Maple Leafs’ season going as planned, while not at all as it was drawn up

Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares (91) celebrates his goal against the New Jersey Devils with Rasmus Sandin (38) and Timothy Liljegren (37) during the first period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022, in Newark, N.J. (Adam Hunger/AP)

Had I approached a Toronto Maple Leafs fan at the start of October with an update from the future on the team’s season at the quarter-mark, the only surprising thing would’ve been the time travel. I would have told that person that the Leafs are second place in their division and, to most fans, that would’ve sounded about right.

Going into Friday’s games, the Leafs are fifth in the NHL in points and sixth in points percentage. All that would’ve sounded in line with expectations, too.

While the Leafs have ended up exactly where we thought they might be, the route they’ve taken here hasn’t exactly been the one they mapped out.

But you can get halfway around the world by going east or west, so let’s take a look at how the Leafs faced one way, took off in reverse, but did it well enough to end up exactly where they planned.

Few goals for, but great defensive numbers?

Toronto’s reputation during the Mathews/Marner/Nylander/Tavares/Rielly era has been unquestioned: They were a skilled team that you didn’t wanna run-and-gun with.

They had defensive problems, but they could outscore those problems, and were happy to do so. With this style, they were consistently a top-10 scoring team (and often much higher), and their goals for per game was always a higher rank than their goals against per game.

Not so this year.

In terms of the underlying metrics, they’re a bottom half of the league team in scoring (22nd), and outside the top 10 in expected goals (13th), though that latter number has been climbing of late.

Defensively, they’re the sixth-best team in terms of goals against, and 10th in expected goals against. They take care of the middle of the rink, don’t turn it over a ton, and limit the glaring gaffes of old.

The Leafs are a defence-first team now. Who woulda thunk it?

[brightcove videoID=6316123743112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Has the goaltending been … good?

Going into the season, there was a chance the Leafs’ suspect goaltending was going to be a punchline. Matt Murray had not shown himself to be an NHL goalie the past few seasons (when he was often hurt) and Ilya Samsonov was allowed to walk by the Washington Capitals after a year with a sub-.900 save percentage.

Then, Murray got hurt, and Samsonov got hurt, and boy that should’ve made for a disastrous year of goaltending.

Yet, here they are, seventh in the NHL in team save percentage, on the backs of good showings from Murray and Samsonov when they’ve been available. Erik Källgren has also been keeping his head above water when called upon. They also sit fifth in overall save percentage at five-on-five. This department has to be where the Leafs have been most surprising a quarter of the way through the season.

Auston Matthews starts slow while Tavares goes on a tear?

One thing seemed certain for the Leafs: after a year where Auston Matthews scored 60 times — including 50 goals over a 50-game stretch — he would be pouring pucks in the net this season during what should be his absolute prime. The man just won the Hart Trophy, the Ted Lindsay and the Rocket Richard for the second time. Meanwhile, there was concern about a fall-off from captain John Tavares, who’s getting a little older while having never been the league’s fastest skater.

After a quarter of the season, Matthews trails teammates Tavares and Nylander in goals and currently sits T32 in the league with Lawson Crouse and Dominik Kubalik (no disrespect to those guys, they’re just not on the same presumed scoring tier as Matthews). He’s scored just three goals at even strength, none of which were shot in the net off his forehand.

For a guy who did nothing but score last year, it’s been baffling. He’s at one point per game despite a soft early schedule for the Leafs — quite the drop-off after finishing last year with nearly 1.5 points per game. His running mate, Mitch Marner, has looked closer to himself and better of late, but still has just four goals in 21 games a year after scoring 35 in 72.

[brightcove videoID=6316166807112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Meanwhile, Tavares looks as good as he’s ever looked in Maple Leafs colours, clocking in with 1.1 points per game and a dozen goals. He’s skating extremely well and scoring at a pace not too dissimilar from his big first season with Toronto. Some may have expected the team to take a step back at 2C this season, but they actually got better.

Not many lottery tickets were winners

One thing the Leafs have done well over Kyle Dubas’ time as general manager is find guys in the off-season who outperform their previous seasons and their contracts. They’ve been the “Prove It” team for the supporting cast, where guys come to take opportunities and earn better ones for future seasons.

Ilya Mikheyev proved it and took the money in Vancouver. Ondrej Kase was a good Leaf and is now in Carolina. Guys like Michael Bunting and David Kampf were bets that paid off, who now await their own paydays. They all came in at the fringes and helped.

This past off-season hasn’t borne fruit. Calle Jarnkrok had a slow start, at best earning his salary if you squint. Nicolas Aube-Kube got waived and claimed by Washington. Zach Aston-Reese didn’t wow the staff for the first few weeks (getting scratched in the process), even if he is coming on as of late. Adam Gaudette hasn’t got into action yet. But even worse for Toronto, their internal “take a step” candidates clearly haven’t done so.

Nick Robertson has not elevated himself from prospect to viable contributor. Pierre Engvall is on pace for a nine-goal season (so much for filling Mikheyev’s offensive void), and Alexander Kerfoot has just one goal in 21 games.

In all, most of the things you thought could happen heading into this season haven’t yet the team has still found success.

This is where I think it’s relevant to talk about another important detail …

Sheldon Keefe’s regular season performance has mattered

The whole off-season talk was about how none of the regular season stuff would matter this year, and that everyone — including the coach — would be judged on their ability to get through a playoff round.

But I think there’s a fair case to be made that given the above — to say nothing of the injuries to Jake Muzzin, TJ Brodie and Morgan Rielly — that this stretch of the regular season has mattered. With a slumping star, an unimpressive supporting cast and injuries to the blueline and in the crease, this team is still right where many expected them to be.

The rally after the slow start has left them in a position with a lot of upside. If those negatives can turn into positives, there’s a team here that can still get better. There’s no reason the team defence should fall off. The biggest worry is the sustainability of the goaltending. But if it does drop off, and a few of the other things improve, they can find other ways to win.

The Leafs are forever an enigma, zagging every time you expect them to zig.

But so far, they’re exactly what we thought they’d be. We just didn’t imagine they’d get there by flying in the opposite direction.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.