Maple Leafs quarter-mark report: The great, the meh and the questions

Follow The Money's Mitch Moss and Pauly Howard are loving what they're seeing this season from the Maple Leafs, wondering if this strong defence and goaltending can be sustained in the playoffs, and drool over a possible 7-game series vs. Montreal.

TORONTO — No hockey team gets scrutinized, dissected or deconstructed on a daily basis than the Toronto Maple Leafs. One poor effort can ignite a bad week’s worth of chatter in this market. One dominant evening, and it’s dust off the parade maps.

So, it’s worthwhile to zoom out — 14 games into a season Frederik Andersen dubbed “a sprint and a marathon” — and take stock of how it’s going.

The Maple Leafs are surely benefitting from 2021’s realignment.

And while it’s difficult to judge just how good they actually are when they’ll never get a measuring stick like Tampa or Boston, Washington or Vegas, Toronto’s welcoming of this All or Nothing pressure is off to a promising first episode.

WHERE THEY ARE RELATIVE TO EXPECTATIONS

Any critique of the NHL’s top team (11-2-1) feels like picking nits off a thoroughbred, particularly during a nine-game points streak.

The Maple Leafs’ best players are putting up Nintendo numbers. The much-publicized veteran-slash-leadership acquisitions — Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, T.J. Brodie, Zach Bogosian — have all met or exceeded expectations. And Toronto has finally taken its long-awaited defensive leap.

“We have a great vibe on the bench,” beams Justin Holl, another feel-good story from Q1.

The majority of Canada’s organizations would kill for the Leafs’ early woes (injured backup goalie, in-flux bottom six, promising D-men forced to be healthy scratches).

The best news is about Toronto’s record is that, to a man, the Leafs still don’t believe they’re firing on all cylinders quite yet.

Puck possession is a priority for any Sheldon Keefe–helmed squad, and this is one area the coach believes his charges can improve.

“That’s a huge part of our philosophy, for sure. I don’t think we were very good in that area, to be frank, in the first 10 games, but we’ve shown progress,” Keefe says.

“While we are known for our offence and our scoring and had a bit of a breakout here in the last couple games, our offence wasn’t the reason why we’re winning games in the first 10 games of the season.

“We were winning because of our power play and because of the fact that we were defending better, in my opinion. That carried us through a lot of those really tight games.”

TOP-SIX FORWARDS GRADE: A+

Mitch Marner has 21 points and just wrapped an eight-game point/assist streak.

Auston Matthews ran an eight-game goal streak, has points in 12 of 13, and has lit more lamps (11) than anyone in hockey.

Keefe knows exactly what he’s getting from Zach Hyman every night, and it’s all good.

William Nylander and John Tavares both believe they have another level to reach in terms of 5-on-5 production. And yet they’re firmly in point-per-game territory thanks, largely, to a double-barrelled power play driven by the Leafs’ Core Four forwards.

When healthy, old newcomers Thornton and Simmonds have complemented the young stars nicely.

“They’re obviously very talented up front,” says Montreal goalie Carey Price, who’s lost twice to Toronto. “That group of forwards thinks the game very well.”

Less obvious is the step Matthews and Marner have taken defensively. There is less cheating for offence among the top six, which lends an honesty to the gaudy offensive stats.

Matthews, in particular, is off to the type of campaign that will thrust him into the conversation for hardware — and we’re not only talking about the Rocket Richard Trophy.

“He’s a special player,” says Jason Spezza, “who’s putting together an MVP-type season.”

BOTTOM-SIX FORWARDS GRADE: B–

A concern for the duration of 2019-20, the revolving door to the bottom of the Leafs’ forward group keeps on spinning.

The absence of a pre-season and an influx of fresh faces has prompted Keefe to extend role-player tryouts into February, as the coach searches for the best mix to tread water — or, better still, chip in — when his all-stars catch their breath.

It’s been a mixed bag.

For every Jason Spezza hat trick, we get an Alexander Barabanov, who doesn’t look NHL ready. For every fearless Simmonds’ scrap or pretty redirect goal, we get a snake-bit Ilya Mikheyev or a Nick Robertson injury.

Travis Boyd is revealing himself a fine find; the jury is still out on Jimmy Vesey and Pierre Engvall.

And while there’s plenty to like about the feisty Alexander Kerfoot, who is much more engaged this season, he has been prone to penalties — and, unfortunately, his mere presence is a reminder to Leaf Nation that they lost a pure two-way centreman via the Nazem Kadri trade.

DEFENCE GRADE: A–

If I were to tell you prior to the season that the Maple Leafs would post a below-median save percentage and still be among the NHL’s elite, surely you would assume they’ve been winning games by scores like 6-4.

But that’s far from the case. Toronto’s first seven wins were all grind-’er-out, one-goal affairs (sometimes plus an empty-netter). In nearly every case, they had to lock things down in their own end, weather a storm, and hold a lead like a grudge.

This group is much better equipped to do so. With a top four of Morgan Rielly–T.J. Brodie and Jake Muzzin–Justin Holl trusted to match the division’s elite top-sixes and depth well beyond Zach Bogosian on the third pairing, we dare say this is the most balanced Leafs blue line of this century.

That said, Toronto’s penalty kill (76.5 per cent) remains in the bottom third of the league, where it’s been stuck for years.

The early returns on the seldom-noticed Brodie (this is a good thing) are fantastic, and he deserves partial credit for a healthy 11-point burst out the gates from Rielly.

Meanwhile, Mikko Lehtonen, Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin are all inspired to give A+ effort every night just to prove they’re worthy of dressing.

In his five years a Leaf, Frederik Andersen has never been so sheltered.

“The biggest reason why our shots on goal have reduced is we just don’t allow teams into our zone with near the same level of frequency, and the number of odd-man rushes have dramatically decreased against,” notes Keefe. That message was drilled into all skaters, forwards included, from Day 1 of camp.

“We’ve seen great strides in that area. It’s a credit to the players for how they’ve bought into it,” Keefe adds. “When the puck changes hands… and it starts moving towards our net, our guys have been really committed to making sure we’ve got numbers above it. We can kill plays before it before they have a chance to get to our goalie.”

GOALTENDING GRADE: B+

After zero tune-up games and a just-OK start, Andersen has settled nicely into a groove during this critical contract year.

Toronto’s undisputed No. 1 has posted a .924 save percentage over his past 10 starts. He outright stole Monday’s 3-1 victory over Vancouver and outduelled Price with a season-best 33-save performance on Wednesday.

Andersen’s ability to rise to the occasion is all the more valuable considering the double-whammy the Leafs’ goaltending chart has been dealt below him.

Third-string insurance guy Aaron Dell was scooped off the waiver wire before he could stop one puck for the team that signed him. And backup Jack Campbell, who shone in his two starts (2-0-0, .923), has been sidelined indefinitely with a leg injury suffered Jan. 24 in Calgary. That Campbell isn’t even skating yet is a concern.

Health willing, we expect Keefe to ride Andersen. Michael Hutchinson, originally signed to be the club’s fourth-string netminder, could make his NHL debut during next week’s back-to-back versus Ottawa.

A BIG QUESTION FOR THE SECOND QUARTER: Where does Zach Hyman slot in?

Hyman has been the silent contributor to arguably hockey’s hottest duo, doing the dirty work for Matthews and Marner. No one disputes that he fits well on Toronto’s top line because, honestly, Hyman fits well anywhere he’s thrown.

But with a healthy Joe Thornton (rib) set to return next week and eventual top-six left winger Nick Robertson (knee) not too far behind, it will be interesting to see how Keefe arranges the pieces to his forward puzzle.

The Leafs ultimately desire a consistent third line with an identity, one that is hard to play against. Injuries have tossed a wrench into those plans. Let’s see if Hyman, with help from Kerfoot, can drive a third unit on their own.

Bonus questions for Q2: When will Campbell be ready? Who ultimately locks up the 6D job, Lehtonen or Dermott? And will GM Kyle Dubas actually pull the trigger on a depth forward trade?

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