From roster construction to on-ice execution, one would be hard-pressed to sketch a better first-half blueprint for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2021.
Their best players are their best players: The $40-million Core Four represent the Leafs’ top four scorers. Mitch Marner ranks fourth overall in points (37) and second overall in even-strength goals (11). A banged-up Auston Matthews has more goals (21) and game-winners (six) than anyone. And William Nylander and John Tavares are trending upwards.
GM Kyle Dubas has reaped rewards from his newfound goaltending depth (six wins from backups), his cap-friendly veteran leadership (is Jason Spezza the best bargain in hockey?), and his efforts to balance the blue line (Calgary sure could use a T.J. Brodie).
Toronto’s bad nights have been few and far between. The Leafs avoided consecutive regulation losses until March and seldom look overwhelmed. They lock down leads better than ever, their explosive power-play keeps opponents in check, and their depth contributions have been accelerated due to an infusion of internal accountability and competition.
“The team is really gelling. We enjoy spending time together,” Joe Thornton says. “We compete hard every night. We’re a deep, four-line team, deep six D, and we got some great goaltending, so it’s just a very complete team. You feel like, when you hit the ice, you have a chance to win every night. And when you have that feeling it’s pretty nice.”
Record: 19-7-2, (1st in North Division)
Goals per game: 3.46 (2nd)
Goals against average: 2.50 (6th)
Power play: 31.3% (2nd)
Penalty kill: 77.2% (20th)
Best surprise: The Maple Leafs can defend
Connor McDavid’s frustrated expression. Leon Draisaitl’s slamming of the Gatorade bottle and sarcastic response to a reporter during a post-game Zoom. And their coach, Dave Tippett, feeling compelled to throw his two Hart Trophy winners on the same line because they were having trouble solving the Maple Leafs’ blue line on their own – despite having three full games to do so.
Toronto’s 13-1 shutdown of arguably the two most dangerous forwards in the sport, on their home ice no less, from Feb. 27 through March 3 sums up 2021’s most pleasant surprise in Leafland.
When the Maple Leafs lost another elimination series, their fourth in a row, last summer, we screamed uncle. Fun and fast sells sweaters, but if Dubas was serious about winning in crunch time, he’d need to bring in experienced defenders, players who care more about preventing points than accumulating them.
Well, the GM did just that, bolstering his defence corps with play-buster T.J. Brodie — a smart stick, a steady breakout, and the most consistent partner Morgan Rielly has ever had — and Zach Bogosian, a million-dollar steal.
Given a better foundation to work with, Keefe then drilled home a defensive mandate to all his players, and there has been buy-in up and down the lineup.
“We’ve cleaned up a lot of stuff defensively,” Matthews said.
While the penalty kill remains a soft spot, a once-porous Toronto club has significantly reduced its goals and shots against. The Leafs give up fewer slot chances and odd-man rushes, they backcheck with purpose, and get hemmed in their own zone less frequently than ever before with this core.
“We’re getting to the point here now where we’re proving that we’re a team that can defend well,” said Keefe.
Now that’s a pleasant surprise.
Biggest disappointment: Reverse Retros Injury woes
Toronto’s position atop Canada is all the more impressive when you consider the number of man-games lost to injury: 72.
According to the number-crunchers at ManGamesLost.com, no team has had its win-loss record affected more by injuries than Toronto, believe it or not.
Key veterans Wayne Simmonds (wrist) and Joe Thornton (rib) sat weeks with broken bones. Core leaders Jake Muzzin (face), Zach Hyman (foot) and Auston Matthews (wrist) have missed days, while others, like William Nylander (undisclosed), have been pushing through pain at various points during this truncated schedule.
Further down the depth chart, the organization’s most prized prospects — Nick Robertson (knee, oblique) and Rasmus Sandin (foot) — have been dealt difficult setbacks in their development, appearing in just one NHL game apiece this season.
Most concerning is Toronto’s struggle to get its top two netminders operating at full health at the same time. Certainly, the plan was not to have Michael Hutchinson — signed as a fourth-string depth piece in the off-season — make five starts in the first half, although the journeyman has comported himself well (3-2, .934).
Jack Campbell (3-0-0) has played but once since going down with a leg injury in January, and Frederik Andersen (13-5-2) is still dealing with an undisclosed lower-body ailment.
Adversity is welcome, but this group needs healthy goaltending and full movement in Matthews’ wrist by the time the second half wraps.
Biggest question for second half: Will complacency become the enemy?
Leaf fans have seen it in the past. The team they root for gets comfortable in a standings position (usually third in the Atlantic, not first in the North) and becomes susceptible to wild bouts of inconsistency. They’ll go toe-to-toe with a power like the Lightning one night and phone one in against a Buffalo the next.
Now that the Leafs have a decent cushion, and they’ve fended off “measuring stick” challenges from Montreal and Edmonton and Winnipeg, can they keep their foot slammed on the gas without a test from Vegas or Tampa or Carolina around the corner?
Can they enter the postseason — the only true referendum on their excellence — with their A-game and hunger intact?
“We’ve seen with teams we’ve played [lately] that they’ve been hard on us generating offence,” Keefe observed.
“The more that teams are settling into the season and their systems and getting to know all the opponents that much better, it’s going to continue to get harder. So, we’ve got to continue with [improving] ourselves.