To borrow Ricky’s phrase from Trailer Park Boys, it doesn’t take rocket appliances to figure out what makes the Toronto Maple Leafs tick.
During their four-game winning streak, their four stars up front are all at a point-per-game or better, with Marner leading the way with seven. When all four guys play well they win, and as you move farther from all four playing well, their odds of team success go down. If only one out of four plays well, they probably lose; I like their odds when three out of four play well, and so on.
That’s an oversimplification of their team, of course. Against Tampa Bay on Thursday, they needed superb goaltending from Jack Campbell to stay in the game, and we saw how their team can look when the likes of Jake Muzzin and TJ Brodie struggle as they did early in the season. But overly simple or not, that’s how this team is built to succeed and is related to why they’ve failed to win a playoff round so far. Teams have slowed their core four enough to win.
What they could use when the games get tougher on those guys, is a little help from their friends. You know, the other 14 skaters. We’ve learned the rest of their roster is crucial to their odds of big picture success, and they made a lot of changes this off-season. With the Leafs 1/8th of the way through their 2021-22 schedule, let’s look at five player tandems beyond the big names to assess what else this team has.
This is a fascinating roster spot, given we’re talking about two guys playing right-side D for the Leafs who, heading into the season, were not written in pencil but Sharpie.
Serious question here: what changed for Justin Holl? They protected this guy, talked up how integral he is as a valued contributor in their top-four given his low cap hit, then gave him eight games and are … what, utterly done with him?
Was there an eff you match behind the scenes or something? They talked about “building him up” after putting him in the press box for a game, but they’ve now left him in there for three, which isn’t exactly how I think confidence is “built back” with a guy you expansion-protected and saw in your top-four who had a handful of bad hockey games. (It sure makes a protected list that would’ve kept Jared McCann look intriguing in retrospect.) Some of this is tied to the quality play of a guy we’ll talk about more in a second (Timothy Liljgren) but there’s such a sharp turnabout on Holl onlookers may have whiplash.
Travis Dermott is a guy they’ve been dying to take a step, a guy who’s spent years on the third pair now and never really carved himself a niche. He’s dynamic and has great gap control and a good stick and can play D in the NHL. But the plan wasn’t just for him to be “OK,” or be just good enough to play in the league. Hell, he was that a few years ago. If that’s what he’s going to be – and it does appear that’s all they’re going to get after ample opportunity – it’s not shocking they’d have interest in pursuing more than that in a depth pair guy, maybe someone with a physical edge (Nick Kypreos has suggested names Robert Bortuzzo, Brayden McNabb or Radko Gudas at the 39:00 minute mark in the audio clip below).
Timothy Liljgren/Rasmus Sandin
I’ve been of the belief that Holl is a guy the Leafs should have in the lineup to be their best version of themselves, and so I wouldn’t have been as eager to spend games with a less than maxed out lineup to “develop” a young guy like Liljgren, who’s in his fifth-year pro. At some point, it’s sink or swim for young guys (year five professionally sounds fair to me there?), and that’s where I had Liljgren – let him play as opportunities came up, no need to create them.
But they’ve played him, and he’s played well, and I’ve changed my thinking once presented with new information. I no longer see a “quad A” type D-man, I see an NHLer. He’s looked confident in a sheltered role and has played well off Sandin, particularly in the offensive zone. I think the Leafs are pumped with where he’s at (and see his progression as opening up options like trades).
I still struggle to see how it works fit-wise for a team looking to not just do well in the regular season, but more in the playoffs (has anybody said the Leafs were lacking a younger, smaller puck mover in those series losses?), but maybe with more games and experience that role will become more clearly defined.
As for Liljgren’s partner, Sandin, I love the way he plays …when he’s not defending below the faceoff dots in his own zone. He’s dynamic all over the ice, he’s superb at setting up teammates for good looks, and he’s great at moving the puck up the ice and in the right direction. He’s got a high ceiling. Again, the actual defending thing scares me a bit come playoffs when teams start chipping in pucks and grinding more and all that, but I think he’s talented enough to find ways not to get painted into a corner. He can get himself in positions to use his strengths and hide his weaknesses.
In the end, the Leafs are looking to do something different with their lineup. Instead of plodders on their bottom pair they want guys who can move and really play, and they’ll ask their vets to defend when necessary.
There’s gonna be off nights for these two, but if it can be once every four games - and not once every three or every other game - the Leafs will take it.
I can’t believe how often Kase gets pasted – it’s like at least once per game – but part of that is because he works his ass off and plays a pretty unafraid game for a guy who’s had injury problems (still, he could use his peripheral vision better). Is there more upside there? I would say so, a little anyway, but right now he’s so tied to Kampf and the defensive zone, the numbers aren’t going to be there for him this season. It’d go a long way for the Leafs for him to be accepting of that role.
The Kampf “no offence” thing is honestly impressive. He’s such a clearly defined defensive player I don’t even know what playing hockey like that would feel like. He looks like he can do everything skill-wise, he just has no interest in making that his focus. And so it will go for Kase, as he waits for an injury in the top six to possibly get more on the offensive end.
In the meantime, the Leafs will take a duo they can put on the ice in their own zone, who will still control the bulk of shot attempts in a positive way when they’re on the ice. They’ve done that so far, and it’s good enough for now, it’s just not where they’re going to get offensive support.
I lump these two in given they came in as left wingers with opportunity, but they’re nothing alike. Bunting plays bigger than his size, works and contributes all over the rink, and always feels a day away from giving you a little more. Ritchie has been … not that, so far. Almost the opposite.
The Ritchie issue now for me is … how does it ever get better for this guy, if you hope he’ll validate his two year, 2.5 million AAV salary? He played better against Tampa Bay, but he’s now stuck playing 10-12 minutes a night on the fourth line.
Can he generate enough opportunity to score (or enough energy to be of value when he doesn’t) from there? Certainly not enough to earn that money, and the Leafs are a team constantly searching for value from their dollars given their big core deals. They’ll plow on for a fair while here no doubt, but if nothing changes, they’ll get to a “something’s gotta give” moment around the deadline you’d think.
I guess for the Leafs it’s not a bad thing to have guys like Kase and Ritchie awaiting an opportunity higher up the lineup, but with Ritchie, it’s hard to see how this ends well. Not impossible, but after one assist in eleven games, there’s big work to be done for him to get this season (and let’s be direct, his career) turned in the right direction.
Jack Campbell/Petr Mrazek
Heading into this season it seemed like the Leafs were going to be content with a goalie tandem, likely seeing Campbell play 45 games and Petr Mrazek 37 or so. They were both going to be given the chance to earn the bulk of the starts though with their play. So far, Mrazek hasn’t had many good moments as a Leaf, and Campbell is piling them up. From a wins and losses standpoint for the Leafs, that’s great. From a contract standpoint for Campbell, less so.
Contract-wise, I’d say the best thing the Leafs could do with Campbell is let the season play itself out. As of today, he seems like a starter and a guy worth a deal that looks something like 4 x $4.5 million, give or take a bit on either side. But he hasn’t the track record of being a healthy, season-long, load-carrying starter, and those numbers imply he is one.
If he pulls it off all year, I don’t think the numbers change all that much. But there’s the chance he can’t, and they go down a great deal. I know the Leafs want to make Happy Jack comfortable, but in sports, being comfortable isn’t always what earns peak performance.