Five thoughts on the Toronto Maple Leafs two months into the season

Kyle Bukauskas and Luke Fox discuss the Toronto Maple Leafs' win over the Ottawa Senators, including Joseph Woll's injury and what Ilya Samsonov and Martin Jones can provide in his place.

I have no idea if Shohei Ohtani is about to sign to be a Toronto Blue Jay or not, but I do think it’s worth noting a perk the Jays could soon enjoy that comes with having a true superstar player: it attracts other great players to your team.

It’s a perk the Maple Leafs have been enjoying for years.

It hasn’t won the Leafs a Cup yet, but it sure has made them better. Having Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander is the very thing that landed them John Tavares. It’s why Patrick Marleau joined the team, and Joe Thornton too. It’s why in the off-season a guy like Tyler Bertuzzi looks at the Leafs and says “I can have a great year there and win there.”

Similarly, it’s how guys like Evander Kane and Zach Hyman end up agreeing to long-term deals in Edmonton. It ain’t the weather, it’s Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and the chance to be a part of something great.

The Jays kind of have it with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette, but landing Ohtani would certainly make them far more appealing to other free agents, assuming they still had a few leftover nickels to rub together to sign them.

Who knows if it happens (or already didn’t), but it’s an unsung angle of having great players: it attracts others to your organization, which should help the Leafs for years to come.

And with that, here are some Leafs thoughts…

No. 1: The Leafs are going to try to win the Stanley Cup with Joseph Woll in net

You can make the case that the best thing the Leafs could do is not spend assets this season to try to win the Cup, because they look more middling than they have in the past. Looking forward, if they re-sign Nylander and Marner, at some point they’ll have Tavares’ money off the books (or will have him for way less), the cap will go up, and maybe they can better load up down the road.

But when you have these core players in their primes you can’t not try to win the Cup, so the compromise between “going for it” and “aiming for the future” all points at handing Joseph Woll the reins now. He’s been one of the NHL’s best goaltenders this season, to the point he could be in the discussion as a potential Calder Trophy finalist. And these days it seems any NHL goalie can get hot for a couple months, as Woll certainly can. So, why not go ahead with his cheap AAV, get him the experience (for down the road) and take a swing with him (for now) as the man in 2023-24? He’s been too good.

Now, he’s obviously out with injury, though we don’t know for how long yet. But my point simply is all that’s going to happen now is the Leafs will go with Martin Jones and Ilya Samsonov and wait for Woll to come back. There’s no point in spending assets on a trade. Woll has proven himself capable enough, so it seems like the Leafs’ tandem (or trio) is going to be exactly what you see right now, barring Samsonov being unhappy and wanting out.

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No. 2: The Leafs’ “shut down pair” should be shut down

With the game on the line, holding the lead on the road, the Leafs repeatedly turned to their most “shut down” pair of Jake McCabe and Simon Benoit against Ottawa. My rudimentary counting had them on the ice for seven of Ottawa’s 11 Grade A chances (as categorized by SportLogiq), and three of their five Grade B looks.

I really like McCabe’s game, but he is very “active,” and sometimes chases himself into trouble, as he did in the following clip. He guesses the Ottawa forward is going to go behind the net so he could land a big hit on him. Instead, it’s a Grade A chance against.

We saw some of this in the playoffs last season, where the Leafs asked a lot of McCabe and he played big minutes. Benoit has gone from depth D to handling heavy D-zone starts against tough opposition, and on Thursday it didn’t go great.

In terms of injuries, really only Mark Giordano can provide help there, but he’s 40 and probably not suited to play huge minutes against top guys for a two-month (in theory) playoff run. And so, defence is priority 1A for the Leafs to address. Does that mean Chris Tanev specifically? Not sure, but they do need someone like him if not him exactly.

No. 3: Knies needs some defensive refining

I think Matthew Knies is going to be a great NHLer, and an extremely valuable one to the Leafs given his unique playing style and skill. He could be valuable at times this year, as a guy who can provide surprising offence from game to game. But his defensive play is very much in question, as he still looks like he’s adjusting to the pace against other teams’ top players.

Thursday he took too many risks, got burned on a few, and ended up with an expected goals percentage of 12.5, lowest among Leafs forwards. To my eye he could use the pressure dialled back a little bit right now. 

No. 4: Let’s see more from Robertson

According to those same expected goals stats, when Nick Robertson was on the ice against the Sens just about everything went the Leafs’ way. The problem is, he was only on the ice for just over nine minutes.

I’ve really liked Robertson’s play of late. He seems more dynamic with his skating, more capable of winning loose pucks, and his quick touches in the O-zone can result in some heavy shots on net. He’s not ready to take that top line winger spot from Knies, if anyone in a depth role is at all (which is part of what’s keeping Knies there).

But nine minutes of ice time isn’t enough.

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No. 5: One solution: Time to throw Noah Gregor a bone

Gregor’s speed makes him a tenacious forechecker, he’ll finish checks, and he’s capable of being emotionally involved in the game (where other wingers like Calle Jarnkrok and Knies don’t really seem to be, yet). Matthews has thrived with good forechecking linemates in the past so if the Leafs wanted to dial back Knies, I’d like to see Gregor get a shot to go hunt pucks for the big dogs.

His speed creates problems, and if he can set some defencemen on their heels, it could create space for great shooters in Matthews and Nylander to operate from above.

In all, the Leafs feel like they’re treading water. They’ve got the type of game breakers who can help them win close games and when they get the great goaltending that Woll has given them, they can win any night. But they still feel a tier below the league’s best teams, and so while we wait for Brad Treliving to do his thing and add help, the Leafs need to continue to tweak and search for viable options to keep them afloat in a very tough Atlantic Division.

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