This season hasn’t exactly been one to write home about for the Toronto Maple Leafs. At 23-12-4, their record under Sheldon Keefe is solid overall, but their 8-8-3 record and five regulation wins since Jan. 6 have brought a lot into question. After embarrassing losses in Buffalo and Pittsburgh, the Leafs played maybe their most complete game of the season in a huge win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 21. What needs to happen for the team to build off this win?
Matthews Leads Top-Heavy Roster
With $40.46 million committed to Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander, it is clear the Leafs have faith in their stars. Matthews is in the race for the Maurice Richard Trophy, Marner and Tavares are respectively averaging 1.20 and 0.96 points per game, and Nylander is well on his way to his first 30-goal season. But with almost half their total cap tied up in just four players, the Leafs need contributions from low-cost players.
Another player exempt from criticism is Zach Hyman, whose impact on team success has been much larger than his $2.25 million cap hit. In 43 games, Hyman has 19 goals and 34 points, just two goals shy of his career-high 21 goals, which he scored in 71 games. His ability to win puck battles and gain offensive zone possession is also undeniable. He has thrived playing with Marner and Matthews, as his offensive zone grit creates space for his linemates.
Leafs Bit by Injury Bug
Injuries have no doubt affected their play. Morgan Rielly missing significant time forces Justin Holl and Travis Dermott into playing bigger minutes than they should be at this point in their careers. But while their defence has been under a lot of scrutiny, their forwards also haven’t been at the top of their game.
Missing Andreas Johnsson and Ilya Mikheyev has forced players like Jason Spezza and Pierre Engvall who should be playing fourth-line minutes into second and third-line minutes. With these players out long-term, it is crucial that some bottom-six forwards find a way to contribute.
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Although many forwards have had good seasons, the Leafs’ depth forwards have struggled as of late. While many of these guys aren’t necessarily looked at as goalscorers, the team needs them to contribute down the stretch if they want to be seen as contenders.
Kasperi Kapanen has had struggles this year. Before the Leafs Feb. 20 win against Pittsburgh, he had just three goals in 33 games dating back to Nov. 30. He simply is not getting involved in scoring chances enough. While his shooting percentage is identical to his numbers during the 2018-19 season, his total shot attempts have dropped. Last season he averaged 4.16 shot attempts per game, while this season he is averaging just 3.03. With his speed and skill, Kapanen should be able to find his way to scoring areas and get pucks on net, but that hasn’t been the case through 61 games this season.
Kyle Dubas made a big splash last summer by sending Nazem Kadri to Colorado in exchange for Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot. It has been pretty clear the Barrie trade isn’t panning out the way Dubas had hoped, and the Kerfoot addition hasn’t been much better. He has just three goals over his past 41 games and one in his past 21.
During the recent win versus the Penguins, Kerfoot seemed a lot more impactful at centre, a position where the Leafs seemed reluctant to give him minutes. He hit his winger Kapanen with a beautiful saucer pass, springing him for a breakaway and the Leafs’ third goal of the period. If these two can build some chemistry, their speed and skill could make the Leafs third line a serious offensive threat.
Since the day Keefe took over Engvall has been a solid addition to the Leafs offence on his entry-level contract, as he got off to a hot start this season with six goals and 14 points in his first 27 games. That pace has significantly slowed – since Jan. 8 Engvall has just two assists in 18 games. While he is not a key piece to the Leafs’ offence, it will be interesting to see what kind of role he fits into over the next two seasons.
Leafs’ Final 20 Games
Since Jan. 1, Matthews, Hyman, and Nylander have combined for 36 goals. During that same 21-game span the 25 other players that have suited up for the Leafs have scored just 35. Even though it is great to see these players scoring in volumes, it isn’t sustainable. Hyman has had an unbelievable season, but has a 21.1% shooting percentage which is around double his percentage during the four seasons prior. With a jump between percentages that large, we will likely see regression to the mean as time goes on.
While it was an unexpected trade, Dubas was able to move 24-year-old AHL forward Mason Marchment for 23-year-old forward Denis Malgin who is seemingly NHL-ready. In acquiring Malgin, Dubas made a move to improve the Leafs’ depth in preparation for a playoff run and his impact was seen immediately.
Although he did not register any points, Malgin fought through two Penguins to create the screen in front of Murray that allowed Jake Muzzin to open the scoring against Pittsburgh. If Malgin can fit in and take advantage of his minutes with Tavares and Nylander, this would be a massive trade win for the Leafs, giving Kapanen and Kerfoot better line matchups for the rest of the season.
With the price of defensemen being sky-high, the likelihood of the Leafs acquiring a top-pairing one at the deadline is unlikely. This acquisition would likely involve Kapanen, which would thin out the Leafs’ offence too much, especially with Johnsson missing the rest of the season and Moore now in Los Angeles. Unless Dubas can improve the Leafs’ offensive depth ahead of the deadline, it is unlikely any offensive pieces get shipped out before Feb. 24.
If the Leafs can continue on the momentum from Thursday’s win over the Penguins, they could definitely be a threatening team come playoff time. They need to continue the high-energy style they played Thursday – with their tempo, there are few teams that can keep up with this Leafs team. If players like Kerfoot and Kapanen can get hot in this final 20-game stretch, there is no telling what the ceiling for this Maple Leafs’ offence could be.
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