4 Maple Leafs Issues That Must Be Addressed Before February

We’re happy to see that the last road trip is now over. It seems like forever since the Toronto Maple Leafs played a game at home. When the team hits the ice on Wednesday, it will have been 21 days since the last game played at Scotiabank Arena, when they defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-2 on January 5.

Related: Maple Leafs Enter Oilers Game with the Superior Lineup

In wrapping up the six-game road trip, we wanted to share the Maple Leafs top point-scorers on the trip. Many Maple Leafs’ fans might be surprised that Alex Kerfoot is so high on the list. And, Pierre Engvall has been quietly been playing strong hockey. The others are, perhaps, the usual suspects.

The top scorers on the six-game road trip were:

PlayerGoalsAssistsTotal Points
Auston Matthews527
Morgan Rielly156
Alex Kerfoot156
Mitch Marner325
Michael Bunting235
Ilya Mikheyev314
Pierre Engvall134

In this post, we’re going to look at what we believe are four crucial issues the Maple Leafs must decide before February really gets going with all the coming make-up games.

Consideration One: Continuing to Play Ugly, But Winning Hockey

With the Maple Leafs needing a win against the New York Islanders to come out on the winning side of this trip, they played a gutsy, not very pretty, game to win 3-1. As we expected, they tightened things down defensively and played what can be best described as a low-event game. 

The Maple Leafs didn’t create many five-on-five, high-danger chances (nine according to naturalstattrick), but they limited the Islanders to only six. Despite getting outshot 10 shots to four playing at five-on-five in the third period, the Maple Leafs only gave up a single high-danger chance (again according to naturalstattrick). 

Related: The NHL’s Best Farm Systems Ranked – 2021-22 Midseason Update

With the win, the Maple Leafs finished the road trip with a 3-2-1 record, which is a .583 win percentage. However, the Maple Leafs were outscored 22-21. Of those 22 goals, Jack Campbell gave up 18 of them in four games, Petr Mrazek gave up three goals in two games. One goal was an empty-netter. 

Sign up for our regular 'Maple Leafs Newsletter' for all the latest.

If the Maple Leafs are going to play winning hockey for the rest of the regular season, they’ll have to play the same sort of ugly, low-event games that shut down other teams and that allow their stars to take advantage of scoring opportunities. That’s tough, as the team found out on this road trip. The team can’t be soft and purposeless.

Consideration Two: Playing Petr Mrazek More and Resting Jack Campbell

Speaking of Mrazek, in his last two starts he’s stopped 43 of 46 shots, a save percentage of .935, and has a goals-against-average of 1.54. Going into the All-Star break in two weeks, the Maple Leafs play three games in four nights, and then continue their really tough schedule following the break as they work to complete a pile of makeup games. 

Petr Mrazek, Toronto Maple Leafs
Petr Mrazek, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The team will need Mrazek to be healthy and sharp for the remainder of the season. That not only helps the Maple Leafs, it also helps Campbell. Campbell’s the starter, which no one would dispute. But having a more than competent backup only takes the pressure off him because he knows that he doesn’t have to be a Vezina candidate night after night. Relieving some of Campbell’s pressure was one reason Dubas signed Mrazek in the first place. 

Consideration Three: Keeping the Players’ TOI “Reasonable”

Not only did Rielly finish in a tie for the second-most points on the trip with Kerfoot, but he also led in ice time by averaging 25:49 minutes per game over the six games. T.J. Brodie played the next most time, averaging 22:55 minutes a game. 

Related: Maple Leafs Currently Inside Ideal Window to Make Trade

We’ve written on several occasions that we believe head coach Sheldon Keefe should limit the minutes of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. However, although we feel that Keefe has to be wary of playing his top forwards much over 20 minutes a game, it’s different with defensemen.

Smart defensemen are able to pace themselves and rest “in a shift.” While Keefe was forced to play Rielly and Brodie that many minutes due to injuries and Covid-19, it also demonstrated to him that Rielly and Brodie could play big minutes and still be effective. We haven’t changed our belief about the forward units, but we’ve seen how effective Brodie and Rielly can be and are less worried about them getting gassed. 

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007 on the backs of three defensemen. Francois Beauchemin averaged 30:33, Chris Pronger averaged 30:11, and Scott Neidermayer 29:51 throughout the entire playoffs that season. We aren’t saying the Maple Leafs need to play Rielly and Brodie half of each game, but having them play extended minutes is reasonable and creates one more option for Keefe when the playoffs come.  

Consideration Four: Taking Advantage of Games-in-Hand

Getting back to the Maple Leafs as a team, they’ve lost a lot of ground to both the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning over the past month. After a bit of a slide that saw the Panthers go 4-5-1, they’ve caught fire recently, going 10-1-1 over their last 12 games. They now sit tied for first in the Atlantic with the Lightning, eight points ahead of the Maple Leafs with three more games played.

Sheldon Keefe Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Tampa Bay has also gone 7-2 over its last nine games to keep a share of the Atlantic Division lead with the Panthers. They are also eight points up on the Maple Leafs and have played a total of five more games than Toronto. Although the Maple Leafs have games in hand, those games are only good if you win them. Unless one, or both of those teams go into a slump, it will be tough for the Maple Leafs to catch them.  

The Maple Leafs also have to be looking over their shoulder at the Boston Bruins, who’ve closed to within three points of them with the same number of games played. Winning those games in hand is a key to pushing for an advantageous Atlantic Division placement.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

Looking ahead to the game at home against the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday, the Maple Leafs will have Justin Holl and Ondrej Kase back. It will be interesting to see what the line combinations and defensive pairings will be in the practices leading up to that game. It will also be interesting to see who starts in goal. The suddenly-hot Mrazek, or the recently-struggling Campbell?

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Ritchie, Brodie, Knies & Mrazeka

The Maple Leafs then get two days off before they play three in four nights starting in Detroit Saturday night, and then heading into the All-Star Break with a home-and-home Monday and Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils. 

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]