Well, it’s been a whirlwind for the Toronto Maple Leafs once again over the past couple of weeks with headlines of franchise records being broken backed by not-so-promising updates regarding their injured mates. Still, there is a lot to celebrate in Leaf land with their playoff spot secured and Auston Matthews continuing his torrid scoring pace.
That said, the volatility of a season can be hard on fans and that’s why we’re here to break down some of the latest ups and downs surrounding the Maple Leafs as they creep towards another playoff appearance. Now, here’s what’s going on with the blue and white.
Plus One: Maple Leafs’ Marner Bringing Physicality
Everyone remembers the tailspin that was the first round for the Maple Leafs last season. In control of the series against Montreal the Maple Leafs suffered yet another first-round exit with Jack Campbell taking the blame and pictures of Matthews and Mitch Marner sitting in the dressing room post-game floating through the minds of Leafs Nation.
In the offseason the team addressed some areas of need, adding a little more grit and tenacity. But the majority of the blame still rested on the shoulders of Matthews and Marner. Well, this season both are taking strides in their respective games. Matthews has scored at a torrid pace, while Marner has not only provided incredible offence, but has had a career-year in the physicality department.
He’s been credited with 68 hits through 64 games this season — including multiple games of six hits or more. Prior to this season, his career-high in hits was 41 as a 19-year-old in 2016-17. But what was lacking from the Maple Leafs last season was that edge. It was that ability for the top players to engage in the game, provide production on the offensive end and play physically when needed.
That’s not to say the Maple Leafs and Kyle Dubas are looking for their star players to lead each game in the hits department, rather utilize that side of the game whenever it’s needed. Marner’s engaged so far this season — even as a smaller player up front for the Maple Leafs and to this point it’s benefitted his game.
It’s said year in and year out that the playoffs are a different breed of hockey and Marner’s sudden addition to his game could prove beneficial to the Maple Leafs. Take note, Matthews has also had a career-high 58 hits through 68 games this season as well.
Minus One: Maple Leafs in Tough Against First-Round Possibilities
You name it. It could be the Florida Panthers, the Boston Bruins, or the back-to-back defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning. The fact is, the Maple Leafs are going to be in tough regardless of who they pull in their first-round matchup.
All the talk this season has been around the Maple Leafs and whether they will be able to find their way out of the first round and truly the pieces are there. But it all needs to come together at once.
This is the same team we’ve watch lose over and over again to the lowly Buffalo Sabres and the Montreal Canadiens. It the same team we’ve sat back and watch burn the Lightning and run through the Bruins. But the consistency has been their biggest problem — even into this season. They need their offensive prowess, but it needs to be backed up by the blue line and Campbell in net. Without all three areas running at full capability, the Maple Leafs will likely find themselves in a familiar situation following the NHL’s first round of playoff action.
While the teams they are looking down the barrel at have been nightmares for the Maple Leafs over the past few seasons and have the playoff experience to defeat the blue and white, Toronto is 5-1-1 this season against those three clubs. Anything can happen in the playoffs, but the Maple Leafs need to come out strong if they hope to exorcise their first-round demons this season.
Plus 2: Maple Leafs’ Matthews Scoring at Torrid Pace
Some have downplayed what Matthews has accomplished this season, having one of the best goal-scoring seasons in the past decade, breaking the franchise record for goals in a season and increasing his goal-per-game output over his career, but it really is astonishing what he’s been able to do for the Maple Leafs considering his season.
Let’s throw it back to his offseason wrist surgery. He missed three games to start the year and even then he wasn’t 100 percent when he returned. How the wrist can affect his shot is undoubtedly an inconvenience for the reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner. Add in a little two-game suspension and the fact that he was able to score 58 goals in 67 games (yes, I know he’s played 68 now this season) is quite the feat.
Add to that the fact that he scored 51 in a 50-game span and we’re talking about a historical pace — one that has only been accomplished by a handful of players over the past century.
Still, some have found ways to downplay what he’s done. But, not those who’ve really looked into the numbers.
He’s currently fifth in career goals-per-game behind Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux, Cy Denneny and Cecil ‘Babe’ Dye, averaging 0.64 goals per game over 402 career NHL games. Even then, if you’re talking about players who played at least 400 games, he’s third next to Bossy and Lemieux.
What makes it even more crazy is that he’s missed the time that he’s missed over his career. He’s just 24 years old and just entering the peak years of his career. As Sabres’ head coach Don Granato said, he can see Matthews accomplishing far more than what he has thus far. Even then, he’s having one of the best goal-scoring seasons in the history of the NHL and downplaying will only ignite him further.
Minus 2: Maple Leafs No-Show Buffalo
The words came right out of Sheldon Keefe’s mouth, the Maple Leafs have played the Sabres four times this season and no-showed every single time. While their record against the top three teams in the Atlantic has been one to write home about, their play against the Sabres this season has been — for the lack of a better word — abysmal.
The team is 1-3-0 this season in four games against their cross-border rivals, having been double-downed on production. They’ve scored 10 goals and given up 19 with their power play operating at a disappointing 10 percent click while their penalty kill has only killed off 75 percent of the infractions taken.
For whatever reason, this seems to be a storyline every year for the Maple Leafs, but that’s six points that the Maple Leafs have given up this season to the lowly Sabres. While the Maple Leafs have already locked down a playoff spot, as mentioned, the consistency of play will be a factor moving forward into the playoffs and into next year if this core is to be successful.
Plus 3: Maple Leafs Get Campbell Back
One of the biggest pluses, especially with Petr Mrázek out for the remainder of the season, is that the Maple Leafs got Jack Campbell back into the lineup. In his four games since returning, three of which were starts, he’s posted a 3-0-0 record with a 3.47 goals against average and an .891 save percentage.
Surely, we can all agree that these aren’t the numbers the Maple Leafs want heading into the postseason, however, they’ve continued to rest Campbell as much as possible over the past couple weeks aiming to have him at 100 percent for the start of the first round.
This season has been a long one for Campbell who started the year looking like a Vezina-type goalie only to struggle coming out of the break before going down with a rib injury. That, along with it being the first season he’s played this much in his NHL career, the Maple Leafs are hoping he can get back to his early season successes as they head into a pivotal first-round matchup.
Minus 3: Maple Leafs Still Missing Kaše, Sandin
Finally, the team has had to deal with some late season injuries with no real timeline on returns for both Ondrej Kaše and Rasmus Sandin. While Sandin’s injury doesn’t seem to be a long-term issue, Kaše has suffered yet another concussion which is frightening for the forward who has a history of head injuries.
His teammates have praised his play this season as he’s left it all on the ice and gives his all on every play which could be part of the reason in which he has been riddled with injuries over his career and during this season.
The hope is the Maple Leafs will see both players at some point before the year is over, but they will surely play it safe with Kaše as his could be a long lasting issue with his history.
That said, we’re into the final couple of weeks of the NHL regular season. There will certainly be more clarity going forward as to what the Maple Leafs will be looking at in the first round and we will have all that and more as we continue to cover the team’s ups and downs on a weekly basis.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.