by Darren Clarke, February 15, 2022
For long suffering Leafs fans the 2021-22 NHL season has offered something almost entirely unfamiliar- A dominant Maple Leaf team. And that’s not unfamiliar simply in the recent tense, that’s unfamiliar in the- for five stinking decades tense. This Leafs team is good, damned good. Maybe the best Leafs team I’ve seen in my life. But what does being the best Leafs team in five decades actually mean?
To answer that let’s explore where the Leafs were, where they are and what our expectations should be for the remainder of the season and the playoffs. What’s going right? What’s going wrong? And what the hell do we do if the Leafs disappoint in the playoffs again?
Last year, playing in a Canadian division that, through a myriad of coaching and GM changes, has proven itself to be as soft as many of us thought it was, it was always hard to tell how much the Leafs fantastic regular season really meant. Getting bounced by a Montreal Canadiens team that transformed into the greatest pre-pumpkin outlier seen since Cinderella lost a shoe, only compounded the confusion.
The most recent offseason and the first half of this season has provide some clarity- This is a great team. And if we are going to talk about where the team’s success generates, we have to start with Kyle Dubas.
A Banger of an Offseason: Kyle Dubas’s Learning Curve
In past reviews of the Leafs I have been critical of Kyle Dubas’s singular attachment to small, skilled, forwards, which I once referred to as, “Shuffling Nic Petan’s on the Titanic.” Not that there’s anything wrong with small, skilled, forward types but rather it can’t be your only forward type. I also referenced that we were in essence shackled to Dubas’s learning curve. But here’s the thing- Kyle Dubas is clearly willing and able to learn.
This offseason Kyle Dubas provided a clinic in making meaningful adjustments to player personnel.
Michael Bunting has proven to be, not just a solid replacement for Zach Hyman, but a needed dose of something the team has not had for years- A giant pain in the ass for the opposition. For years playing net against the Leafs brought only the dangers presented by skilled marksmen. You weren’t going to get crowded, poked and bumped in your crease. Bunting not only provides a willing irritant to opponent goalies and defencemen he provides it in meaty minutes on the first line. Unlike Dubas’s meek past excursions into the world of rambunctious playing styles this isn’t a peripheral, third/fourth line component, Bunting is riding shotgun with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. And sure, Matthews and Marner are going to make everyone who plays with them better but, not everybody who occupies the third-spot on their line will make them better. In his own special, contentious, way Bunting does that.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the Leafs this offseason though was the the one that seemed the most innocuous at the time it happened- The signing of 1-goal scorer David Kampf. Yes, David Kampf scored 1-goal in 56 games last year and over his 190 game career had but 17 goals. But he’s exactly what the team needed.
What Kampf provides is a third line center who is not only an elite penalty killer but great all over the ice on 5-on-5 play. Much was made in past seasons of people like myself asking for the forward group to be diversified. This too often was interpreted as an outdated mentality desiring 6’5″ forwards with an inclination to commit felonies on the ice. That wasn’t it. It was Michael Bunting and David Kampf. A fan base that (rightfully) booed Larry Murphy out of town during the 1996-97 season only to see him be an integral part of the Detroit Red Wings Stanley Cup that year should really, really, understand the value of improving the defensive IQ and compete level of their forward group.
Did Larry Murphy suddenly become a new guy in Detroit? No. What happened was he was supported better by his defensive unit and especially the forward group. The effectiveness of defencemen is profoundly impacted by the support of forwards. David Kampf makes his defencemen better. The Leafs really, really, needed that.
Mitch Marner Gets His Groove Back, Auston Matthews Becomes the Most Dangerous Forward in the NHL
I’m not going to waste a lot of words here- Auston Matthews is the best forward in the NHL right now. Mitch Marner, reunited weeks ago with his wayward mojo, is hot on his heels. They dominate everybody.
As of right now the promise of the Leafs two marquee players has been fully realized. The power play results, the 5 on 5 results, testify to that. They’re scary and I don’t see a line in the league that measures up to them. This is an elite line for the ages poised to accomplish meaningful things.
Beyond the first line the second line is anchored by John Tavares and William Nylander. Nylander is in the same stratosphere as Marner and Matthews- he consistently forces opponents to decide between trying to be aggressive with him and risk being burned by his elusiveness or choosing to sit back and allow him to wait on a breakdown in coverage where his extraordinary vision can undo them. Tavares, though not as skilled in terms of elusiveness and speed, brings a nose for the scoring areas, a knack for finding the twine and an elite face-off presence most 2nd lines would kill for.
These two lines dictate two-thirds of the game.
The Forward Group is Stanley Cup Calibre
Yes, the top two forward lines are brilliant. But there’s more…
The third line centred by Kampf, whether it includes Ilya Mikheyev, Ondrej Kase (another great offseason pickup), Alex Kerfoot, or others has been consistently excellent. Moved to the wing this year Kerfoot, despite the goofy tape job on his stick, has been a revelation. Sure you’d like to see him finish his chances more often but in a hard cap world you can only have so many high-calibre finishers. What Kerfoot has provided this year has been exceptional- excellent on the penalty kill and all over the ice at even strength, he has been everything he hasn’t been in the past.
On the fourth line Jason Spezza is the team’s secret weapon. Spezza continues to grow more reliable defensively and still wields a potent offensive threat in limited minutes. Spezza’s accompanying players can be a rotating cast but lately has settled into Wayne Simmonds, who, does what he does, and Pierre Engvall, the gangly, often enigmatic, forward who nontheless has been a positive overall this season.
In the end the four lines make an elite group. This is a Stanley Cup quality group. What could go wrong? Well, before we get to that, let’s look at one last strength of the team- Continuity.
Keeping the Band Together
There are two things I don’t think Kyle Dubas gets enough credit for, 1) Having a progressive management mindset, including cultivating a diverse management group, and, 2) Providing a strong sense of continuity for his team.
I’m not going to talk at length about Leafs management embrace of important social causes and meaningful hirings outside the traditional, white-male, demographic. I do think it bears noting that in a world filled with too many organizations like the Chicago Blackhawks, in a world populated by more than just white men- what Dubas and Brendan Shanahan have done it matters. It matters a lot. I admire how they have conducted themselves. How many fans can say this about the organization they support?
As far as continuity goes, many have wanted to blow this team up this team up in the wake of playoff disappointment the past couple seasons. But history provides an abundance of cautionary tales for the consequences of putting instability at the core of team building. There’s no more overused corporate speak in sports as, “the process,” or, “culture,” but those concepts in their real sense do matter. Players growing familiar with each other, learning each other’s tendencies, aligning with the team’s system, building meaningful relationships, caring about each other’s success, again, it matters. It also provides a competitive edge.
Now, back to the concerns.
Concern #1- The Goaltending
You can’t win without great goaltending*. (*Cups won with Chris Osgood in net notwithstanding)
So, what to make of the Leaf’s goaltending?
Last year’s weak competition clouded Jack Campbell’s accomplishments. For most of the first half of the NHL season however Campbell seemed on the verge of not only disproving any doubt about his #1 status in Toronto, but of being a top five goalie in the league. Campbell was lights out, competitive, timely and he was a sweetheart all the while (maybe that doesn’t matter to you but it probably does to his teammates). His recent work however has been more dubious. Not awful. Just, mediocre to weak and especially leaky. Campbell’s sudden slide into mediocrity brought us back to the 1A-1B goaltending narrative that the season started with. It brought us back to what Petr Mrazek has to offer.
Mostly so far Mrazek has offered the team his absence with injuries plaguing him through the first half of the season. Now returned and apparently fully healthy Mrazek has provided a mixed bag of promising starts and middling efforts. The question- Can the Leafs win without an established #1 NHL goalie has returned to sit squarely as the top concern for fans.
I don’t pretend to have the answers here. But it’s fair to say the Leaf goaltending has never shown a sustained capacity to play at the level you would hope for from a Stanley Cup contender. Also fair to say it won’t change. It’s sink or swim with Campbell and Mrazek.
If there’s a reason to hope here it’s that Jack Campbell’s elite play dove in conjunction with the NHL’s Covid challenges making the schedule more intermittent. It’s fair to suggest that, as the schedule ramps up and become more reliable, so too may Jack Campbell’s game.
Concern #2- The Defence
I’m not here to tell you we need Luke Schenn. We don’t. We also don’t need Ben Chiarot. I’m not sure who they would be an upgrade on at this point given we haven’t had Martin Marincin in two years. I am here to tell you the defence has to be a massive concern right now and change not only can happen with this group (versus the Goaltending where it would be harder) it should happen.
Having said that, it’s worth mentioning that the Leafs defence has had stretches this season where they look like a solid, well oiled, machine. They’ve been excellent overall in terms of limiting goals against. I would attribute a lot of that to the forwards providing a better context for the defensive group to play within. The Leafs forward group has been relentless in terms of possessing the puck, back checking and providing the Leafs defence with time, space and options for break out. As a result, many of the Leafs limitations on the backend have been complemented or, I guess, disguised. But there’s still problems there and they show up when facing elite opponents who make it more difficult to compensate for weaknesses on the ice.
The defensive personnel for the Leafs has always been a mixed bag and despite aligning the personnel with the game plan, despite vastly better support from the Leafs forward group, the deficiencies are often glaring.
The first unit of TJ Brodie and Morgan Rielly has been very good this year. I’ve never been a fan of Morgan Rielly as the Leafs #1 defencemen and I hated his 8-year contract extension but there’s no arguing he’s been excellent since he signed that extension and that, if the Leafs win a Cup, nobody, especially me, cares that the contract will likely be an albatross in the near future. As a tandem Brodie/Rielly have proven to be a solid nucleus for a group that’s primarily counted upon to press in the offensive zone, quickly move the puck out of their own zone and spend as little time dealing with opponents in their end as possible. That last bit is important because when the Leafs defence are trapped in their own zone, Rielly’s effectiveness lessens, his tendency to be passive in front of his own net and fumble coverage in sensitive areas becomes a weakness. Overall I think you can win with Brodie/Rielly as your first pair. From there though it gets messy.
Justin Holl is the current blue line whipping boy in Toronto. And so he should be. But to pretend this is a new thing is to pretend the past didn’t happen as it happened. Holl has often struggled versus elite teams, it’s just that last year, he didn’t have to face a single team that was elite. Kyle Dubas should have known this, he didn’t. Beyond the fact Holl was always a flawed piece (particularly in a top four role) he has now also lost confidence in his game. It’s impossible to hide a guy in that state. His usual partner in defensive crime also having his game fall into disrepair hasn’t helped.
For all the buzz about Jake Muzzin’s productivity the past two years his spotty play is also informed by challenges in meaningful games in the past (see the Columbus series). What to do with him is a much harder question than what to do with Justin Holl. He has a significant contract, is 32 and keeps getting torched by opponents. Talking about needing him to get back into form shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what his form ever really was.
Finally this brings us to the kids- Rasmus Sandin 21, Timothy Liljegren 22 and Travis “Not Really a Kid Anymore” Dermott.
Rasmus Sandin is in so many ways the linchpin of the group. He’s the most talented, the youngest, the most prone to excellent play, the most prone to awful defensive positioning. And it’s fair to say at this juncture- he’s still gaining experience and what we’ve seen so far may be different by the playoffs. But man that’s a gamble given the state of the defence appears destined to push him into a prominent role from the playoffs.
Sandin’s biggest strength is in his ability to diffuse pressure in his own zone with his calm on the puck. That confidence on the puck, his solid play reads, allows Sandin to create important possibilities not only in moving the play out of his end but all over the ice. But the current chink in his armer strikes right to the heart of the Leafs’ ongoing fatal flaw- Making the worst choice at the worst time. In that regard the Leafs possession and pressure is often undone in fell swoops of fatal breakdowns. Given important games are often decided 2-1, 3-2, 4-3, it’s important to remember all high danger chances aren’t created equal.
What gives with Sandin’s choices is the question- Is it inexperience? Is it coaching? Is it a lack of discretion? I don’t know. Too often in big games Sandin is thinking about going forward when he should be actively moving back. That inability to recognize danger was exploited in the playoffs last year (i.e. the Joe Thornton turnover vs Montreal) and in recent contests like the Ranger game where his positioning was dreamily optimistic and played a role in surrendering a number of goals. And, I have to add, for God’s sake can somebody talk to him about that pointless cheeky pass from behind his own net into the slot? In terms of risk/reward there just isn’t a payoff to justify the downside of that play.
Who Rasmus Sandin is and what he can do this season is a big question for this team as it looks to the playoffs. The Leafs cannot continue to find solace in possession and heat map results when that is undone by untimely defensive breakdowns predicated upon high risk/low reward choices.
Liljegren has shown solid stretches of being an excellent puck mover/controller able to channel his speed into recovering from mistakes. Liljegren’s tendency for turnovers and bad positioning however make him another source of badly timed breakdowns waiting to happen. Travis Dermott meanwhile continues to be an enigma who shows flashes of being an excellent piece with speed, puck moving skills and physicality. But man you have to look hard to find it some games.
Look, in a cap world every team has flaws. The question isn’t whether you have flaws or not but how many do you have? The Leafs manage to find themselves with all their biggest flaws in the most important defensive positions.
So what does being maybe the best Leafs team in five decades actually mean?
It means we have a forward group can that is ready to compete for a Stanley Cup now. A forward group that is so elite they may be able to drag the rest of the team along with them into playoff success. We have a group of defencemen that, with some change to personnel, with some growth from they young D in terms of recognizing danger, might be good enough. The goaltending… your guess is as good as mine but sometimes all you need is goalies capable of tuning into their best selves for the playoff tournament. It’s not unreasonable to think Campbell and Mrazek can do that despite the thin resume.
Maybe it’s appropriate though that a team trying to do something unprecedented in recent history has its’ Stanley Cup hopes hinging upon players without a track record that would indicate they can do it.
And finally, that last question- What if they don’t win in the playoffs again? How do we reconcile ourselves to once again being one of the thirty-one NHL teams that doesn’t win the Cup?
You could remember that you get to watch a pretty damned talented team including the best Leafs forward group you have ever seen, play some pretty damned fun hockey. You could console yourself by contrasting this team to those of the Harold Ballard era, or the John Ferguson Jr. era, as in- It could be waaaaaaaaaay worse. You could remember that you cheer for a team run by some pretty damned solid human beings.
And that matters.