit the ground running. But as we saw with the St. Louis Blues last season (who, if you hadn’t heard, were last place in early January), it may take a while, but when a strong roster does find its chemistry there could be no stopping it.
While we wait and see how the Leafs fit together in the early part of the season, how are the players they traded away or lost to free agency doing in their new destinations?
It may be too early to draw any wide-ranging conclusions about how all these moves are working out, but there have been some notable performances so far.
All “advanced” stats from Natural Stat Trick
Nazem Kadri, Colorado Avalanche
As important as it was for the Leafs to add another puck-mover to their blue line — and Tyson Barrie has been fantastic in Blue and White thus far — it was just as crucial for the Avalanche to upgrade their second forward line. So far, Kadri has just what they hoped for.
Though Kadri didn’t have a point in any of his first three games, he’s brought a physical element that is a great tool when he doesn’t cross the line. He doesn’t have a penalty yet (hasn’t drawn any either) and leads the Avs with nine hits through five games. He scored his first of the season on Saturday, the game’s opening goal on the power play. On Monday, Kadri helped chase Braden Holtby from Washington’s net with a three-point performance — all of which came in the first period.
Kadri is fourth among Avs forwards averaging 16:54 per game, which is about a 40 second average more per game than he played for Toronto last season. He’s also been a key and central part of Colorado’s power play.
Jake Gardiner, Carolina Hurricanes
Formerly a top four player with the Leafs, Gardiner is on Carolina’s third pair and is heavily used in the offensive zone — so far, he only has five defensive zone starts on the season. As a result, his average ice time has fallen nearly four minutes from where it was with Toronto and Gardiner hasn’t played even 20 minutes in a single game yet. He does, however, still play a prominent role on the power play.
The 29-year-old has two points in six games, including an overtime winner against the Washington Capitals on Oct. 5.
Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks
Traded to Carolina for a first-round pick and then bought out by that team, it took some time for Marleau to sign back with an NHL team, but when he did, the 40-year-old headed back to what we all thought was the best landing spot for him anyway.
Marleau returned to the Sharks last week on a one-year, $700,000 contract and made his presence immediately felt. Through their first four games of the season sans Marleau, San Jose failed to score more than two goals in a game. But Marleau himself scored twice against the Blackhawks — both game-tying goals in the last minutes of a period — en route to a 5-4 overtime win. He followed that up with an assist on the game’s opening goal in Sunday’s 3-1 win over Calgary and had about 15:30 of ice time in both games.
Importantly, because he didn’t have a contract when the 2019-20 regular season began — and didn’t sit out any games after signing with the Sharks — Marleau’s ironman streak remained intact and he’s now up to 780 consecutive games played. That’s the sixth-longest stretch in league history and second-longest active streak behind Keith Yandle’s 803. He remains fifth on the NHL’s all-time games played list and needs 72 more games to tie Ron Francis, so that’s attainable this season. But to pass Gordie Howe’s all-time record of 1,767 games played, Marleau will need to play in 2020-21.
After two years playing away from the team that drafted him second overall in 1997, his return to the Shark Tank was celebrated by fans.
Ron Hainsey, Ottawa Senators
Playing the veteran, stay-at-home role next to the exciting, young Erik Brannstrom on Ottawa’s second pair, Hainsey has one assist and was robbed of a goal against his former team in the opener by an offside review.
The 38-year-old is still putting up considerable minutes, averaging 17:43 per game (third among Sens blueliners) and a team-high 3:46 per game average of shorthanded time. But he’s finding tougher this season on a rebuilding Ottawa team with a lot less star power around. At 5-on-5, Hainsey has the lowest scoring chance for percentage (43.1) and shots for percentage (43.28) on Ottawa’s blue line.
Nikita Zaitsev, Ottawa Senators
You’re going to notice a trend here as Zaitsev is the second of four current Ottawa Senators on this list. The 27-year-old Russian is second to Thomas Chabot in ice time from the blue line (23:44) and is facing a lot more pressure on outmatched Ottawa’s top pair than he ever did in Toronto’s contending lineup. Still, there is some good. While Zaitsev and Chabot are leaned on for offensive zone starts, when they are on the ice Ottawa is getting more than 58 per cent of the high danger scoring chances and Zaitsev has two points. It took him twice as long to get there last season.
Zaitsev is second among Sens defencemen in hits with 15, behind only Mark Borowiecki’s 23, and leads the way in blocked shots. It’s exactly what the Sens picked him up to do. Zaitsev will probably never carry an effective blue line pair — especially not a top unit — but he’s filling the minutes needed for the transitioning Senators.
Connor Brown, Ottawa Senators
Surprisingly, Brown’s average of 19:37 per game leads all Senators forwards so far this season, largely due to the fact he plays a significant role on both special teams units. A second liner at even strength, all three of Brown’s assists have come at 5-on-5 and he leads the Sens with three primary helpers.
It’s also interesting that although more than 50 per cent of his zone starts have come on the defensive side, Brown’s 56.6 shots for percentage at 5-on-5 is second to just linemate Vlad Namestnikov up front. The Sens are out-chancing the opposition 38-26 when Brown is on the ice. The early chemistry between Brown and Namestnikov is evident, though we’ll wait a few more than three games before passing final judgement.
Tyler Ennis, Ottawa Senators
With a spot on the top line next to Brady Tkachuk and Colin White, Ennis has yet to record a point and is a minus-five through the first five games. Though this many minutes on a losing team does open a player up to poor underlying numbers, Ennis’ stand out even relative to his two linemates.
The silver lining here (maybe) is that Ennis has nine shots at 5-on-5 and no goals yet, but while the puck should start going in for him soon, he’s finished with a shooting percentage above seven just once in the last four years. More likely here is that the experiment ends and Ennis moves down the lineup — perhaps even for Brown to get promoted to the top line.