With eight games of the 2019-20 NHL season now behind the team, there’s plenty to say about the Toronto Maple Leafs. They’ve been through drama and injury, and it will be curious to see where the team emerges from the problems they are currently facing.
This season was supposed to show fans a more balanced Maple Leafs team. Similar to last season, the team is led by its stellar forwards. With John Tavares (at least until the broken finger he suffered during the last game), Mitch Marner, and Auston Matthews, it’s tough to find three better forwards currently playing on any one team.
This season has also seen the rebirth of William Nylander (after a mostly wasted season in 2018-19) and the additions of Alexander Keftoot (in a trade from the Colorado Avalanche) and Ilya Mikheysev (fresh from the KHL). In addition, last season’s young stars Andreas Johnsson (four more seasons) and Kasperi Kapanen (three more seasons) re-signed during the offseason. Finally, Trevor Moore and Frederik Gauthier have shown skill and determination.
Obviously, not everyone likes all these players. However, in total the Maple Leafs have 10 forwards who are either up-and-coming or who have arrived. It’s a nice position to be in. Oh, did I forget that Zach Hyman, who head coach Mike Babcock calls the best forechecker in the NHL, will return from a surgically-repaired knee in the next few weeks?
Anyway, the point is that the team has strong forwards. Good enough to push the Maple Leafs on an extended Stanley Cup run? We are unsure as of yet.
In this post, I take a look at the Maple Leafs’ forwards and offer some early-season grades about their season’s body of work – position by position. First, I will review the Maple Leafs’
Auston Matthews, Grade A
It’s hard to fault the big, skilled center. He’s played eight games and has seven goals and an assist. Last season, he began with 13 goals in 13 games, but I think he’s even playing better this season. I think he’s more creative with the puck, and he’s playing a harder defense.
I don’t think Matthews gets his due as a two-way center, but I have seen him make some strong defensive plays – lifting a stick just at the right time or speeding up to cut off an opponent going towards the net.
The Matthews I’m seeing is playing at a higher level and – should he stay healthy – will score 50 goals easily. He has a strong shot that he gets off quickly. He also seems to have a personality and be smart enough – speaking Russian to newcomer Mikheysev on the bench. By the way, I haven’t forgotten his offseason issues. But, on the ice…
John Tavares, Grade B+
Tavares, who was named captain at the home opener, seemed to start the season slowly. But was that him or his linemates? Kapanen started the season so slowly that he was eventually moved. And Marner, to my eye, is playing differently this season than last.
However, just before he went on the injured reserve list, Tavares had a point streak of four games to jump him to seven points in eight games. So, although it’s been an up-and-down start to the season and he doesn’t yet have a power-play goal, he’s almost on a point-a-game pace. I might be expecting too much?
As it stands, the 29-year-old center might miss the team’s next eight games (or so). But, we’ll see how the broken finger responds to treatment. If the Maple Leafs have nothing else, they have a great sports medicine staff. If he can be back, he will.
Andreas Johnsson, Grade B+
It took four games for Johnsson to score but, unlike Kapanen with Tavares, Johnsson seems to have found a home on the Matthews-Nylander line. He’s even been skating on the team’s top power-play unit. He seems to quietly go about his business, contributing and fitting in well with his partners.
Trevor Moore, Grade B+
Moore’s been better than anyone expected. He’s a dynamic forechecker and, even in limited time with the top six, seems to add chemistry in ways Kapanen did not. His play on special teams also helps the club. He seems to have two speeds – fast and faster, and he’s a force the opposition has to deal with.
He’s one of my this-season favorites.
William Nylander, Grade A-
Nylander said he was going to dominate this season, and he has. Unlike last season, when he struggled, this season the puck seems to find him. He sees the ice well and is playing a fast, steady game. Last season was my first covering the Maple Leafs for The Hockey Writers and, honestly, I couldn’t see why fans liked Nylander so much. Now I do. He can be dominant.
Word out of the Maple Leafs practice is that Nylander will take Tavares’ place on the power-play unit. That’s good news for him and for the team.
Mitch Marner, Grade B+
Marner has a great game, then he seems to disappear the next. This makes his overall play a bit deceptive. He gets his points, but I don’t think we’re seeing the player who virtually led his team every single game – or so it seemed – last season.
I’ve said this a number of times now, but something’s different about Marner’s game this season. I’m not quite sure what, but I don’t think he’s the same player. Some games I would grade him an A+ and others a B-. We will see how his play changes with Tavares on the sidelines.
I hope I’m wrong. One thing to Marner’s credit, however, is that he plays in all situations – power play, short-handed, anywhere.
If the Maple Leafs will survive and prosper with captain Tavares missing the next couple of weeks, the stars must be the stars. The forwards I’ve reviewed here will have to lead the team.
It will be interesting to see how they respond to being a captain down. I’m guessing it will spur the team towards something quite special.
But then I’m always an optimist.