The Toronto Maple Leafs have faced plenty of challenges so far this season. Their defense has been decimated by injuries, and three of their best defensemen have been out for an extended period. However, there have also been a few bright spots. The core four have been producing at a high level, and the defense has stepped up to make up for injuries and played well. Also, both goalies have played exceptionally well, which has boosted the team to second place in the Atlantic Division.
The Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren pairing, Ilya Samsonov in the net, and the core four have played above expectations. However, three players, in particular, stand out, and deserve all the praise.
Mitch Marner has been playing on another planet, with a point in all of his last 20 games to extend the record for the longest point streak in Maple Leafs‘ history. During this stretch, he has scored nine goals and 17 assists, and Auston Matthews had this to say about his performance: “He’s been driving the bus for us.”
Besides the 20-game point streak, Marner has also played very well defensively. He also gets called upon to play in several different situations, whether that is on the penalty kill (PK) or acting as the second defenseman, to increase the threat on the ice. Marner fits into a very specific class of elite forwards who are great penalty killers, that list includes players like Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins. This is a role that very few can do and be good at. He isn’t the only member of the core four who’s had a good start, but he has been noticeable in every game.
The 39-year-old defenseman has shown that he can still play at a high level. Since Morgan Rielly went down with an injury, he has been playing with Justin Holl on the top pairing, averaging more than 20 minutes per game. He has demonstrated that he can step in no matter the role and get the job done.
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Mark Giordano also logs top minutes on the PK with Holl, and when the team’s oldest player is playing at such a high level, it has an impact on the rest of the team. Not every team can lose their top three defensemen and have their second and third-pairings step up for an extended period. Giordano has shown why he was captain of the Calgary Flames and why the Maple Leafs were so eager to acquire him.
Matt Murray played just one game for the Maple Leafs before going down with an injury that saw him out for four weeks. During that time, Samsonov held down the crease and played very well. However, when Samsonov was injured against the Boston Bruins on Nov. 5, 2022, it was Murray who returned on Nov. 15, 2022, against the Pittsburgh Penguins and steadied things between the pipes. Murray is 6-0-2 since he returned from his abductor injury, he has posted a 2.43 goals-against average (GAA), a .932 save percentage, as well as a shutout against the Dallas Stars, on Dec. 6, 2022.
When Toronto acquired Murray this offseason, many were worried about his injury history and wondered if he was past his prime, and then he got injured. However, he has put in the work and has been one of the best goalies in the league since he returned, ranking in the top 12 in SV% and GAA, and stopping 44 shots for a 5.979 goals saved above expected in his shutout win against the Stars.
This season has had a lot of ups and downs for the Maple Leafs, but their recent play should boost their confidence, they have played themselves into a record of 16-5-6, and sit second in the Atlantic Divison, and fourth in the NHL. Marner, Giordano, and Murray have been the three most impressive Maple Leafs so far, and they have been the catalyst for the team’s success.
Spencer Lazary is a writer at The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He loves to talk about all things Maple Leafs as well as scouting and prospects, he has been writing about Hockey and Prospect Scouting since 2020, and he also is a co-host of a Maple Leafs-themed podcast called “Leafs Talk Forever“