Not only did the Toronto Maple Leafs lose last night and gain valuable points in the reverse standings, they did so in spectacular fashion, losing 7-2 to the Chicago Blackhawks. Now, when you lose by five, it might seem like a stretch to find any positives, but the Maple Leafs played a much better game than the score would indicate.
At even-strength they still lost 3-1, but they outshot the ‘Hawks by nearly 20 shot attempts. This might seem insignificant, in light of the final score, but for a Leafs team with nothing to play for but future jobs, it is important.
You see, the main problem with the Leafs during the Burke/Kessel era was that they could never possess the puck and relied too much on the rush. Without the ability to cycle the puck, maintain possession and outshoot opponents on a regular basis, a team can’t be a long-term winner in the NHL.It is painfully clear that the Leafs lack top-end talent at forward outside of Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk, so scoring goals and winning games will be difficult even if they do manage to regularly out-possess their opponents. However, if the team can build a foundation by playing a system that leads to possession of the puck, building an identity as a puck-possession team, then, once they do have some more talented players, they should have a good team.
What I mean is that if the collection of cast-offs, rookies and young players who suited up for the Leafs last night can display such poise and dedication to playing their system despite getting absolutely destroyed on the scoreboard, then it’s a good sign for the future of the organization. I don’t want to over-sell it, but Mike Babcock is kind of amazing.
Martin Maricin and Frank Corrado have been a revelation in the last few games. Paired together for just 33 minutes so far, they have an outstanding 68% Corsi For percentage. Marincin is a low-impact player in that he isn’t ever going to rack up a ton of points, but he is a 56% possession player in almost 500 hundred minutes of ice-time on a last-place team. That is very good.
The Leafs are a plus-43 in scoring chances when he is on the ice. Now, he has just one assist in 38 games, which isn’t good, but the positive of that is that is that since he doesn’t score points, he’ll never cost very much money against the cap. What Marincin gives the Leafs is the ability to have a young, cheap, huge, puck-moving defensemen who performs far above the level of most bottom-pairing defenders.
He might never be a star, but he is a very valuable player, especially in a cap world. In Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and Marincin the Maple Leafs could realistically have the left side of their defense already built. This is a significant portion of the rebuild.
The New York Rangers are in town on Thursday and while I hope it’s an entertaining game, I will be cheering for the Columbus Blue Jackets and Edmonton Oilers to rack up some points in the meantime.
The good news is that, adjusted for games-in-hand, the Leafs are now the actual last place team in the NHL. That’s a 20% chance for Auston Matthews.
Thanks for reading.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.