Just when you feared the Toronto Maple Leafs’ regular season was flying off the rails, they are very much back on track.
Judging by the numbers and by the eye at the 20-game mark, there is no good reason why Toronto won’t qualify for a sixth consecutive post-season berth.
Winners of 11 of their past 13 games, the Leafs have improved both special teams and are dressing the hottest goaltender in the game.
They’ve tidied up defensively, they have cobbled a third line that can skate meaningful minutes, and they have withstood a variety of injuries (Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Ilya Mikheyev, Petr Mrazek).
Perhaps most important: They haven’t blown a single game heading into the third period with a lead.
Granted it’s early, but the 2021-22 Maple Leafs kinda look like closers.
Even when things are going swimmingly, we can’t help but raise questions.
Here are the three biggies we’ll be looking at as the club hopes to keep piling up wins toward the Olympic break.
So… when is the offence going to start rolling?
Sit through enough pre-game scrums with the opposition and all their answers about the Maple Leafs start to sound the same.
High-powered offence. So many offensive weapons. They can score in bunches. We better watch out. Rinse. Repeat.
Thing is, the idea of these Maple Leafs as this score-at-will juggernaut is based on history and has nothing to do with the current truth.
Toronto’s excellent penalty kill ranks third overall, as does its team defence (2.25 GAA). A much-improved, top-10 power play has been a deciding factor on multiple occasions.
Believe it or not, Toronto has roared to a .675 points percentage at the quarter mark not because of its offence but, rather, in spite of it.
The Leafs rank 26th in goals per game, a smidge above Ottawa and below a bunch of teams not regarded for their forward depth (Buffalo, Detroit, Seattle, New Jersey, et al).
In 2020-21, Auston Matthews’ Rocket Richard year, Toronto ranked second overall in five-on-five scoring (2.4 per game). Now, the team’ five-on-five production has tumbled to 1.6 goals per night.
“It's top of mind for sure. We've been talking about it a lot,” coach Sheldon Keefe says. “We've got to find ways to generate a lot more, make good on the chances that we do get. It's something that we're certainly aware of.”
One would assume the goals will pile up naturally with time. The Leafs’ shooting percentage is oddly low (7.5, 27th place), Matthews’ wrist should only get stronger (right?), and the chemistry with a bunch of new left wings should only improve.
Keefe doesn’t want to use the word concern just yet, but the odd scoring explosion couldn’t hurt.
Can Campbell keep up this crazy workload?
New goalie, same story.
Much like Frederik Andersen before him, No. 1 Jack Campbell is being forced to work harder than a live blogger on trade deadline day.
No netminder has appeared in more games (16) or logged more minutes (904:14) than Mr. Laugh Smile Jokes.
This wasn’t the plan, of course.
GM Kyle Dubas committed $11.4 million to veteran Petr Mrazek to precisely avoid this situation.
With Mrazek’s return from groin injury No. 2 a ways off, the Leafs are getting a little lucky here.
With faith in Michael Hutchinson disintegrated, prospect Joseph Woll has gone two-for-two in his starts, and the hardworking Campbell is a very early Vezina candidate.
“Jack’s been really good with it. He’s managed it really well,” Keefe says. “If he feels he needs or wants some practice reps, he speaks up and communicates that.
“We try to design practices in a way that he doesn’t have to take on certain reps. We’ll put most of the load down on one end, and he’s at the other. Sometimes if there’s something specific that he would like to get out of it, I’ll move that to closer to the beginning of practice so he can just get off. So, those kind of things we’re managing.
“We’ve had to do it even more so with not having Petr being available. I think it’s served us well in terms of knowing what we can do, and it has gone really well for Soupy so far.”
Will the Leafs settle on six defencemen?
Keefe has sat down with the D corps and explained the situation.
The coach believes he has seven healthy, NHL-calibre blueliners. As a result, one must sit.
Justin Holl was benched for a stretch. Rasmus Sandin was given a night off he didn’t want. Travis Dermott keeps popping in and out to let Timothy Liljegren find his big-league legs.
It’s a delicate balancing act for a staff trying to keep all parties engaged and encouraged, rested and ready. But it can only be sustained for so long.
Behind the scenes, Dubas has at least floated the notion of trading Dermott or Holl to alleviate a little of the cap space he’ll need to give deserved raises to Sandin, Liljegren and Campbell this summer.
Do the Maple Leafs simply enjoy the security of a seventh defenceman? Or does a deal get made in-season?