When looking at short sample sizes, it’s important to remember to not get overexcited or irrationally worried. The Leafs have played 5 games and have 6 points. In the Mike Babcock era, that would’ve been deemed perfect. Babcock thought if the team managed to achieve at least 6 points from every 5 games, they’d be in a playoff spot by season’s end. It may have been statistically accurate, but it seemed silly as this Leafs team should be aiming higher than 98 points in an 82 game season. Nonetheless, that’s where the Leafs stand now. I think we can break down the Leafs’ first 5 games in 3 groups. The Blue and White have played 1 truly terrible game against the Sens, 3 solid games and 1 complete, well-polished game against the Jets.
All in all, 6 points seems like a fair amount for how the Leafs have played. Despite what I said earlier about not overreacting to just 5 games, I think there are some things we can draw from the Leafs’ start to the season. I’ve got a few positives, some negatives and a couple questions that some fans may have that haven’t been answered yet.
If you are still a Zach Hyman doubter, I really don’t know what to tell you at his point. Hyman has genuinely been one of the Leafs’ best players this season and works his ass off every shift. It’s not pretty much of the time, but damn, is it effective. Hyman’s tenaciousness in the forecheck is genuinely inspiring. I didn’t understand why Sheldon Keefe moved the left-winger off the first line after his career year last year, and after Jumbo Joe’s injury, he should be back up there soon. Hyman has taken a handful of shifts this season with Matthews and Marner, and the stats are pretty wild. In just 14 minutes together at even strength, the line has a 69.61% share of the expected goals and a 71.43% share of the high danger chances. But Hyman has produced without the two stars as well. Just to jog your memory, last year, Zach Hyman scored 21 goals in only 51 games! That’s roughly a 35 goal pace for a full season. This season, Hyman is 3rd on the team in terms of individual expected goals [ixG] behind Matthews and Tavares. Hyman’s playstyle is something the Leafs severely lack. He’s all gas, no brake, he is physical, and he pisses the other team off. It’ll be interesting to see how much Hyman gets in the offseason, and he is a pending UFA, but for now, let’s just enjoy his work ethic and smile.
Defending at even strength
The Leafs’ defensive woes have been talked about at length for years now. They were a bad, disjointed defensive team held together by an incredible offence and heroic like goaltending. Nowadays, the offence isn’t what it once was due to cap and depth issues and the goalie who was once a hero has fallen off a bit. However, after 5 years, the Leafs have finally decided they will be a reliable defensive team. The health of Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly combined with the addition of T.J. Brodie gives the Leafs stability on the backend. Toronto is 11th in the league in xGA per sixty and scoring chances against per sixty. They also are fourth in shots against per sixty minutes as well. If Freddy Andersen can get back to his Vezina level form of 17-18, this team will legitimately be tough to score on.
The 1-2 punch down the middle
Auston Matthews and John Tavares have been excellent to start the year. The two lead the Leafs in ixG, and there is a large margin between them and Hyman. Tavares specifically looks reenergized and faster. At least once a game, he’ll take the puck from his own blue line, beat a defenceman and drive the net to create a high danger chance. There were times last year where it seemed like he had lost foot speed, but I think his play this year has proved that he was dealing with injury problems last season. His chemistry with Willy Nylander continues to look great, and I think the pair will explode at 5 on 5 soon. Matthews is Matthews. He’s the best player whenever he’s on the ice and leads the league in scoring chances at even strength. Somehow, the American only has 2 goals, but all of his stats point to a big outburst of goals in the coming weeks. 22 million dollars is a lot of money, but in this case, it looks like money well spent.
5 on 5 scoring
The Leafs’ mission to be better defensively has hurt their offensive outputs at 5 on 5. They’ve only scored 7 goals at even strength in 5 games this season despite being top 3 in the league for scoring chances created. There have been a lot of chances, but they haven’t exactly been high-quality ones. Wednesday against the Oilers was a dull showing, and the numbers prove it
I think part of it is poor line combinations, but the players deserve much of the blame too. Take a look at this tweet from Anthony Petrielli as he exposes a big issue with the Leafs offence
We have seen this for years from the Leafs. They love to try and create the perfect passing play instead of creating havoc in front. Making the extra pass can be a beneficial play, especially for how the Leafs like to play, but you need to keep it simple sometimes too. Some of the Leafs also need to work on their shots; the shooting percentage is low for a reason.
It hasn’t been a terrible start for the Leafs penalty kill, they rank 19th in the league, but it hasn’t been promising either. Out of the 4 power-play goals they’ve given up, one was a breakaway, and one was on a 5 on 3. The penalty kill certainly isn’t their most significant issue right now, but it can and should be better. Firstly, Morgan Rielly should never see the ice when the team is a man down. I love Morgan Rielly and everything he does for the Leafs, but he is not a player known for his defence, and he shouldn’t be killing penalties. Look at the Oilers PPG on Wednesday if you want evidence as to why. Secondly, I think the Leafs need to be more aggressive on the puck in their own zone. The forwards on the penalty kill give the opposing power play a lot of time to make a pass or shoot. Of course, you don’t want to overpress and put yourself out of position, but when there are opportunities to make it unconformable for the opposition, you have to try. A few shorthanded goals wouldn’t hurt either.
Is Freddie #good?
Goaltending was a big problem for Toronto last season, especially in the latter months of the year. Freddie Andersen ended up with a negative goals saved above average and this year, through just 4 games, it’s even worse. Andersen was undoubtedly not solid in the season opener against Montreal and was less than stellar again in Ottawa, but his last two performances were better. The Leafs chances at doing anything this season hinge on Andersen. Jack Campbell is one of the better backups in the league, but he’s a backup for a reason. Monday night’s win against the Jets was on the back of a strong 3rd period performance by Freddy. He made 27 saves in total and stopped all 12 shots the Jets threw at him in the 3rd. Andersen needs to be well rested for the playoffs, but at the same time it’d be nice to see signs of him getting back to his best. For now, it’s hard to determine if he is once again one of the premier goalies in the league.
What’s going on with Mikko Lehtonen?
When the Leafs managed to get the signature of KHL defenceman of the year Mikko Lehtonen, the other teams around the NHL were jealous.
Lehtonen is a great skater and a smart offensive defencemen, he was one of the Leafs better players in camp and in the Blue and White scrimmage. But he’s only played 15 minutes this season for Toronto. Sheldon Keefe has said he is trying to ease Lehtonen in, but it’s hard for him to make a real impact on the game when he isn’t even playing double digit minutes. I’ve liked what I’ve seen from his game in the small amount he’s played, but the Leafs do have a lot of defencemen. Lehtonen does need to improve defesnively, but I think given consistent minutes and with good deployment, he could be a real asset for this team. Let’s see what happens over the next couple weeks.