Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors: Key Questions, Rielly, Campbell & Crosby

After losing four games in a row and a ton of confidence during that losing streak, the Toronto Maple Leafs have won 10 of their last 11 games. That improves their season’s record to 12-5-1. During their losing streak, the team simply couldn’t generate a lot of scoring nor could they seem to stop the other teams from scoring. 

Don’t look now, but the winning streak isn’t because the scoring has ballooned. Instead, what has changed is that the team is simply playing better shutdown hockey. And, except for the odd blink, they’re playing it against good teams. 

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If you’re a Maple Leafs’ fan who likes to see your team overwhelm the opposition by scoring many more goals, this iteration of the Maple Leafs might not be the team for you. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of winning playoff hockey, you have to wonder if there’s a chance this team has the jam to push through during the playoffs.

In this edition of Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll comment about some of the player news surrounding the team and some of the key questions that have come up for me over the past few weeks. 

Question One: Is This the Hockey that Sheldon Keefe Has Tried to Instill?

One thing that seems clear is that Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe likes this kind of hockey. After the New York Rangers’ win, Keefe noted that “A lot of guys early into the season were trying to jumpstart the season offensively, looking to get going and you know, that tends to change your mindset a little bit.”

Sheldon Keefe and Manny Malhotra Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe and Manny Malhotra, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Keefe then added, “As a team, it took us a little bit to get to this place but we’re in a good spot here now throughout our lineup of how we need to play, be comfortable in these situations.”

The truth is that over the last ten games, many things have started to go right for the Maple Leafs. The special teams are playing good hockey; and, their puck support in both the defensive and neutral zones is better. They’re also playing stingy hockey like a selfish six-year-old who won’t share his toys. 

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The result is the end of October’s five-game losing skid and the start of what might become a tremendous November. In fact, Morgan Rielly suggested that “Once you get it in your mind that you’re going to play a certain way and you’re just not going give up chances against, the rest kind of follows.” 

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

That change of mindset seems to be what coach Keefe has longed for over the past two seasons.

Question Two: Is the Improved Defense Because of Improved Offense?

One thing I’ve noticed is that goalie Jack Campbell has faced fewer high-danger chances over the past few games. That doesn’t mean that he isn’t being called on to make difficult saves; he is. But there seem to be times during games where he simply doesn’t seem to be under siege like he used to be. 

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Perhaps that can be “blamed” on both improved offensive and improved defensive play. One truth in hockey is that it’s hard to score if you don’t have the puck in the other team’s end. So, if the Maple Leafs’ offense can keep the puck in their opponent’s defensive zone, they simply won’t get scored upon as much.

Jack Campbell Toronto Maple Leafs
Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Certainly, the team’s defense is better. The penalty kill has also been stronger. But if players like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner can keep working the puck in their offensive zone and keep it there, that has to improve the team’s defense as well. 

I believe the team’s play in the offensive zone has been better. They’re controlling the puck, using the give-and-go, and keeping more of the play in the other team’s defensive zone. Is it just me or are the Maple Leafs staying out of trouble because they’re not losing the puck as often as they used to, which isn’t leading to goals against? If so, that’s a very good sign. You don’t have to score nearly as much if you’re not playing catchup hockey all the time.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

Tonight the team plays the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins just ended a three-game losing streak against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night and will seek to be the streak busters against the Maple Leafs. They did a good job leveling Toronto in Pittsburgh, but fans have to think their Maple Leafs are a different team than the one the Penguins whomped by a score of 7-1 on October 23. 

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Sidney Crosby comes to town, and he scored against the Canadiens. He’s had a tough season with his wrist surgery and was in COVID-19 protocol. Crosby hadn’t played this season until Oct. 30 after, similar to Matthews, undergoing wrist surgery.

Maple Leafs’ fans will also see Kasperi Kapanen. Since being traded to the Penguins, Kapanen’s done okay. This season in 16 games he’s scored four goals and added six assists. He hasn’t turned out to be the high scorer some predicted, but he hasn’t been a bust either.