With the second half of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ season already underway, now is the time for the team to dig deep and get ready for a tough schedule with a playoff like atmosphere.
It was an impressive first half for the Maple Leafs, despite dealing with some early season struggles and injuries. Now, everyone needs to bring their A game and try to match or exceed their level of play from the first half.
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Most of the attention has been on names like Auston Matthews, Morgan Rielly, William Nylander and Jack Campbell in the first half. However, the Maple Leafs should be looking at a few other names to make a significant impact during the second half of the season. Here are three players looking to do just that.
Mitch Marner was on an absolute tear before the All-Star break, with 16 points in seven games and seven points in back-to-back games against the New Jersey Devils. That kind of production was good enough to make him the second star of the week.
His impressive goal scoring streak continued after the break, as he is now at eight games after scoring the tying and game-winning goal against the Carolina Hurricanes. During this extraordinary stretch, he has recorded 10 goals, regaining his scoring touch on-pace for a career best in terms of his goal production.
Marner is no doubt an exceptional and gifted playmaker. He’s always had a good shot, he’s just never utilized it as much as he should, always thinking of making a pass first instead of capitalizing on a shot. Now, we are witnessing a more offensively balanced threat for the Maple Leafs up front.
Marner has received quite a bit of criticism in the past, but now that he has a clear mind, the goals and points are rolling in quickly. He has become a more unpredictable player for the Maple Leafs now that the goal scoring has become a consistent tool in his arsenal. He isn’t afraid of taking a shot and he’s more aggressive in getting to the dirty areas.
If this hot streak is any indication, Marner’s confidence is now at an all-time high this season and when he’s on his game, he is unstoppable. When he shoots, he’s taking advantage of his scoring chances while doing it with conviction and getting power behind it. He knows where to be at the right time as he’s constantly tracking the puck and putting himself in a position to be a scoring threat. He isn’t second guessing himself and he’s reacting appropriately as the situation unfolds.
An energetic and confident Marner isn’t great news for the opposition now as he’s becoming more of a player who isn’t afraid to shoot.
If there’s one thing that’s been pretty obvious this season, it’s that defenseman Jake Muzzin has been inconsistent with his play. From the beginning of the season, Muzzin and his defense partner Jusin Holl have struggled quite a bit. In 27 games, they have a Corsi For percentage of 49.2% and a 44.4 goals percentage.
Signed for another two seasons at a cap hit of $5.625 million after 2021-22, Muzzin’s play really has been concerning as he has made some costly mistakes in his own end and isn’t as aggressive with his physicality. He’s been known to be a menacing two-way defender, and while that has shown up at times, the consistency remains a sticking point. Head coach Sheldon Keefe has given his critique of the veteran defender and hopes that the bad habits are worked out of his game.
Muzzin has been sidelined with a concussion after being hit by St. Louis Blues forward Klim Kostin. The good news is that he has made progress and has participated in a full practise with contact. The hope is that Muzzin is able to bounce back as he has shown it in the past.
“The one thing about Jake Muzzin is that, especially as people start to count him out or people think that he looks like he is starting to fade, he is very competitive and has a lot of pride,” general manager Kyle Dubas said about Muzzin according to TSN’s Mark Masters. “He is able to find his way back.”
Muzzin remains an important part to the Maple Leafs’ blueline, as well as being a vocal presence as he has the leadership and winning mentality. He has proven in the past that he can step up and elevate his game when it matters the most to give the team a fighting chance. In Game 5 of the playoffs last season, Muzzin stepped up big time when his team needed it most, scoring two critical goals to force overtime.
Although, the result isn’t what they wanted, Muzzin is capable of taking charge and stepping up when the team needs him. Once he’s healthy, expect him to bounce back and provide the aggressive demeanour at a time when the games get more intense as the playoffs near.
There was a lot of concern for Petr Mrazek early on in the season.
In his first two games, he sustained back-to-back groin injuries, forcing him to miss quite a bit of time. Even when he played, he was shaky and didn’t have any confidence in his game. With a contract of $3.8M for two more seasons, it was looking as if this was becoming a signing that may come back to haunt the Maple Leafs.
Mrazek has shown in the past that he is capable of providing strong goaltending, but the early season injuries created some doubt and the goaltending depth came into question. Up until Jan. 19, he only played in four games total going 2-2 and a save percentage under .890 in all those games. Since earning a win against the New York Islanders, Keefe has been giving Mrazek more opportunities and limiting Jack Campbell’s work load as fatigue looked to have set in.
Over his last four games, Mrazek has earned a victory– including coming in relief for Campbell against the New Jersey Devils in a 6-4 win. During this stretch of starts, Mrazek had a SV% of .900 or better in three of the four games, as well as a goals against average of three or lower in four of his last five games. A positive sign that things are starting to turn around and that he can be relied upon.
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Even though Mrazek’s play in the crease has improved in each game that he’s played since returning from injury, he had yet to face any sort of strong competition. He has faced the likes of the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and Islanders– teams that are near the bottom of the standings– but no contending teams. He finally played against one in the Hurricanes and looked to have held his own and provided the quality goaltending that the Maple Leafs signed up for in the offseason.
It was a tough win, but Mrazek definitely impressed in that outing to secure a win. He really made some remarkable saves when his team needed him to. Even when they committed a turnover and there was traffic in front, Mrazek was there to help them out.
With Mrazek rising to the occasion and succeeding against a top tier contender, he’s going to be a key piece down this tough stretch. The more minutes he plays, the more Campbell will be rested for when the Maple Leafs need their starter down the line. Keefe has said that they would need Mrazek when “the calendar turns to February” and they’re seeing the benefits of playing him more.
The Maple Leafs have ample depth throughout their lineup and players that play key roles. If they’re going to have any success in the second half, they’re going to have to rely on these three players to help push them over the top.
Statistics from Money Puck and Cap Friendly.