Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Kallgren, Tavares, Marner & Mrazek

Finally, the Toronto Maple Leafs did everything right to shut out the Dallas Stars by a score of 4-0 last night. The team got better goalie play than they’ve had for what seems like weeks and the defense stood tall in front of rookie Erik Kallgren, who was making his first NHL start.

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What Maple Leafs’ fans can remember games when the goalies were simply expected, as a matter of course, to have anything over a .900 save percentage? Last night the team seemed to bring it all together so much so that, during his postgame media scrum, Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe was answering questions but his body language was suggesting that things remained that he couldn’t explain. 

Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, Head Coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images)

Specifically, in the middle of an answer, Keefe would just shrug his shoulders as if to say “I’ll tell you what I think; but, honestly, I don’t really know why one night my team plays like this and another night they don’t.”

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If you are a fan, you can just accept a game like last night’s with happiness and move on hoping for it to happen again soon. But, if you’re the coach, you have a different job. How can you make it happen again, and again, and then again?

In this edition of Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll look at some of the events of the game last night and comment upon how these events impact the team moving forward.

Item One: Kallgren Steady As Can Be in Goal

One of the biggest differences watching Kallgren play vs. watching Petr Mrazek play was how calm Kallgren seemed in the net. There weren’t what I’ve called before in other posts “a lot of moving parts.” Kallgren didn’t jump around trying to guess where the shooter would go; he simply seemed to watch and quickly react. 

He got lots of shots, but many seemed easier from the perimeter. And, when the horn sounded, Kallgren had made 35 saves to earn a shutout in his first NHL start. He was the first Maple Leafs’ goalie to register a shutout in his first NHL start since Garret Sparks did it on November 30, 2015. Sparks, by the way, has played two games with the Los Angeles Kings and has a ​​goals-against-average of 1.85 and a save percentage of 0.936. (I’m pleased he’s having some success.)

Kallgren, who’s a 25-year-old Swedish rookie, had taken the loss in last Thursday’s 5-4 overtime loss to Arizona in his NHL debut. But last night, he was perfect. He was everything the Maple Leafs’ goaltending had not been since the first of the year. 

To show how bad the team’s goalie play has been, since January 1, the Maple Leafs’ goaltending has been the worst in the NHL. They came into last night’s game with the worst save percentage in the entire NHL in five-on-five play at 88.1%.

Coach Keefe said as much. When asked about Kallgren’s work in the net, Keefe noted that he thought “he was great.” Keefe went on to say that Kallgren “continued where he left off in terms of not trying to do too much in the net. He was solid. The pucks came to him, and for the most part, they stuck to him.”

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Then coach Keefe pointed out what he had been noting as the real issue: “I thought our team played really well in front of him. Probably the toughest save that he had was the first one. Right away in the game, he has to take a 2-on-1 with a clear shooter. He stands his ground and makes that save.”

Item Two: John Tavares’ Game Covers for Missing Auston Matthews

Maple Leafs’ captain John Tavares didn’t waste any time by notching two first-period points to help his team beat the Stars. His play both covered for Auston Matthews, who was in the press box serving the first game of his two-game suspension, and staked Kallgren to his first NHL win. 

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

With Matthews away, Tavares played on the top line with two of the hottest wingers in the NHL in Michael Bunting and Mitch Marner. He looked quite at home, thank you. But, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. During Tavares’ first season with the Maple Leafs, Marner had helped him look to find his footing. The two line-mates combined to help Tavares set the highest goal total in his career.

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Tavares has been playing quietly well this season. He had a stretch of 14 games where he didn’t score a goal, but he’s remained productive. Over his last eight games, he scored three goals and added nine points. 

With his two points last night, Tavares moved closer toward a point-a-game mark. He’s registered 20 goals and 37 assists (for 57 points) over the 59 games he’s played. 

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

Starting Kallgren in last night’s game suggested the team is no longer investing energy in helping Mrazek find his game. Now, it’s about winning games. After Kallgren’s performance, the team knows it can muster some good goalie play.

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

The question is “Now What?” Who does the coaching staff start at home against the Carolina Hurricanes? In truth, to me, Kallgren seems like the only option. The Maple Leafs’ team has been severely struggling and the rookie has engendered some fight from the team in front of him. 

They rose to protect him last night, and he didn’t let them down. The Maple Leafs next play at home. Matthews remains out for another game. The team is likely feeling good and will likely push hard to stay that way. 

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My call is to play Kallgren one more time and then start Mrazek on the road. But, I’ve been wrong more than I’ve been right recently with predicting Maple Leafs’ goalie play. We’ll see.

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