Maple Leafs mid-season review: Dubas must push them over the top

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe discusses the team's lack of consistent play over the last stretch of games and how the teams persevered when they've faced adversity.

TORONTO — No more drama.

It’s not just a fantastic Mary J. Blige album, given a push by a blockbuster Dr. Dre beat. (Can you tell we’re jacked for Super Bowl halftime?)

It’s also the theme of this Toronto Maple Leafs’ season.

Since Mitch Marner’s sluggish start and Auston Matthews’s recovering wrist, since the sky was falling after that 7-1 embarrassment to the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Penguins way back on Oct. 23, the Maple Leafs have not only been elite. They’ve been — dare we say it — consistent.

Through viral breakouts and injuries, through stressed-about blown leads and empty home barns, Toronto has not lost two consecutive games in regulation since Oct. 27. Once they got chugging, the Leafs rate at or near the top in all major categories and are a legit contender to win the most top-heavy division in hockey.

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Powered by a defending (and repeat?) Rocket Richard Trophy–winning sniper and the All-Star goaltending of Jack Campbell, the well-rounded Leafs have taken another step defensively, improved their special teams and finally constructed a third line their coach trusts.

Vancouver cleaned house. Winnipeg lost its long-serving head coach left and spiraled faster. Montreal replaced its GM and still furrowed its way to the bottom. The air remains prickly in Edmonton.

By comparison, Toronto’s first 41 games have been remarkably drama-free.

“There’s nothing, I would say, that has exceeded expectations,” Keefe said. “Or anything that has not gone well, that caught us off-guard. When we look at the season as a whole today, we’re happy with where we’re at and we feel like there’s things we can certainly get better at.”

The Leafs just keep piling up points and rolling along. The calm before a spring storm.

Drama will have to wait, but it is coming.

Key stats

Record: 29-10-3 (3rd in Atlantic Division, 7th in NHL)

Goals per game: 3.6 (4th)

Goals against per game: 2.64 (6th)

Power play: 30.5% (1st)

Penalty kill: 84.3% (4th)

Best surprise: Under-the-radar UFA signings (including assistant coaches)

Keefe doesn’t wish to use the term surprise to describe to eye-opening play of summer recruits Ondrej Kase, Michael Bunting and David Kämpf. But we will.

Bunting is a late-blooming rookie leading the league in drawn penalties and meshing nicely with Matthews and Marner on one of hockey’s most dangerous lines. Crazy to think that Toronto will get another season beyond this out of Bunting at a $950,000 AAV. (Bonus surprise: He’s outscoring Zach Hyman, 29-25.)

Kase is a “kamikaze” (Wayne Simmonds’ term) who provides a jolt to any line he’s parachuted onto and gives Keefe another Alexander Kerfoot–like utility knife capable of chipping in on both special teams and moving up and down the lineup.

Kämpf, 27, may be the stealthiest and smartest scoop of the lot, quietly stabilizing a checking line that was forever in flux, winning penalty-kill draws and already quintupling his goal output (to five!) from 2020-21 in Chicago.

“There’s uncertainty about how those things were going to play out and how the chemistry would work and how players would perform for us,” Keefe said. “We certainly have learned a great deal of respect and trust for those that have come in here this season. Look at Kase and Kämpf and Bunting on the forward end and what they’ve added. And you can see Petr Mrazek now starting to get some momentum.

“That’s what I would say has been very nice to see. Certainly, it has worked out in our favour and has given us increased depth.”

Let’s give props to new assistant coaches Spencer Carbery and Dean Chynoweth, too.

Each has brought fresh eyes to Toronto’s special teams and helped improve a power play and penalty kill, respectively, that were trending something ugly before they stepped behind the bench.

Biggest disappointment: Nick Ritchie

Dubas struck gold on most of his off-season pickups, but he’d love a mulligan on Nick Ritchie at $2.5 million times two seasons. Ritchie has played 33 games, with two prolonged runs on Matthews’ top line and plenty of power-play looks, and has only two goals, nine points and a minus-6 to show for it.

The biggest Maple Leaf has taken some careless minor penalties and hasn’t found a way to impose his physicality on the game often enough. It’s telling that once the Leafs began getting healthy in early January, Ritchie was waived and demoted to the taxi squad, where his cap hit only stings half as harsh.

Most telling: On Monday, Keefe declared his “optimal look” up front. Ritchie was a healthy scratch in that look.

Goaltender Mrazek also had a rough three months, as a nagging groin injury limited him to just seven first-half appearances. And the stellar play of Campbell did a fantastic job of masking the pain of Mrazek’s $11.4-million pay day — which lingers in the background as a potential disappointment for another day.

Biggest question for the second half: How can Dubas improve this roster?

No doubt, the Maple Leafs are a regular-season force, one of a handful of stacked squads that could go on a deep playoff run. They’ve reinforced that by building a .726 points percentage and a plus-41 goal differential.

OK. So, what does the general manager do — and what is he willing to cough up — to separate his group from the pack?

Maybe the better way to phrase it is: What can Dubas do to keep up with the pack? Because we know Florida and Boston and Tampa Bay are just as eager to bulk up and win ASAP.

We like the forward depth here. Six Leafs forwards are on pace for 50-plus-point seasons; the entire top 12 is tracking a minimum of 25. Not many opponents can claim that. Still, with Ritchie underwhelming, there is speculation that the Leafs wouldn’t mind adding up front. (Claude Giroux’s name will be out there.)

“We’re definitely not satisfied with where we are,” Kerfoot said. “We know we have a lot to improve on, especially on the defensive side of things.”

In our opinion, the top shopping priority is on the blue line, particularly a defensive-minded right shot with more experience than Travis Dermott and Timothy Liljegren.

Dubas has consistently shown a willingness to invest futures to aid the present. But with limited cap space, question-mark prospects (what is Nick Robertson’s worth on the market these days?) and no 2022 draft picks in rounds 3 through 6, he’ll have to get creative in any serious bidding war.

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