The Toronto Maple Leafs took care of business Monday, and made it look easy.
They defeated a very beatable team and snuffed their losing skid at two games with a 6-2 romp over the outmatched Seattle Kraken, looking every bit like an expansion outfit.
“It’s great to end this road trip off with a win,” Alexander Kerfoot said. “You never want to come away empty-handed.”
Toronto’s superb special teams and its scorching top line propelled the wire-to-wire victory, an easy night that should boost goalie Jack Campbell’s confidence.
Don’t be ageist: Bunting will be on Calder ballots
Question: Which NHL rookie has more goals than Michael Bunting?
Look at that smile.
Michael Bunting's absolutely lovin' it. pic.twitter.com/K1VM04D5Mm
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 15, 2022
Scarborough’s finest notched his 15th goal and 17th assist Monday, giving the Leafs’ top-line left wing 32 points on the year.
Yes, Bunting is 26 years old. A fact we’re sure you’ll hear from supporters of young guns Lucas Raymond, Trevor Zegras, Anton Lundell, and Moritz Seider.
Bunting averages less ice time than any of those stellar freshmen, yet he’s racked up more even-strength points than everyone but Florida’s Lundell.
As we’ve mentioned multiple times, he’s phenomenal at the art of drawing infractions out of his opponents — his 27 drawn penalties rank second only to Connor McDavid’s 30.
Bunting is also among the rookie leaders in game-winners (two), shots (99) and plus/minus (+11).
“In Bunting’s case, it’s really popped. He taken [his opportunity] and run with it. Hasn’t been easy for him,” said Keefe.
The coach reminded us that Bunting did serve time on the fourth line. In his second run on Toronto’s top unit, however, he’s been excellent.
“He’s really taken advantage and hasn’t looked back since he’s gotten the opportunity to play with [Auston] Matthews,” Keefe said. “To me, he’s a guy that can change momentum in a game at any particular time, in our favour.
“He’s just gonna continue to get better.”
Adds Marner: “He takes a beating pretty much every night in front of that net.”
Bunting gives all the credit to his superstar linemates, and we do wonder if playing beside two of the most creative offensive talents might work against the old rook when it comes time to vote.
“All three of us complement one another. Mitchy [Marner] is always looking for the pass, Matty’s the shooter, and I like to go to the net and cause havoc there and just basically smack anything I can to go in the net,” Bunting said.
“We’ve had success lately and it been pretty fun playing out there, so hopefully we can keep it going.”
Marner is good at hockey
The goal streak may be over, but Mitch Marner’s hot streak is not.
Another multi-point evening gives Marner 11 goals and 11 assists over his past 11 games. He became the third-fastest Maple Leafs in history to hit 400 points, doing so in his 392nd game. (Auston Matthews reset the bar at 372; Syl Apps did it in 387.)
— Patric Sandin (@psan1969) February 15, 2022
The goal was nice, of course. The assist — shorthanded, to David Kämpf — was nicer.
And it was a throwback to Marner’s days as a London Knight.
"I've done it before in junior." —Mitch Marner https://t.co/GnPyaP8PCa
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) February 15, 2022
“Special,” Keefe marvelled. “That’s all you can say about that.”
Seattle, however, is less than good at hockey
With another loss, the Kraken’s points percentage slipped to a disastrous .367. Only the lottery-hungry Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes are worse.
Yes, the Kraken had a decent amount of offensive-zone time against the Leafs, who were protecting a handy lead late, but they only generated four high-danger chances all game.
“I thought we defend our slot very well,” Keefe said.
True. Also true: the Kraken didn’t make it incredibly difficult to do so.
Frankly, there’s not nearly enough talent, nor enough goaltending, in this expansion city to put a real scare in the Leafs.
Philipp Grubauer signed the richest contract in club history at six years and $35.4 million, and his record fell to 12-18-4 with a career-worst .885 save percentage.
As a whole, Seattle has the worst team save percentage in the NHL.
So… whaddaya do? The Kraken have $7.16 million in projected cap space.
Trade captain Mark Giordano to the highest bidder as a coveted rental piece and make a concerted effort to assume bad money from a cap-tight contender in exchange for futures.
With so many good teams rammed to the ceiling, Francis needs to leverage his cap room the way Detroit’s Steve Yzerman and Arizona’s Bill Armstrong have done in recent years.
New rink, familiar coach
Timothy Liljegren looked around the beautiful Climate Pledge Arena and felt a jolt of home.
“Reminds me a little bit of a European rink with the windows,” Liljegren said. “Looks nice.”
Added Bunting: “It’s weird not having a Jumbotron in the centre; there’s two on the sides. But it’s a really nice facility. They did a good job here.”
Ahoy, Seattle pic.twitter.com/milWNhFycx
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 15, 2022
Fun fact: The Maple Leafs played in the first sporting event under the historic, repurposed roof that shelters Climate Pledge, a 7-1 exhibition victory over the Seattle Totems of the former professional Western Hockey League on Sept. 30, 1964.
Keefe felt it important to squeeze in a short practice Sunday at the new barn to acclimatize his players to the atypical seating pattern and open windows.
“It’s beautiful,” Keefe said. “It’s got lots of character. It’s very unique. I think it’s excellent.”
The Kraken’s coach is a familiar face, of course.
Dave Hakstol graduated from running the Leafs defence and penalty kill as an assistant to Ron Francis’ somewhat surprise choice to run the expansion bench.
Keefe says Hakstol — who had recently jumped from the NCAA to the bench boss in Philly — served as a tremendous resource in helping him adjust to the NHL as a first-time head coach when he first came up from the Marlies.
“Learned a lot working with him and enjoy our friendship and continue to stay in touch,” said Keefe, who finds himself tuning into plenty of Kraken games when he gets home late.
“He doesn’t get too emotional about anything. Just keeps things even keel. I think that’s a great thing for a coach, whether you’re winning or losing.”
Second line gains traction
A hard forecheck led to potential Kraken pick Alexander Kerfoot scoring the first Maple Leafs’ goal against the league’s youngest franchise.
“I guess that’ll be a trivia question or something,” shrugged Kerfoot, understandably unenthused by the hey-you-could’ve-been-outta-here narrative. “I’m happy to be a Leaf.”
Leafs Alex Kerfoot snaps a 12-game goalless drought
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) February 15, 2022
Yes, the power-play helped, but the Kerfoot–Tavares–Nylander line, which Keefe described as “disconnected” heading into this game, combined for four points and tilted the ice in its favour.
Though we see no need to panic, it was a night to build on.
“It’s been a little too up-and-down,” Tavares admitted. “We can be a lot better.”
One-Timers: Former Maple Leaf and expansion-draft casualty Jared McCann exacted a measure of revenge, registering his first 20-goal season Monday…. The Leafs scored twice on the power-play and their success rate (31.5 per cent) currently ranks as the second-best in NHL history (tracked since 1977-78)…. Toronto has now spent nine consecutive days on the ice, be it at practice or in game action. Tavares finds all that ice time keeps the players “mentally sharper” but not as physically fresh. Pros and cons…. Bet on a well-deserved day off Tuesday as Toronto flies home and prepares to face the Pittsburgh Penguins Thursday.
Toronto Maple Leafs (31.5%) are on track for the second-best power play of recorded history.
(1977-78 Montreal Canadiens operated at 31.9%.)
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) February 15, 2022