On Tuesday, Dec. 17, the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Buffalo Sabres 5-3. Led by Auston Matthews’ two goals and Tyson Barrie’s two assists, the Maple Leafs took a 3-0 lead into the third period and stayed far enough ahead to bring home the victory. It wasn’t classic, but it was a win.
With that win, the team’s record has improved to 8-4-0 since Sheldon Keefe took over for Mike Babcock on Nov. 20. In this post, I want to keep Maple Leafs fans up-to-date on the news and rumors that are happening with the team.
Item One: Sheldon Keefe Praises and Critiques the Team
The Maple Leafs might have won, but Keefe had some critical words about his team. He’s happy, obviously, with the victory, but he sees room for improvement.
Specifically, Keefe noted: “I think it (the game) just speaks to the potential of the team. We are still nowhere near what I think we can look like and what we are capable of, but we’re doing a lot of good things.”
Keefe was specific: “The penalty kill lets one in here today, but we get a huge kill late in the game. Special teams have been better there. The power play had some looks and had some chances.”
Where does Keefe believe the team can improve? “We think we can get a little bit better there as well. Playing with the lead, getting the lead — a lot of good positives things that we have seen, and yet I still think there is a long way for the team to go and continue to grow.”
As a long-time academic researcher whose area of study was leadership, it’s noteworthy how Keefe talked about his players. He started with specific praise (we have great potential and we’re getting better) and ended with specific praise (there are many positives and we’ll continue to grow); but, in between, he was specific about the ways to improve. It’s a classic structure for leadership conversations that support continued success – praise and specific feedback.
Item Two: Andersen Leads the NHL in Wins
Every time I write a Maple Leafs news post, Frederik Andersen’s name comes up. No wonder, he’s playing amazing hockey. His win against the Sabres improved his record to 17-8-3 (a 2.51 goals-against average and .931 save percentage) in 28 starts.
Andersen’s won four of his last five starts (the only blip was the road loss to the Calgary Flames), and he’s given up three goals or less in 15 of his last 18 games. The 30-year-old goalie’s numbers and play are improving. He now leads the NHL with 17 victories and has raised his save percentage to .920, which is the highest since his 2013-14 rookie season.
Item Three: Matthews Scores 2 More Goals
Matthews scored two goals against the Sabres and was on the ice for 19:29. That’s high for him but isn’t high among NHL goal-scoring leaders. His 21 goals are tied for third (with the Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl), with only the Boston Bruins’ David Pastrnak (with 28 goals) and the Sabres’ Jack Eichel (with 24 goals) ahead of him. Of these leaders, Pastrnak is the outlier because he’s averaged only 19.21 TOI. Both Draisaitl (22.42 TOI) and Eichel (21.47 TOI) play more.
Interestingly, Matthews’ last five points (all in his last five games) have been goals. His 21 goals put him at a pace to set a new career high. However, if he’s to play at a point-per-game pace (he has 36 points in 35 games) his lack of assists means he’ll have to score well over 40 goals. That’s doable because he gets a ton of shots and is exceptionally skilled.
Matthews also recently became the second player in Maple Leafs history to score at least 20 goals in his first four seasons. The great Maple Leafs legend Dave Keon had 20 goals or more in six straight seasons (1960-66). Matthews noted, ”It’s pretty big honor just to be in the same breath as that guy.”
Item Four: Barrie’s Offensive Game Is Growing
Tyson Barrie, who’s been nursing an ankle injury, returned to the lineup and scored two assists. He also took a team-high six shots on goal and (good for him) blocked a shot in almost 20 minutes (19:11) of ice time. He didn’t look injured and had a strong game.
Barrie now has three assists in his last three games and for the season has three goals and 15 points in 35 games. That might not seem like offensive growth, but he’s been given more freedom from Keefe and that translates into more shots on goal.
In fact, Barrie noted that Keefe had ”actually showed clips where I’ll dive in and end up in front of the net and he’s like, ‘I love that, do more of that.”’ Barrie continued, ”I haven’t had that often from a coach, so it’s nice to see.”
Item Five: 3 Rumors That Keep Popping Up
During the past week, three rumors have popped up. First, the Maple Leafs are supposed to have shown interest in a young Russian goalie named Timur Bilyalov, who’s KHL contract ends on April 30. Although Bilyalov is smallish at 5-foot-10 and 174 pounds, he’s had a successful three years in Russia. This season, his stats lead the KHL, with a .957 save percentage, a 1.10 GAA, six shutouts, and a 10-1-2 record in 16 games.
Second, the team has decisions to make with Trevor Moore returning from injury. They need to move forward but can’t risk trying to waive either Dymtro Timashov or Frederik Gauthier. Teams would grab them. Moore is a bulldog who’s needed in the lineup. What to do when he returns? (from Mirtle: Should the Maple Leafs trade from a strength — their forward depth — to help them on D and in goal? James Mirtle, The Athletic, 12/14/19).
Third, there are rumors that the Maple Leafs have been asked about William Nylander. Teams have expressed interest in him and, although both Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas love Nylander as a player, they have to answer phone calls about trades. Also, Moore’s return to the lineup opens new possibilities.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
The Maple Leafs have a relatively light schedule (for them) ahead with a bit of a Christmas break. However, what makes the schedule interesting is the back-to-back that’s happening on Dec. 20 and Dec. 21, which means Michael Hutchinson will get a shot at redemption. I’m hoping he will get the win.