Even though teams have already begun their second half of the season, passing the 41-game mark, the Toronto Maple Leafs are closing in as they look to play catch up. With a lengthy layoff where six games were postponed, the Maple Leafs have quite a few games in hand over other teams in the standing as a result.
Related: Maple Leafs Daily Download
After a slow start but dominant finish to 2021, the Maple Leafs have had their ups and downs when the calendar flipped to 2022. As they head into the second half of the season, this is where the grind begins as they attempt to gear up for the playoffs and potentially a deep run.
The Maple Leafs have looked like contenders, but lately some of their bad habits have crept back into the conversation. If they want to have any success and put past failures behind them, they’re going to have to dig deep during the most important part of the season. Here are three key storylines to keep an eye on.
Playing With Purpose
Things were looking great for the Maple Leafs as they won their first two games coming back from a long layoff. Then came a six-game road trip where they went 3-2-1. With a record like that, you might take that as a positive.
However, it could’ve been a different outcome had they not fallen flat in the third period and let multiple leads slip away.
It was expected that there would be some rust due to the layoff, injuries, long breaks in the schedule and players returning from COVID-19 protocols. But with multiple blown leads against the Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights and St. Louis Blues is not something you want to make a habit of down the stretch. It even led head coach Sheldon Keefe to question his team’s conditioning, where fatigue may have set in after a loss to the Arizona Coyotes.
The biggest call out came after a disappointing effort against the New York Rangers. Keefe didn’t hold back at all during his postgame press conference, calling the team “soft and purposeless”. It was long overdue for him to call out the effort of his team during the road trip but the game served as the final straw.
Keefe clarified that his belief in his team is strong and that given at what they were able to accomplish months before. “[We’ve] established ourselves among the best in the league and that’s been through a foundation of competitiveness and physicality and our structure,” Keefe said according to TSN’s Mark Masters. “We continue to work at the consistency piece. That’s where we need to continue to work to get better.”
That consistency was lacking during that stretch. Here is a breakdown of the scores during that road trip.
|Opponent||Lead Heading into Third Period||CF Count in Third Period||Final|
|COL||4-2 TOR||19-6 COL||5-4 (OT) COL|
|VGK||3-1 TOR||14-6 VGK||4-3 (SO) TOR|
|ARI||1-0 ARI||18-9 TOR||2-1 ARI|
|STL||4-4 (3-1 TOR After First)||17-8 TOR||6-5 TOR|
|NYR||3-3 (3-1 TOR After First)||18-18||6-3 NYR|
|NYI||3-1 TOR||15-9 NYI||3-1 TOR|
In these games, the Maple Leafs were outscored 9-3 in the third period, with them hanging onto the lead in only one of those games. Throughout that trip, their ability to play the shut-down tough defensive style early on in the season had disappeared. They were badly outplayed, they couldn’t match the physical play and push back, and made costly turnovers leading to chances and goals against.
Given the team’s history, the Maple Leafs can’t afford to get into a rhythm of bad habits as that’s been a major issue for their lack of success. Keefe saw that something was wrong and stepped in to try and get them back on top of their game. He wants to hold them to a “high standard” and he did just that with his comment. Both Morgan Rielly and John Tavares had no issue with Keefe’s comment.
If the team wants to have a strong second half, they have to play with the confidence and purpose they displayed in November and December. This team has shown that they’re different from previous seasons. They have to maintain that and not lose sight and focus.
During that same road trip it also exposed another debate about starter Jack Campbell. Not about his play, but his workload and the amount of games he’s played as he started in 29 of the Maple Leafs 39 games this season. While that’s his job, the Maple Leafs do need to try and space out his workload if they want him to be fresh in the second half.
Campbell has been putting up a Vezina worthy season. Among goalies with at least 20 games played, he has the sixth best save percentage (.926) and goals against average (2.26). His .928 SV% at even strength puts him eighth overall and his goals saved above average is fifth in the league at 13.03.
That kind of production is worthy of a contract extension as Campbell has given his team a chance to win every night. But is fatigue starting to set in with him as well?
With Petr Mrazek having a strong showing in a 3-1 win against the New York Islanders, it should be time to give him some more starts and rest Campbell. Not just in back-to-back situations.
We know that Mrazek has had a hard time to stay healthy and there were questions about his play, but it would be best if Keefe can try and get Mrazek in between Campbell’s starts. It wouldn’t hurt to try and give him one every two or three games so that way Campbell isn’t being relied on too much.
The Maple Leafs played well in front of Mrazek in the win against the Islanders. This should boost both the confidence of Mrazek and the team after his struggles early on in the season. Mrazek is being paid $3.8 million, he should be getting his fair share of starts, especially now.
Deadline Decisions to be Made
By now, it’s evident at what the game plan is for the Maple Leafs before the NHL Trade Deadline… address the defense situation.
We know that the pairing of Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl have struggled this season compared to last season. Muzzin is recovering from a concussion and Holl has been healthy scratched at times and has even seen time on the third pairing. This has exposed the depth of the team’s defense unit.
If the team is able to improve the defense, then they would be adding a piece that could be a difference maker for a deep playoff run. There are plenty of names that the Maple Leafs can look to try and acquire.
Is Josh Manson still a possibility? Perhaps Colin Miller from the Buffalo Sabres as he’s a mobile two-way defender. Maybe Scott Mayfield from the Islanders? The possibilities and trade partners are endless as there are teams that have players that fits the Maple Leafs’ need.
It’s definitely going to be an interesting second half for the Maple Leafs. They’re in a great spot in the standings with games in hand over other teams in their division. If they can find the consistency they had, limit Campbell’s starts and add an impactful piece at the trade deadline, they will definitely remain as one of the top teams in the league.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.