With five games passed in the regular season, there have been some highs and lows with the play of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Although there needs to be some improvements with their defense, there are still some positives that surround the club that may allow them to get past this bump and be the team we expect them to be.
Despite the troubles, there are plenty of reasons to be the thankful now that the Canadian Thanksgiving long weekend is upon us. Here are five reasons to be thankful with this Maple Leafs team.
1. The Old Nylander Is Back
There’s no doubt that William Nylander came into this season with a purpose. After a 2018-19 season that he would like to forget, we are seeing the player that we saw in the previous two seasons.
Five games in, Nylander already ranks third in team scoring with five points (two goals and three assists). It should be noted that he had only two goals through 24 games last year. But after dominating the World Hockey Championships and an impressive camp, he is bound for an impressive season.
While he’s already producing at a better pace than last season, it’s his relentless pursuit of the puck and possession that everyone is excited about. At five-on-five, Nylander is already boasting a 58.22 Corsi For percentage (CF%), ranking fifth on the team. Relative to his teammates, Nylander is generating 6.7 more chances when he is on the ice compared to his teammates when he is off the ice.
For five straight games, he is excelling at controlling the play and making the most of his offensive opportunities. It’s also no surprise that his explosive speed and drive to the net is on full display. With Nylander back to his former self, there’s no doubt fans are thankful for his resurgence.
2. Signing Ilya Mikheyev
Thank you, Kyle Dubas, for not only finding and signing Ilya Mikheyev, but for finding a player outside of the NHL that is already making an impact on this team. For years, the Maple Leafs have dipped their toes into the European free agent market and haven’t had much success with the signings they’ve had. Names Like Igor Ozhiganov, Andreas Borgman, Petri Kontiola and Nikita Soshnikov never really panned out to be what they expected.
His presence on the third line and penalty kill is already proving beneficial for the team on the ice and he’s only getting better with each game. Mikheyev’s agent Dan Milstein was right, fans were in for a real treat when they signed him to a one-year, $925,000 deal. I have dubbed him as Zach Hyman 2.0. Having another Hyman-like player on the team, especially in a depth role and his early impact, is a reason to be thankful.
3. Rasmus Sandin
Coming into camp all eyes were on Maple Leafs’ top prospect Sandin as he fought for a spot on the roster. With every single game he played, the 19-year-old Uppsala native constantly impressed head coach Mike Babcock. In a game against the Detroit Red Wings where the Maple Leafs iced a predominantly American League roster, Sandin played over 30 minutes on the top pairing. From that moment, he stole a spot on the roster.
The last defenseman to make the Maple Leafs roster as a 19-year-old was Morgan Rielly back in 2013-14. While there is a lot of pressure as a rookie defender in a tough market, Sandin is constantly living up to and exceeding expectations. It takes more time for defenders to develop, but he is playing like a five-year veteran in the league. He ranks in the top 10 in CF % (54.21) and hasn’t been on for a goal against at five-on-five.
His composure and decision making is what stands out each game to the point where Babcock is starting to trust him more and giving him more ice time.
4. Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie Pairing
Staying on the topic of defense, I can’t remember seeing a more entertaining defensive pairing on the Maple Leafs than Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie. Barrie’s extremely talented puck-moving skills and skating ability along with Muzzin’s two-way physical presence is the perfect combination to have on any team’s top-four.
Among pairings that have played over 40 minutes at 5-on-5, the duos shot attempts rating is just over 54%. In addition they have contributed 40 Scoring Chances For as well as 14 High Danger Scoring Chances For. Those numbers are pretty good for a strong and balanced pairing, but what stands out are their minimal chances against. When the pairing is out, they have only given up 26 chances against, as well as only 8 high danger chances.
This makes the pairing reliable to maintain possession and generate chances while providing great defense to minimize chances in their own end. It’s even entertaining when Barrie gets to pull out his spin from time to time.
5. A Captain…Finally!
Since 2015-16 when Dion Phaneuf last donned the “C” for the Maple Leafs, the team has been without a captain and has been trying to find a great leadership core and a new leader to help bring this team a cup.
That search came to an end when the club announced thatJohn Tavares was the captain on opening night and the 25th in team history.
For years we’ve been wondering who the next captain would be. We thought that it would go to franchise centre Auston Matthews, possibly even Mitch Marner. But when Tavares signed his seven-year deal, there was an even greater chance that he would wear the “C.” Tavares has all the qualities of a leader. He’s a humble veteran and has experience being captain of the New York Islanders.
It’s fitting, really — a hometown kid, playing for his childhood team and now bearing the responsibility as captain. It’s a typical dream any kid playing hockey envisions. The next chapter is to be the first one to hoist the Stanley Cup to give the city and its fan base something they’ve longed for 50-plus years.
With the captain debate out of the way, the goal now is to dig in and win it all. Tavares is more than ready for that challenge.
Statistics from Natural Stat Trick.