Maple Leafs’ four major areas for improvement at the quarter mark

Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (34) controls the puck past New Jersey Devils defenseman Damon Severson during the third period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022, in Newark, N.J. The Maple Leafs won 2-1. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

The Toronto Maple Leafs of 2022-23 are the hockey equivalent of that confused Larry David meme, the one where you can see that look on the Curb Your Enthusiasm protagonist’s wonderfully tortured face as he weighs his options. Poor Larry is caught in an endless loop of On the other hand…

Are these Maple Leafs an elite hockey club? Maybe.

Could their flaws unravel them down the road? Maybe.

Through 21 games — essentially a quarter of the 82-game marathon — Toronto sits second in the Atlantic Division, third in the Eastern Conference, and sixth overall.

It’s a familiar and expected position, one that certainly bodes well for a seventh consecutive postseason berth in the Auston Matthews–Mitchell Marner–William Nylander era.

On the other hand, the Leafs have only won one more game than they’ve lost, their plus-5 goal differential doesn’t exactly strike fear, and they’re already seven points back of the torrid Boston Bruins, owners of a ridiculous plus-37 goal differential and a game in hand.

Toronto has gathered points in 11 of its past 12 and kept itself from getting blown out, gathering five “loser” points by stretching games to overtime.

On the other hand, Toronto seldom blows out its opponents, even the weakest among them, and has lost its past five 3-on-3 skill contests, leaving some regrettable points on the table.

The Maple Leafs have smartly heeded coach Sheldon Keefe’s pleas, battening the hatches defensively to the tune of 2.62 goals allowed per game (sixth best in the NHL). They’ve chopped down on shots allowed and helped their goaltenders jack the team’s save percentage to .908 — seventh-best overall and an eight-point leap from last season.

On the other hand, both special teams have taken a step back, even-strength offence continues to be a head-scratching source of frustration, and you can count the days the club’s NHL-level goaltenders have been simultaneously healthy on just a few fingers.

On one hand, the Leafs beat both the Bruins and the New Jersey Devils — easily the class of the conference — in a pair of injury-suffering, hard-fought, gritty 2-1 character victories.

On the other hand, they’ve looked utterly lost and frighteningly sloppy against Connor Bedard–hunting rosters in Anaheim and Arizona.

Frown: Marner only has four goals. Smile: Marner is on a career-best 14-game point streak.

The Leafs have stolen the puck away more than 31 teams (197). The Leafs have given the puck away more than 30 teams (244).

We could do this all day, folks.

Such duality has turned the Maple Leafs into a bottomless treasure trove for debate and allows them to still be fascinating during a regular season that was supposed to mean nothing.

“We have dealt with a lot through 20 games, maybe a season’s worth of stuff,” Keefe told reporters Wednesday, his hot seat now but a rumour. “And here we are, still standing.”

Here are four areas Toronto would do well to improve for a more consistent second quarter — if it wants to stand even taller, right up there among the Bruins, Devils and Golden Knights.

5-on-5 offence

“We haven’t really found consistent rhythm 5-on-5 or even-strength,” says John Tavares.

The captain is driving at the most critical and most confounding flaw of Q1.

The Maple Leafs are meeting and practising regularly, searching for ways to generate the high-flying even-strength offence that used to be their calling card.

Keefe has sorted through a litany of line combos. He’s even gone nuclear, flipping Marner to Tavares’s line and joining Matthews and Nylander for a spark.

There is pressure on the star forwards to attack more, yet a responsibility to cut out the forced plays that lead to those costly counterattack strikes.

“It’s a fine line,” Tavares says. “We’re not just going reckless abandon and trying to be overaggressive to make plays.”

The Maple Leafs’ even-strength offence ranks in the bottom third of the league. That needs to change, and maybe the greatest key is simply…

Auston Matthews

It is with great trepidation that one lobs criticism Matthews’ way.

For one, even a slightly off Matthews is more effective that the bulk of the league. For two, the centreman’s skillset is such that he could erupt for a 30-goals-in-30-games tear and make a detractor look foolish in the flick of a CCM.

And yet, after 21 games, the data and the eyeballs agree: We’re still waiting on peak Matthews.

The reigning Hart, Ted Lindsay and Rocket trophy winner ranks tied for 32nd in goals (nine) and 33rd in points (21). Most shocking, Matthews is tied with a group of lesser talents for 243rd in even-strength points (six).

Absolutely, some of the superstar’s quiet start can be attributed to a career-low shooting percentage (10.1). But whether it’s a dip in linemate chemistry or, as Matthews mentions, a need to drive more to middle ice, there is another element at work here.

We haven’t seen his best yet.

Debatable depth

Pierre Engvall (two goals) hasn’t made Leaf Nation forget about the 21 Ilya Mikheyev scored for the Blue and White last season.

Alexander Kerfoot’s 51-point campaign in 2021-22 feels like a dream when you realize he’s stuck at one goal and seven points through this one.

“You’re always thinking of it when you’re not scoring, but you try and do the same thing every day and stick with it,” says Kerfoot, whose defensive game is just fine. “I want to be able to help the team every night, and I think I have more to give.”

And we’re less than encouraged by the offensive punch of Calle Järnkrok and Zach Aston-Reese than we were by Jason Spezza and Ondrej Kase.

Neither Nick Robertson nor Denis Malgin have outright secured an everyday gig, and the Maple Leafs have a grand total of five goals from their defencemen.

Some of these role players must step up over the coming months, or there will be trades.

Blueline health

Oh, boy.

We won’t belabour the losses of Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and T.J. Brodie to injury. We’ve spilled plenty of ink on the topic.

Suffice it to say, Wednesday’s upper-body injury to Jordie Benn — a fourth-pair defenceman turned valuable regular — was less than welcome.

Mark Giordano, 39, has been a beast this season and deserves a round of applause for overdelivering on his $800,000 salary.

Yet the pressure on guys like him, call-ups Mac Hollowell and Victor Mete, and brand-new acquisition Conor Timmins to elevate their performance and their minutes during the next six weeks or so is immense.

“Stuff like that can go one of two ways, right?” Kerfoot says.

“You can learn from it, and it can be really beneficial to our group. Or it can hurt you, and you can lose games. We want it to be the former.”

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