Why The Leafs win over Detroit was more important than it seemed

The Leafs eventually bashed in the surprisingly dangerous Red Wings on Saturday night. While they should have won, how the Leafs did it was crucial moving forward.

What do good hockey teams do? They beat teams that are worse than them and they battle with teams that echo their own talent levels. For anyone who watched the Leafs Hockey Night in Canada matchup with the Detroit Red Wings, there was probably a bit of frustration resonating early in the game more than anything else.

Frustrated with a 5-2 win?

The Buds had a ton of shots early but not from difficult areas. Subsequently, Jimmy Howard got into a bit of a groove and had a really solid first two periods. Shots on net are great for your Corsi, but limp perimeter wrist shots aren’t going to do anything but get the goalie hot.

There was also no flow to the game. The Leafs struggles with special teams zone entry again and also would stymie their own offensive zone pressure with sloppy cycles. It wasn’t a ton of fun to watch early, but thankfully some blue-collar players started to dictate play.

Frederik Andersen is also fighting the puck right now. We all know he’s a perennial slow starter in October, but his rebound control has been atrocious as of late. Jacob de la Rose capitalized on this early, killing the massive momentum the Leafs started the game with.

Why this win was so important

As mentioned, good teams win games. The Leafs were far from their sharpest in the matchup and they still got the win, eventually steamrolling the Wings along the way.

Yes, the top-6 was quiet in this game but the bottom-6 carried them; good teams will have this happen periodically throughout the season and it’s okay. Moore – Mikheyev – Kerfoot is proving to be one of the most exciting units in the NHL right now that no one outside of Leafs Nation is talking about and I can’t get enough of it. Skill, speed, hunger; it’s a recipe that is exciting and hopefully motivating for the rest of the group.

Andersen picked up his play late in this game. He ended the game strong, turning away 25 of 27 shots faced, rewarding him with a .935 save percentage. As mentioned, we know he’s a slow starter but playing as he did in this game shows he is getting close to reigning in the loose play this season.

Most importantly, the Leafs stepped on Detroit’s throat and closed out the game in style. The third period saw Kerfoot, Muzzin, and Moore all score yet again proving the bottom-6 forward group can chip in and pick up the mail if the big boys aren’t firing. They failed to do this to Montreal and St. Louis so getting it done against this quick, threatening Red Wings team is important and was impressive.

Leafs embarrassing loss to Tampa Bay asks question: What is this team?

It’s never okay to let in seven goals but to do it at home, against a divisional opponent and rival, in what should have been viewed as a measuring stick game, it’s even worse. Hopefully, the Leafs can answer some serious questions about their team as a result.

What are the Maple Leafs?

This team lost a shoot-out (eventually in a shootout) to the Montreal Canadians. They lost a fast, tight-checking, solid defensive game against St. Louis. Now, they lose 7-3 at home to a Tampa Bay team who were held to 2 shots on goal for over 40 minutes by Carolina earlier in the week. The sporadic-ness of the Leafs form is extremely confusing and sheds some light on their current situation.

They don’t know what they are, either. It’s clear the team is constructed to be a fast attacking squad that capitalizes on opposition’s inability to keep up with their team play and feasts on off-matchups and special teams to keep the high octane offense flying. But, when pushed to play more defensive setups, the team looks like a fish out of water and ends up doing both things poorly.

Coaching issue?

Yeah, maybe. Mike Babcock is a wonderfully tenured, Stanley Cup winning head coach and deserves the respect he’s earned from Leafs fans. That being said, his unwillingness to change or adapt faulty game plans is currently in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Babcock is a grindy, defense-heavy coach who preaches defensive responsibility over offensive excitement who has been handed a small, fast team that wants to play run-and-gun hockey.

It’s clear that it’s not a match made in heaven, and the up and down 2-2-1 results thus far show this. The Leafs homegrown young talent has undoubtedly learned why defense is important and that playing in the NHL isn’t all about scoring goals, but at some point, the coach has to adapt his style to fit the players he has at his disposal, and this hasn’t happened yet this season or in past years.

The players aren’t making this easy, either

You know what killed the Maple Leafs last night? Giving up penalties at awful times by players who don’t have long enough leashes to make these kinds of mistakes. Mike Babcock re-payed the strong effort Spezza and Petan put in against St. Louis and kept them in the lineup to play Tampa Bay. The promptly went a combined -2 with zero points combined and each had a penalty called against them.

To add to this, Kasperi Kapanen was a -2 on the day and also put a goal into Frederik Anderson’s net. He’s awfully miscast on the Tavares-Marner line on his offwing but he’s being put in that situation by his coach so I can’t blame him for not being a total homerun there. Kapanen is best when using his speed down the wing to create offense from out wide, capitalizing on his sick shot. He’s hamstrung currently and can’t really be blamed in my opinion.

Lastly, we have to end on Tyson Barrie. No player on the back end is as run-and-gun as Tyson Barrie, and last night we saw why this isn’t a fool-proof plan for sustained success. The best teams and the best players are multifaceted and can change their playstyle on the fly. With Barrie sticking to his offense-first mentality, he went -4 last night and was noticeably absent in his own zone. Morgan Rielly was also pretty awful last night; getting danced by Kevin Shattenkirk for a goal doesn’t help either.

Maple Leafs tipped for Russian stud free-agent signing

The Leafs are back at it again, scouting in Europe to add low-risk, high-reward players to their ranks. Last offseason it was Teemu Kivihalme and Ilya Mikheyev. Next year it looks to be impressive forward Alexander Barabanov.

SportsNet‘s Elliot Friedman and Chris Johnston have reported that the Leafs are favorites to sign pending KHL free-agent offensive dynamo Alexander Barabanov next summer when his contract expires.

The Russian right-winger is being tipped to the Maple Leafs after Toronto’s Senior Director of Player Evaluation, Jim Paliafito, aka the Russian Whisperer, has been linked with scouting the talented playmaker and goalscorer.

His potential signing follows a growing tradition of the Leafs spending time scouting Russian players in the KHL who aren’t teenage prospects. In recent history, this includes Nikita Zaitsev, Igor Ozhiganov, and Ilya Mikheyev, plus Finnish defenseman Teemu Kivihalme and Swedish forward Par Lindholm. It’s a solid supplementary plan to add out-sourced talent while not having to lose players or draft capital along the way.

As for the stats, Barabanov ranked 18th in KHL scoring last season with St. Petersburg KSA. Barabanov racked up 46 points in 58 games last season, with 17 goals and 29 assists for the campaign. When looking at his highlight reels from last season there is one player on the current roster that he reminds me of – Trevor Moore.

Like Moore, Barabanov is a small skilled forward who uses his legs to open offensive opportunities and crashes the net to capitalize on ugly goals while reserving his ability to shoot the puck for open lanes in the slot. He’s tenacious, he’s scrappy, he’s small, and he’s skilled. He sounds like a Maple Leafs already, doesn’t he?

With his contract expiring at the end of the season, Barabanov is looking for a new home and all signs point to the NHL as his landing spot. Friedman and Johnston connected the dots to the Leafs and believe the team sits atop his desired destination list. Being 25, as well, is also a bonus as the player wouldn’t need to be developed and marinated in the minors. No, if Barabanov signs it’ll be to play in the NHL and will likely force out a current Maple Leaf in the process.

Times up on Leafs top-six gamble to start the season

The Leafs gambled internally on a winger to play alongside John Tavares and Mitch Marner atop their defacto 1A line. So far, so bad as Kasperi Kapanen has struggled mightily to get anything going.

Play the grinder role flanking John Tavares and Mitch Marner – could there be an easier perceived role than this in the NHL? The gig looks to be tailormade for any NHLer to get in there, forecheck hard, and get gifted points and +/- from the awfully talented linemates beside you. But, alas, it’s never that simple in the world of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is it?

RFA signee Kasperi Kapanen was chosen to flip wings and fill this role with Zach Hyman out rehabbing a knee injury and so far it hasn’t been pretty for him or his linemates.

Statistically speaking, it’s not even an argument either through the first five games:

Mitch Marner: 5 points (3 power play points), -2
John Tavares: 3 points (2 power play points), -1
Kasperi Kapanen: 0 points, -4

Yes, Marner and Tavares are getting the power play opportunities and their points total shows that, but Kapanen having no points and registering a -4 is the real story here. It is an unmitigated disaster heading into the second week of the NHL season and needs to be addressed ASAP.

Luckily, the rest of the division is off to a weird start as well, with Buffalo sitting atop the Atlantic standings and Tampa Bay and Boston sitting 6th and 4th in the division either due to poor starts (Tampa Bay) or lack of games (Boston, two games played).

Options for Replacement

There are options for the Leafs to consider, however, and they are already on the roster! Ilya Mikheyev and Trevor Moore. Last season it was Connor Brown who was getting the call-up minutes to the top-six until Moore and Ennis outplayed him regularly. With both Brown and Ennis gone, Moore and Mikheyev should get the initial looks.

Moore is the lynchpin to this whole plan because playing Kapanen on his offwing has been a huge part of this plan’s failure. Last season, Moore flopped wings often when he moved up and down the lineup and shouldn’t see a dip in his form, judging by his all-over-the-ice performances this season.

Mikheyev, however, should get the first look. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s a good enough skater, he has a shot, he has great hands, he can play in close to the net, he’s a natural leftwinger and most importantly he is talented at recovering the puck. While Moore may look the perfect replacement for Hyman visually, Mikheyev has shone when helping the bottom-six dominate forechecks by never giving up on the play and using his huge reach to interrupt breakout plays.

Either option is a better choice than Kapanen right now who has been dragging down his linemates. It isn’t his fault because he’s not on his natural side and is miscast as a grinder over sniper. Settle him down by getting him in less-tense situations, and park Mikheyev in front of the net to screen and jab at loose pucks. The personnel has shown itself here, and Kapanen doesn’t fit the Hyman mold as Moore or Mikheyev will.

Why the Leafs new-look power play will be historic in 2019/20

Players gone and new coaches brought in. To say the Leafs special teams needed extra work to get it right this season would be an understatement, but so far so good for the new-look Leafs power play.

It’s a lot more complicated than Steve Dangle summed up in his most recent YouTube video on the topic. Sure, the Leafs “just switched” Matthews and Marner in the diamond PP set up, but there is more going on in the new set up for the Leafs overpowered special team unit.

To start from the top, the Leafs have revamped their top power play unit for the season. Last year, Morgan Rielly patrolled the blueline as the high man, Auston Matthews was anchored on the left-wing as the one-time option, Nazem Kadri was the bumper man in the middle, John Tavares was the screen/tip man in close, and Mitch Marner operated the rightwing but also roamed as the free playmaker.

This year the set up is similar with a few tweaks that are proving bigger than the sum of their parts. Matthews and Marner have swapped wings, Tavares is now the bumper man in the high slot, and Andreas Johnsson is in the crease taking Tavares’ previous position and filling Kadri’s roster gap.

The first three games have seen Matthews notch two goals, Marner one, and Nylander one on the second unit. Both of Matthews’ goals have come on ridiculous releases that saw Anderson and Korpisalo look helpless when feigning the ability to stop them. Against the Senators, a recovered offensive zone draw freed Marner to no-look spin pass to Matthews on the rightwing. His offhandedness cut down on time between pass and shot, handcuffing the goalie further.

Matthews’ second PP goal of the season came against Columbus, moments after scuffing two chances from the leftwing. Once flipped back to his inverted side, Matthews took the feed from Rielly and placed a wicked wrist shot off the back bar of the net. Again, the inside angle from his left shot gave him the leverage and release point to score both goals.

Marner and Tavares also have new roles in the team. Marner is still the roaming wide man, but he has a responsibility to shoot more often now on the leftwing. His goal was created by working with newly positioned Tavares in the high slot on a one-two pass and shoot play. Giving the puck to Tavares, a fine shooter himself, forced Korpisalo to commit to the pass. When it was returned to Marner the net was open for the one-timer goal.

The Leafs new power play has developed into a three-headed monster instead of a one-dimensional shooting set up. Don’t get it twisted, the primary option is still to have Matthews unleash his shot, but getting Tavares into a more dangerous shooting area and inverting Marner as well forces opposition penalty kill lines to spread coverage to try and limit all three shots.

Johnsson is more or less a body to screen shots and mix it up in the crease. He is extremely replaceable in this role with Ilya Mikheyev a likely option considering his size and hands in close. Rielly, on the other hand, is the quarterback and mastermind on the top unit. Barrie offers another option for this position but there is no need to take Rielly off the top unit due to his chemistry with his linemates and ability to chip in offensively as good as any of his teammates.

Skill tends to trump the shot in modern-day NHL hockey, but the Leafs commitment to setting up a mid-zone trio of lethal shooters in Matthews, Tavares, and Marner will yield unheard of power play tallies this season.

 

Five things we learned from the Leafs season opening win!

The Leafs christened the NHL season with an eventually dominant win over the lowly Ottawa Senators. Here are five things we learned from the opening game of the season.

John Tavares is our Captain

Speculation was high and varied regarding the 25th captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but all signs pointed to John Tavares to wear the C by puck drop to start the season. The Leafs did name three alternate captains, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Morgan Rielly, to support him which is a positive as well. He has the media training, he has the experience, and he’s a well respected winning player. No arguments from the majority of the fans or the players on this one.

The Leafs will outscore their problems again

Problems? What problems? Well, the high-risk, run-and-gun style offense the Leafs play will undoubtedly get them into some defensive troubles and we saw that against the Sens last night. Broken defensive zone play and poor coverage on extended D-zone time meant the Leafs were exposed in certain areas. The resolution to this, outside of drilling the defensemen in practice, is scoring five goals. The Leafs are going to do this a lot and it’s going to cover up a lot of inadequacies on the back end.

Leafs rookies impress in opening games

Three rookies started for the Leafs and all three popped up on the scoresheet with Ilya Mikheyev racking up a goal and an assist, Sandin grabbing an assist, and Timashov also getting an apple. All three looked good, with Mikheyev stealing the show out of the crop with his finish on a ridiculous Tyson Barrie feed. Timashov was shaky but made the most out of his eight minutes, and Sandin was the better of his bottom pairing unit.

Marner was doing Marner things

No one seemed to think “10.493 million is an overpay” when Mitch Marner recovered the draw, ripped a spin-o-rama no-look pass to Matthews for the top corner slapshot snipe, did they? Marner got the most money out of the summer RFAs and it’s pretty clear that if he pulls the exciting plays like he did last night no one is really going to care that he didn’t take a cheap bridge or give a hometown discount to the Leafs.

Auston Matthew – Captain of Attack

I really, really wanted the Leafs to name Matthew the captain after leaking misinformation to the media about John Tavares. It would have been perfect because Brian Burke would have looked like more of an idiot than he usually does, and it feeds the hungry Matthews to take his game to another level. He wore the A last night, but his record-setting season-opening scoring stole the show. Two goals netted made it four consecutive seasons with Matthews scoring in the opener totaling nine goals over that period. He may be an alternate, but he’s the captain of the Leafs attack.

Break the Leafs Mold: Storm the Shore and Burn the Boats

Nothing like a tasty matchup with the lowly Ottawa Senators to start the season for the boys, right? The Leafs have a golden opportunity to springboard into the season against the Sens and they can’t afford to miss on this chance.

The entire NHL is so prepared to jump down the Leafs throat if they stumble out of the gate this season, and the headlines write themselves:

  • “The team was too focused on their captain”
  • “Auston Matthews derailed their training camp”
  • “Mitch Marner’s contract negotiation disrupted the room
  • “There was too much offseason movement in the team”
  • “Mike Babcock has lost the team”

The list goes on. The ironic part is that if the Leafs stomp the Sens and have a 100+ point season there won’t be any recognition because the rest of the League and media know this team is set up to dominate in today’s NHL. It’s sort of a backward underdog scenario for the team and a no-win situation.

The best way to get past this is to put the blinders on, keep the comments and critiques post-game to a PR trimmed sentence or two, and focus on the next game at hand – the New England Patriot’s scheme basically.

My prediction in the latest episode of Maple Leafs Round-table podcast was a modest 7-0 thrashing of the Ottawa Senators to open the season. We’ve seen in recent years the Leafs make statements on the opening night and I think that trend continues. Matthews launches into the NHL with four goals against Ottawa, and the Leafs end the career of Steve Mason in Winnipeg in the first game of his Winnipeg Jets career.

Maybe I’m just excited to start the season but there is nothing holding this team back from dominating regularly, challenging for the division title, and going into the playoffs motivated to change their recent history. Toronto is a city of winners and champions, the Leafs are lagging behind as of now but the faith isn’t lost.

Nothing about this Sens team scares me. It’s literally comprised of depth Leafs forwards thrust into far too expectation-heavy positions, and I know Babcock’s squad can embarrass them. But they need to actually do it, and stop being a team that just looks good on paper. I’m all in on the Leafs to start a historic season strong tonight, and you should be too. Go Leafs Go.

Leafs new alternative logo leaked in Blue Print video

The Leafs are at it again! Brenden Shanahan, Kyle Dubas, and the rest of the Maple Leafs brass have turned to team-created media projects to leak information to Leafs Nation, this time it’s a new logo.

Not since the oh so 2000s shoulder patch that read TML, crusted in silver and punctuated with pointed ends to each letter have the Leafs had a letter based alternative logo. That is, until now. Twitter sleuths have identified a new lettered logo for the upcoming season and here it is:

That looks pretty damn cool, a lot cooler than the dated TML from years prior. It isn’t easy to make a blue and white colour scheme look cutting edge but the revamped Leafs logo leaning on history and new-age clean lines did that in spades. This too adds to the minimalistic esthetic the team is going towards and I’m here for it.

The only other letter we need is the C on the front of the jersey and it appears we all should have taken the under on the ‘before Christmas’ timeline Babcock gave out. Yes, the coach himself has declared that the Buds will have a new captain heading into the 2019/20 season for tomorrow’s opener.

God, could things get any more exciting right now in Leafs Nation?

Yes, Maple Leafs, I am ready to run through a brick wall – season hype video is here

Nothing is better than the annual Toronto Maple Leafs hype video getting released to get the juices flowing. The 2019/20 video is here and the question has been asked, who’s ready to run through a brick wall.

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Without hesitation, the answer is yes. With the theme of “the next chapter” as the message in the video, the goal of erasing the marks left from seasons prior falls on the landscape of downtown Toronto. Blue paint in hand, here it is:

The unexpected best part of all of this is the tweet to follow and the answer it conjured up…

Couple things going on here: our GM is on twitter pumping up the fanbase with his pro-Leafs tweets, he’s ready to go through a brick wall with his grandma who he tagged, and the Leafs Twitter admin’s gif game is on point.

One day left before the puck drops and I believe I can speak for every card-carrying member of Leafs Nation when I say it can’t come soon enough. The video encapsulates everything Leafs fans want from this season, which is basically just one thing. No more living on the history of the franchise and no more relying on on-paper talent. Rewrite the script and earn everything yourselves. Time to define the new era Leafs.

Me RN:

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Frederik Andersen looks like he’s in mid-season form [VIDEO]

The Leafs have trimmed their roster and made their final cuts ahead of the season. The one area where there is no dispute over player choice is in goal, and Frederik Andersen looks poised to start, pulling a Cujo-like save in warm-ups.

A notoriously slow starter, Frederik Andersen will need to build off of his better than usual opening month of last season to kick start the Maple Leafs this year. In some informal breakaway drills at Leafs practice Andersen appears ready to go after summoning a windmilling Curtis Joseph for a ridiculous glove save:

An excited “ohhh” followed by an “oh baby!” perfectly punctuate the clip from the Leafs official Twitter account as the stellar tender embarrassed his teammate during the drill.

Andersen gets a lot of shit from fans, specifically around his playoff performances in the past three postseasons. A strong October from him could catapult the team forward and potentially to the top of the Atlantic Division, but it still likely wouldn’t be enough to keep the haters at bay until he proves it in the playoffs.

This season should’s be the same, however, because the Leafs team is entirely different. The d-core is completely revamped and overhauled, the bottom-six is heavily changed, and the big stars are locked in. The Leafs are in a win-now period and Andersen can relish the pressure with a better team protecting him.

The Vezina has already been credited to Vasilevsky, Bobrovsky, Price, Rinne, or for some reason Ben Bishop according to NHL.com, but no worries. When Andersen is stealing games and backstopping the Buds to the top spot in the division and potentially the league the Dane will get all the credit he’s deserved for some time. Bring on the regular season, Freddy is ready.