It has been a pretty whirlwind week in Leaf Nation.
We have seen both individual players and the team as a whole struggle, especially in losses to non-playoff teams like Montreal and Columbus and even in strange wins.
We’ve seen questions now come up about goaltending that was thought to be ok, but has seen some issues over the last few weeks that at least add a layer of concern.
We’ve seen a key piece to their defence suffer a bad injury that may keep him out for at least the regular season.
We’ve seen the cap issues that have hindered the Leafs become more pronounced when high priced players are not producing, exposing some other issues in the lineup that cannot be filled easily without cap space.
We’ve seen a top prospect go down as well with a tough condition, weakening the organizational depth 3 weeks before the NHL trade deadline.
We’ve also heard several names pop up in rumours and trade discussion heat up, and Toronto, with some of the issues that have crept in, are said to be involved in some way, shape or form.
The Maple Leafs are still a top end team. They’re still 6th in the NHL in points and points percentage. They still have Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander leading them up front offensively. Morgan Rielly is having a strong season after re-signing with the team. They’ve gotten good contributions from some new players like Ondrej Kase, Michael Bunting and David Kampf. Rookies Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, so long as they’ve been sheltered and not pushed too far, have played well too and contributed. And at least for the 1st half of the season got great goaltending from Jack Campbell, who was also good last year. There is a lot of things to like about this team still.
But, there are concerns and issues in their game and with some players that possibly need to get addressed. We will discuss them here.
I think everything for the Leafs kind of starts here.
In their first 30 games of the season, according to naturalstattrick.com, the Leafs were kind of middle of the pack at 13th most giving up 288 high danger chances against. For comparison, the Bruins, in 4 less games, gave up 169 high danger chances, while Vegas in 4 more games than Toronto, gave up 328 high danger chances.
The Leafs were 9th best at that time, with high danger save percentage at just under 85 percent. For comparison sake, the Canucks led at just over 87 percent while New Jersey was last at around 77 percent.
Overall save percentage, the Leafs were 6th with a .931 save percentage. Vancouver led the league at .941 while Seattle was worst at .887.
Now, lets take the last 20 games into account.
Toronto was 4th best at high danger chances against with 151 given up. Tampa led with 129 in 4 less games, while Columbus was worst with 227 given up, in 21 games.
But, the issue can be found in save percentage. The high danger save percentage for the Leafs was a league worst .717. In that same time period the Avs were a league best at .896.
Overall save percentage, the Leafs stood at .886, good for 31st in the NHL just ahead of New Jersey who are at .876. Colorado had a league best .943 save percentage in that time.
While their record hasn’t suffered too badly, the Leafs sit 7th overall since January 1st, it is pretty concerning to see such a huge dip from their goalies. This is especially true since the team has seemingly improved their defensive numbers giving up less shots, averaging 29 against a game since January 1st as opposed to 31 a game before that, and giving up less high danger scoring chances.
The whole season may eventually lie with Campbell and Mrazek who have to righten their games for the Leafs to have any chances moving along in the playoffs.
Granted, recent history has told us that teams have won with okay-ish regular season goaltending by the numbers.
Martin Gerber was the main starter for Carolina in 2006, but it was backup and rookie Cam Ward who backstopped Carolina to their 1st and only Cup.
Antti Niemi was the one year wonder for Chicago as he helped them win their 1st cup in 2010 since 1961. He was about average at best in the regular season hovering around 20th in save percentage that year.
Matt Murray, both years as a technically a rookie, won 2 cups with the Pens in 2016 and 2017 as their playoff starting goalie taking over for Marc Andre Fleury both years and helping them to back to back cup wins. He was this year with Ottawa so bad they had to send him to the minors to help him rediscover his game.
Braeden Holtby, a known commodity as a starter, lost his job to Phillip Grubauer in 2018 during the season, but won it back in the playoffs and helped Ovechkin and company get the monkey off their backs winning the Capitals their first ever Cup.
Jordan Binnington entered the NHL at the halfway point during the 2018-19 season and took his team from last place to a cup win, the first for the Blues in franchise history. He was a complete minor league unknown to star in a few months.
So, while yes, the last 2 cups were won by the best goalie in the world in Andrei Vasilevskiy, and in the opposing net last playoff was arguably Canada’s best goalie, Carey Price, there does still seem to be some precedent where a relatively lesser known or one with less accolades has succeeded in the playoffs.
The likeliest option is no goalie change. There is probably bigger fish to fry (more on that later) and they’re just going to have to hope both goalies figure things out.
Campbell likely is somewhere between the goalie from last year and earlier in the season this year. That would give Toronto at least league average or just above goaltending which may be enough to have success with. He’s got work to do. For sure the team hasn’t helped him as much lately as team defence has had breakdowns. But he could be better. He may be showing some tendencies and so him and the coaching staff will have to work harder to make improvements and find some consistency. He seems to be their guy so he has to figure it out.
Mrazek is a proven NHL goalie. He’s not Hutchinson or Garrett Sparks. He’s shown he can be at least a 1B goalie and it’s unlikely he forgot how to play. Now, he’s had injuries and that has affected his off ice work and consistency. But he is capable or should be adequate. Likely, after playing on a Carolina team that has usually been pretty solid and systematic, it’s been an adjustment playing here while the team has had some defensive miscues. His return coincided with the team having more glaring errors. That being said, he needs some saves and add in some tidier D, we may eventually see the Mrazek they thought they were getting when signed.
That is what the Leafs have to hope for here because it does not look like there will be any change or update to the Leafs goaltending picture any time soon. This is who they have for this year, this is who they are almost certainly going to go with. So it will be up to the both of them to find their games and get back to at least a relatively solid, sustainable level of goaltending that can be relied upon.
What to make of Muzzin? Injuries aside, he has been pretty bad according to the eye test. You can see he has been a step slower, not just skating, or moving around, but in his decision making as well.
Its a huge concern for the Leafs because he is arguably the teams most trusted defensive defenceman. He may sit at 3 on the depth chart, but he is often number 1 in terms of taking the best and most important defensive assignments for coach Sheldon Keefe.
The numbers aren’t as bad as things seem. As per naturalstattrick.com, he seems to be on the right side of the puck with a Corsi For over 50%, a XGA better than both Rielly and Brodie and he’s been on the ice for more high danger chances for than against. As a comparison, Both Brodie and Rielly are the opposite. Where Muzzin has been undone has been on ice save percentage where he sits at .897 where both Rielly and Brodie in comparison are over .920.
But you can tell by looking at him play that either he has lost a step, he has been hurt in some way or lacks enough confidence in his game to rediscover his seemingly steadier form of years past.
Now though the biggest concern is the injury we do know. He has a concussion. Many of us saw the latest with his head bouncing off the ice after accidentally running into Montreal’s Chris Wideman. It was freak collison with bad results. Very concerning results actually. He spent a night in a Montreal hospital before returning home and currently is in concussion protocol.
Concussions unfortunately happen, and in this case it wasn’t something necessarily preventable like say a blatant head shot. But the biggest concern is this is Muzzin’s second concussion in 2022. He missed games already leading up to the all star weekend after a check into the boards in a game vs St. Louis. With his second head injury in less than a 2 month period, there is no way to know how fast or well Muzzin will recover.
In general, it is thought to be worse the more concussions are accumulated. With 2 in such a short time, there is no way of knowing how well, how fast or even if Muzzin will recover anytime soon. By all accounts, Muzzin so far has responded positively and was able to at least travel back to Toronto. However the only aid to help in his recovery for this injury will be time.
There are roughly 3 weeks left until the trade deadline.
The Leafs recently acquired right shot defenceman Ilya Lyubushkin from Arizona to help add depth to the defence. He was an affordable option that while cost them a decent draft pick, did alleviate them from the Nick Ritchie contract that was currently buried with the Toronto Marlies.
While Lyubushkin will help add a different element and has played some top 4 minutes on D with Arizona, the Coyotes are still a pretty bad team and didn’t have a lot of players to really choose from to begin with. How he now fits into a contending team seeking immediate playoff success remains to be seen.
It is not that clear yet if this acquisition was to give Muzzin a new partner, or just add depth. But, with the way Muzzin has struggled, it seemed he needed to have someone better help him along to get him through his struggles.
So it is unsure if the Leafs were even still looking for further defensive help leading up to the deadline. Now, do the Leafs have to look for defensive help to replace Muzzin? That is a burning question for Dubas and probably a very unexpected one.
But, the reality is, Muzzin has missed the ending of the last 2 playoffs due to injury. In the end, they needed someone at the very least on par or better to aid this defence as they really suffered in his absence in the playoffs with other players like Holl, Dermott and others having to be elevated to very poor results.
In an ideal world, Lyubushkin is a helpful 3rd pair depth defenceman who can fill in more minutes on an as needed basis thanks to him having played higher up with Arizona. Then a second addition would be made to partner with Muzzin to give them a solidified 2 pairs on defence and plenty more depth beyond.
Now do they need 2 more D? They at the very least need one because they can’t either hope Muzzin gets healthy. And honestly after the last 2 playoffs, they can’t hope he can stay healthy either.
Its a huge concern for Dubas and company because thay are caught in a tough situation with very little cap space, not much 2022 draft capital and a prospect pool that isn’t that deep and got unfortunately depleted at least for now (more on that later).
Granted, Muzzin to Long Term IR would solve some cap constraints but not the issues with assets or lack thereof.
There aren’t a lot of roster pieces to trade either, at least not any that would fetch a legitimate top 4 defenceman. They’re certainly not blowing up their big 4 so that idea should be taken out of anyone’s thought, at least for this season.
Now, there may be some interest in depth pieces like a Alex Kerfoot, Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall, Justin Holl or Travis Dermott, but we’re talking depth pieces here, nothing earth shattering or all that interesting. So, if prospects and draft capital isn’t much of an option and neither are roster players, plus you need to even out the money going in and out, you can see how the job to acquire anyone, nevermind anyone who could significantly help becomes all the more difficult.
The Second Line
So, on top of the defence needs, there seems to be lots of chatter the Leafs need some help at forward.
Specifically it’s been mentioned they need another top line winger.
With their big 4 of Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Tavares, it seems like a luxury to add another forward for your top 2 lines. But that seems to fit the Leafs identity as a team that relies on possession, skill and an offence that really drives the team’s play.
But, it may not necessarily adding just another skilled player, but a player who can add various different elements that would compliment the skill they have and the system they play.
Right now Michael Bunting has somewhat cemented himself on the top line as he’s had tremendous chemistry with both Matthews and Marner. He also adds a different element being gritty, mixing it up in traffic, consistently going to dirty areas and at times irritating opponents.
Toronto may be looking for that kind of element for their 2nd line. Yes Kerfoot has been actually pretty solid this year. He’s been among the leaders in 5 on 5 assists and has been fairly productive all season long. He’s also a 2nd centre on the PK and a valued member of that group.
In the end though he’s just a guy who is around and chips in here and there. He’s someone they could improve upon on the top 2 lines. Ideally he stays and moves down the lineup. But at his $3.5 million cap hit, every dollar counts and they probably can’t afford that expensive of a bottom 6 forward. He would lengthen the lineup and still give them versatility if he stayed.
But right now both Tavares and Nylander have struggled to produce in February and it gets more and more concerning the longer their slumps go.
So adding a new element up front is somewhat of an intriguing idea that may or may not be feasible depending on who is available and their cap.
Tavares right now seems like he can’t get from A to B as well as he showed earlier. He tends to have these ebbs and flows during seasons where he does look a step behind. But it’s not just his feet as he just seems slower with decision making and the combination of the two really compounds the problems in his game. Not as sharp is a fair assessment of his play.
Using numbers from moneypuck.com, Tavares is 6th in Expected goals with 13.7 and 11th in Expected Goals Per 60 at 1.13. He is 32nd in the NHL in points with 48. He is on pace for roughly 30 goals and 80 points. And JT has been especially awesome on faceoffs at 61.7 percent which is 2nd to Patrice Bergeron. So the numbers do tell us he is doing good things and still on pace for a good year. But, the biggest number, an $11 million cap hit, that tells us that we need to see more and the team definitely need more from its captain.
Nylander is still generating here and there and showing some speed but he’s suffered some thanks to his centre suffering and his attention to detail has been poorer of late, especially on the defensive end. You know Nylander is doing well when he’s engaged all over the ice. But his scoring slump has crept into his defensive play and that’s not what this team needs. He won’t win Selke trophies but didn’t see as much lackadaisical defensive play the first half of the year.
Looking at Nylander’s numbers at moneypuck.com, he is 16th in Expected goals, 4th in forwards with 40 takeaways 5 on 5 and is 42nd overall in points, giving Toronto 4 players in the top 42 in scoring. He too is on pace for career numbers in goals and points.
They’re both good enough to get out of it, but could the Leafs double down and try and add a better forward offensively than Kerfoot to compliment them? Many will think it’s not that necessary but Dubas has never been very conventional.
Should the Leafs try and explore trading for a forward or a defenceman it is doubtful a depth roster player or a middle round draft pick will get things done.
Toronto has only 3 picks in the upcoming 2022 draft after going home with just 3 picks in 2021. They have already moved a pick in the Lyubushkin trade down the road. After trading 1sts recently to acquire Muzzin and Nick Foligno and to remove the Patrick Marleau contract, may have to dip into their prospect pool to acquire someone who could provide a meaningful contribution up front or on defence.
The depth chart though took a blow recently with the news that former 2020 1st round pick Rodion Amirov was diagnosed with brain cancer. Absolutely brutal for the young forward who was trying to embark on his professional career. Amirov appears to be in good spirits and still working hard as he works towards recovering. Leaf Nation obviously wishes him all the best in his recovery for not just hockey, but for a long, fulfilling life.
But, if we stick to just hockey and the impact of this to the Leafs, it means one less prospect of value to have available.
The Leafs are not prospect rich thanks to the aforementioned trades made involving first rounders, the trading of younger players like Trevor Moore, Carl Grundstrom and Sean Durzi as well as some other high draft picks, plus some draft failures like the selections of Egor Korshkov, Jeremy Bracco and Eemeli Rasanen.
GM Kyle Dubas has tried to repair it and has done a decent job to an extent adding Nick Robertson, Nick Abruzzese, Matthew Knies, Topi Niemela and Roni Hirvonen to name some. But with limited picks upcoming, no Amirov for who knows how long, what if trades involved a couple prospects and a couple more high draft picks? The cupboards would be quite bare to fill the main roster that actually could use some players on entry level deals.
The Leafs were hindered when the percentage of the big 4 contracts never reduced over time because of the pandemic and its impact on limiting cap increases thanks to stunted revenue from no fans among other business impacts.
But they have not had many prospects roll in when the top players like Marner and Matthews rolled out of entry level status. That is really what they need and they have survived with bargains like Bunting stepping in as they have to offset this.
Eventually though they will need some prospects to step in. Yet too, they need to win a playoff round and so may have no choice to be aggressive in trades to help the team fill their areas of need. Quite the headache for Dubas, but as we have seen, he has managed to find creative ways to acquire players. They’re going to need his creative best to maintain some sort of future while aggressively trying to win this year.
The closer we get to the Trade Deadline, the more furious the rumours are and the more names get bandied about.
It always seems from the media and insiders that Toronto is in the heart of everything. That is unlikely to be true simply because of fit or contractual obligations or some other reason. Usually Toronto is such a focal point due to the interest that everyone in the NHL is about to be traded to Toronto at some point.
But, there are a few interesting names, both on defence and at forward, with varying ages and contractual statuses that could be very interesting should they end up on the Leafs roster.
F – Brandon Hagel – Chicago Blackhawks – $1.5 million RFA 2024
Hagel has chipped in with 17 goals this season. The Hawks have not played as well as they would have hoped and made sweeping front office changes. This could lead to further changes on the ice and perhaps a thought towards looking to the future. Hagel would offer value in trade thanks to his contractual status, which is good value for someone on pace for 20 plus goals.
Hagel has the speed and skill to fit in with how the Leafs play and that affordable contract for someone who can provide goal production. Toronto, its been mentioned, has a preference for players under control and with Hagel signed to 2024, there could be a lot of value to be had for the 23 year old forward.
F – Pavel Zacha – New Jersey Devils – 2.25 million RFA 2022
Zacha offers some size (6’3″), versatility (can play centre or wing) and has some goal scoring ability (he has a good shot). These are all things Toronto would covet. He is though up for a new contract at seasons end and while controllable, he is arbitration eligible.
The versatility would help the Leafs, especially should they move anyone on the existing roster (Kerfoot). The Leafs are often looking for players like this, and could technically make a contract work should they move some money out. There is intrigue too in seeing him playing with any pair of the big 4 as he has a pretty heavy shot that could play in Toronto.
F – JT Miller – Vancouver Canucks – $5.25 million UFA 2023
Miller is a much bigger ticket than the others mentioned. But he is a more established and proven player and he is also signed through next season so there is some club control. He brings some size, versatility and plenty of offence. He has an edge to him as well.
What a huge add he would be to the Leafs top 2 lines. He is a significant impact player who’d make Toronto better. Even if it meant Toronto being a big top heavy, no one can deny how good Miller is and the elements he would add that differ from what any of the current Leafs provide. A very intriguing player.
F – Lawson Crouse – Arizona Coyotes – $1.53 million RFA 2022
The Leafs could use a player like Crouse as they have hardly any players of this type in their organization. He could chip in some goals, provide them with a physical presence while being able to kill some penalties. He’s like a close copy of a player like Blake Coleman who helped Tampa win back to back cups.
F Nick Paul – Ottawa Senators – $1.35 million UFA 2022
Versatile centre and winger who has good size and can move up and down the lineup. A low cost rental, Paul could help add depth, especially if they trade away a forward or two.
F – Calle Jarnkrok – Seattle Kraken – $2 million UFA 2022
Jarnkrok’s name has been linked with Toronto in the past. A solid depth winger with speed and is good defensively. He’s had at least 10 goals in each of the last 7 seasons. He can also play centre if needed. The Leafs do covet flexibility. He’d also be a rental who may not cost anything extravagant.
F – Max Domi – Columbus Blue Jackets $5.3 million UFA 2022
A bigger ticket, Domi seems like someone Toronto could sign this off season since he’s a UFA. A former junior teammate of Marner, Domi has a legacy in Toronto and would be a very good offensive compliment to the Leafs big 4 and has some chippiness to his game. Definitely not like his dad but does get involved.
F – Alex Texier – Columbus Blue Jackets $1.525 million RFA 2023
Texier is reportedly available. He’s a young centre who’s signed through next season and would still qualify as a RFA. A skilled player, the Leafs wouldn’t be hurt having another young player in the fold that wouldn’t be a burden on the cap in the short term. Cost wise to acquire is a different story.
F – Travis Konecny – Philadelphia Flyers $5.5 million UFA 2025
Konecny was someone the Leafs could have drafted back in 2015 themselves. But in a series of moves ended up trading that pick away. He wouldn’t be cheap at both to acquire and his cap hit. But he’s a very skilled forward who will go into traffic and could again be a good compliment to their star forwards. Doesn’t seem like the Leafs would have any chance but who knows. We’ve seen Dubas acquire players out of the blue before.
D – Mark Giordano – Seattle Kraken – $6.75 million UFA 2022
The Kraken captain is still a capable defenceman even at age 38. It would be reminiscent of the Leafs acquiring Brian Leetch when they got him in 2004 at an advanced age. Gio can still provide some offence and brings some grit and experience to a backend that could use it.
He can still play minutes and that could fill what they lost with Muzzin out. He would be a rental, being a pending UFA, but what a story this would be being a local product from Toronto. Some salary shuffling would maybe be needed but a trade for Gio, despite his resume and status, it might cost less than what people think and that may benefit Toronto.
D – Hampus Lindholm – Anaheim Ducks – $5.2 million UFA 2022D – Josh Manson – Anaheim Ducks – $4.1 million UFA 2022
Take your pick. Either one would be excellent. Lindholm has been a steady presence on D since he joined the Ducks. Not a big offensive star but mobile, smart and can definitely play significant minutes. Not sure where he’d fit should Muzzin return since he plays the left side as well, but any team would make it work. He is a good player. Calming player on the ice.
Manson has been talked about many times before. He is big and tough. Maybe with Lyubushkin they don’t need a player like him, but Manson is a truer top 4 defenceman and can provide some offence. Injuries though are concerning and he is currently hurt again. After the Foligno disaster last year where he got hurt and was never himself, might be concerning for the Leafs to add a player with an injury past.
D – John Klingberg – Dallas Stars – $4.25 million UFA 2022
Klingberg is not the heavy, shutdown defenceman that many believe Toronto needs more. But he’s a good offensive defenceman who can make strong breakouts and get the puck out with his good passing and mobility.
That would play well in Toronto as they are a puck possession team. Also unique is that Klingberg is 6’3” so he’s a bit longer and lankier than some of the other mobile defence they have. He’s a pure rental as he’d likely command at least what Rielly got on his deal so it’s unsure if the Leafs have that appetite. But if Muzzin is out, they’ll need a 2nd pair anchor.
D – Rasmus Ristolainen – Philadelphia Flyers – $5.4 million UFA 2022
If Muzzin indeed cannot play until the playoffs, Ristolainen’s contract could slide in nicely. Risto is a big, physical defenceman but also has some offensive capabilities. He’s had 4 seasons of 40 plus points. He’s an interesting bigger name option who adds the length and toughness the current Leaf D lacks. He won’t be cheap, but seeing how he was acquired for a 1st and a depth defenceman from Buffalo, that might be a worthy price to pay.
D – Dean Kukan – Columbus Blue Jackets $1.65 million UFA 2022
Kukan is a rental candidate who’d maybe be a stopgap to fill minutes lost with Muzzin out. He’s fairly affordable and can be a solid 3rd pairing guy with some ability to move up. He’s an upgrade on some of the Leafs incumbent D and would add some mobility. He moves the puck well and is talented enough to get the puck to the Leafs forwards in transition.
D – Calvin De Haan – Chicago Blackhawks – $4.55 million UFA 2022
Purely a rental candidate here who likely could be acquired for not too much and would be an experienced player to help add depth and capable of playing top 4 minutes. His mobility could play well in Toronto and its style.
D – Colin Miller – Buffalo Sabres – $3.875 million UFA 2022
Another rental who’s mentioned here because of his Soo connection. Miller, while currently hurt, is capable of playing top 4 minutes and could compliment Muzzin nicely as a more mobile counterpart. He also might not be as expensive to acquire as some other D.
D – Zdeno Chara – NY Islanders – $750K UFA 2022
A very intriguing rental name. A long Leaf nemesis, Chara would add a unique style to the Leafs D. He’d be a good depth piece, add tremendous experience and his size and physical play would be completely new for the Leafs defence. He likely would not cost a whole lot. It would only be whether he’d have interest coming to Toronto.
D – Joel Edmundson – Montreal Canadiens – $3.5 million UFA 2024
Edmundson would not be a rental since he’s signed for 2 more years. But he has cup experience, and would add plenty of size and toughness. He’s long and plays heavy. He’s a shutdown defenceman. Hard to know if the Leafs would have the appetite for that contract but it’s not arduous.
Big D plays well in the playoffs as most successful teams normally add plenty of size to limit space, which is at a premium in the playoffs. Edmundson is currently hurt and trying to return to the lineup. But he seemingly would be better off being moved by the rebuilding Habs. G – Marc Andre Fleury – Chicago Blackhawks – $7 million UFA 2022
Probably a surprise to see listed but Fleury is available and if push comes to shove with the state of the Leafs goaltending, then at the very least they have to check in with Chicago to see. He’s the best goalie out there and despite some playoff hiccups, he’s got a wealth of experience in that regard.
He’d be such an interesting option for Toronto. It seems very unlikely but, with some retained salary, the Flower would steady the ship in net that has been leaky for a few weeks and there are no signs of those leaks being plugged. As far fetched a candidate as there is, but no stone should be left unturned.
So many names. The options are there to fill a variety of roles, plug in various holes and make this team better.
So much depends on the Muzzin injury. Will he or importantly can he come back? And when? If sooner, that’s good, but if not there’s cap space to maybe use.
Much depends too on how the D performs without Muzzin. How will they miss him? Will anyone step up or will the needs be even more obvious?
And, if needs arise at forward can that be sorted out internally with say a prospect like Robertson stepping in? Or will that be a necessity by March 21?
It’s going to be an intriguing 3 weeks until the deadline. Toronto has had so much going on the last week. Wild games, injuries and illness, trades, great performances along with poor ones. Some good times but sad news as well. A roller coaster to be sure and it’ll only get more intense leading to the deadline. It’s always entertaining and newsworthy in Toronto and in Leaf Nation.
Author: Allan Chow