With the preseason coming to an end and the regular season just around the corner, the Toronto Maple Leafs seem primed and ready to ice the best team possible in order to compete for the Stanley Cup.
Throughout the preseason, there have been a lot of questions surrounding the team. Who will stand out? With all the offensive weapons they have, will the power play be dominant? Who will win the back-up goaltender role? Here are some takeaways from the Maple Leafs during the preseason.
Power Play Not a Concern
New assistant coach, Paul McFarland is designated with the responsibility of dealing with the Maple Leafs power play. The power-play conversion has been average (4-for-20, 20%), which currently ranks sixth. Although it’s only preseason, there are some positive signs.
McFarland had great success last year running the Florida Panthers’ power play that had a 26.8 percent success rate with the man advantage. Their power-play unit revolved around Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Hoffman and Keith Yandle. The forwards were on together for 61.85% percent of the time, while Yandle was the go-to defenseman, being used 58.12% of the time. Here is a clip that was found on Twitter on how the Panthers execute their power play.
In the clip above, the Panthers are always in constant motion and moving the puck. In addition, forward Mike Hoffman (a left shot) has been used on his off-wing for a one-timer opportunity. We’ve seen Matthews get more looks on his off-wing and it’s starting to pay off. It gives the Maple Leafs another option on a power play that was halted when teams figured out their gameplan last year. Here’s a glimpse of what we can see this year on the power play, with Matthews’ goal towards the end of the video.
With the firepower that the Maple Leafs up front and on the blueline, McFarland has an abundance of wealth for his power-play units. While they’re still getting used to the new structure that McFarland wants, the team itself is adopting that puck-moving mentality as we’re seeing more movement and creativity with the man advantage. Even if the power play isn’t quite working out, McFarland can be seen giving advice to his players on how to execute properly, most notably, Wednesday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens.
It was even reported by TSN’s Kristen Shilton that the Maple Leafs elected to go with a unit of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Barrie, and Rielly as the defensive pairing. Having another strong puck-moving defenseman on the top power play is a different look, but it would be extremely effective. This will be one of the Leafs strengths this year and teams should note, the power play won’t be the same as it was last year.
For players looking to make a case to stay with the big club, no one had a bigger impact solidifying a spot than Rasmus Sandin, Ilya Mikheyev, Trevor Moore and Fredrik Gauthier.
No one had more attention on him than Sandin as the Maple Leafs top prospect came in with a purpose to make the team. With two assists in four games, Sandin hasn’t looked out of place at all. His 61.61 Corsi For percentage is ranked second among Maple Leafs defensemen on the team at 5-on-5 with 33 Scoring Chances For, including 15 high- danger chances. While his numbers are impressive, it’s his vision that separates him from the rest of the bubble players, including rookies.
Both Matthews and head coach Mike Babcock had nothing but high praise for Sandin after his first game. His decision-making and puck possession is what separates him from the rest and his chances of making the team have increased with every game he’s played. He played over 30 minutes in his last game against the Detroit Red Wings, surpassing expectations by being on the first pairing with Martin Marincin.
Mikheyev was expected to make an impact after coming over from Omsk Avangard of the Kontinental Hockey League. Since his first game, he has done nothing but exceed the expectations of the coaching staff. Although he hasn’t registered a point, he has a 53.19 CF% and a Shots For Percentage of 60.47. His smarts, speed and ability to compete are what will make him a strong depth option for the team. It has even garnered him some time on the penalty-kill where he has been effective.
When Moore got the call-up last year, he immediately made his presence felt. Even though he’s being used in a depth role, his ability to be aggressive on the fore-check and gain possession is one of his best attributes. He’s registered two goals and an assist in three preseason games and he may be a lock on the third line for the time being. Even though he had a spot last year, it wasn’t set in stone as a number of players were battling for that final spot, he made sure that he didn’t lose it.
The player that everyone calls, “The Goat”, did nothing but surprise everyone with his improved speed and agility this year. For years, the knock on Gauthier was stride and speed. After working with Maple Leafs skating coach Barb Underhill, Gauthier finally found his groove and he immediately caught the attention of Babcock.
While the fourth line centre was going to be a battle between him and newly acquired Jason Spezza, both seemed to create some chemistry together as the fourth line, at times, has been one of the Maple Leafs best lines.
Back-up Role Belongs to Hutchinson
One of the main storylines heading into the preseason was the back-up situation for the Maple Leafs. After Garret Sparks was traded, that left the position wide open coming down to Michael Hutchinson and Michal Neuvirth.
After a strong performance against the Buffalo Sabres, Neuvirth was supposed to play in Montreal, but didn’t make the trip saying he “wasn’t feeling up to it.” Neuvirth was eventually released from his professional tryout. This came as a major surprise as Neuvirth was looking to get back into the NHL. It’s disappointing to see in the sense that he made a strong case to come back and hope to make an impact. But whatever was ailing him, impacted him hard and forced the Maple Leafs hand to release him.
With the back-up job belonging to Hutchinson, he now can provide a steady presence behind starter Frederik Andersen. In 111 games, Hutchinson has a career .908 save percentage and a 2.70 goals against average.
He looked solid in his last outing against a Canadiens lineup with a lot of regulars playing, posting a 38-save shutout. If Hutchinson can find the confidence and can put up steady numbers and quality starts, the Maple Leafs look to be in good hands when Andersen needs a break.
Final Roster Make-up
Daily Faceoff is a great website for line combinations and projections. Here’s a look at what the Maple Leafs roster could look like come opening night.
Minus Travis Dermott and Zach Hyman, where both are still recovering from offseason surgery, this is a really deep team. When they return, they will provide a major boost to a team that already has ample talent, speed and skill. Even the defense looks to be improved with a balance of defensive style with strong puck-moving abilities.
Since the rebuild started, this roster seems to be the most complete team that we have witnessed. In addition, this is the fastest I’ve seen this team play. Even those who may be cut, they still managed to find a way to make an impact. From everyone and even the intensity and ability to get into the tough areas on the ice is starting to emerge from the depth players.
The depth of this team is outstanding and that is key in any season. Players like Nic Petan, Sandin, and even Martin Marincin could see a demotion when the two regulars return. But no matter what, this final lineup is built for a Stanley Cup Championship.
**Statistics and numbers are up to date as of Sept. 28 before puck drop.
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.