Maple Leafs Player Performance: Blue Jackets Oct. 4

In the Toronto Maple Leafs’ second game of the season and their first road game, they beat the Columbus Blue Jackets, 4-1. Newly signed Mitch Marner scored three times (two goals and an assist), Auston Matthews had another goal, and defenseman Cody Ceci, who’s better known as a stay-at-home-defenseman, scored his first goal of the season (he had seven goals in total last season with the Ottawa Senators).

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Captaincy, Top-6 Combos, Marner, Spezza

Finally, and perhaps most important, Frederik Andersen looked strong in net and made 28 saves to stop the Blue Jackets, who are notoriously difficult to beat at home.

As Andersen noted, “First one on the road you want to start playing simple.” However, it wasn’t as simple as a 4-1 score might seem. The offense clicked. It both sustained pressure on the Blue Jackets and was slick on the power play. That said, the offense also turned the puck over way too often, and Andersen was forced to make a number of difficult saves to keep the game in check.

Is there some new power-play positioning? Specifically, on the first Marner goal, John Tavares seemed to almost play the role that Marc Gasol played with the Toronto Raptors. The ball would come to him, and he distributed it to teammates. For example, Tavares’ simple, quick return touch pass to Marner set up the goal because the defense had shifted.

Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs centre John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

As I did after the opening game against the Ottawa Senators, I want to do a player review of five Maple Leafs who play I found noteworthy.

Player Review One: Mitch Marner

As I noted above, Marner scored quickly (eight seconds into a power play) in the first period, throwing a puck over Finnish goalie Joonas Korpisalo’s shoulder from the left circle.

Marner noted, “That’s what I worked a lot on this summer, getting the puck in my hands and getting the shot off quicker, not holding onto it and making pretty plays.”

Marner’s second goal came when he made a great move to the net, shot, and watched the puck bounce around and then actually be pushed into the net by Korpisalo’s skate. It might not have been clean, but putting the puck on the net only came after a brilliant individual attack by Marner.

Related: Tyson Barrie Content to Fly Under the Radar for Now with Maple Leafs

Marner has been really strong in the first two regular season games. It might be easy to fault his negotiation tactics, but it’s almost impossible to fault his play. I will probably never say he’s earning his salary, but he’s playing really well and leading the team.

Player Review Two: Morgan Rielly

Morgan Rielly had three assists, two on the power play, in the 4-1 win. The 25-year-old defenseman also blocked two shots and seemed quietly strong both on defense and offense. He played both on the power play and short-handed, had two hits, and two PIM for the night. Rielly’s proving his scoring production last season was no fluke with four assists in two games.

Player Review Three: Jason Spezza

After being a healthy scratch in the Maple Leafs home opener, Jason Spezza got a chance to play and lived up to his new pay-grade just fine in the 10 minutes he played. He followed orders and contributed.

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston theorized that at the heart of head coach Mike Babcock’s uncertainty about Spezza was that he wasn’t convinced Spezza would willingly embrace a grinder’s life. However, he did.

Toronto Maple Leafs Jason Spezza
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Johnston pointed out that the 17-season veteran, who’s played more than 1,030 NHL games, won a couple key draws, had two shots on net, and helped the fourth line take all the even-strength shots taken when the fourth line was on the ice. And this happened, as Johnston noted, “despite starting all three post-whistle shifts it took in the defensive zone.”

Ceci believed Spezza “was definitely a force for us tonight. He’s a big body, he controls the puck and, yeah, he was drawing penalties and hemming them in their zone. He’s always good at controlling the puck since he’s got that long reach.”

Related: Mitch Marner Scores Twice, Maple Leafs Beat Blue Jackets 4-1

Babcock agreed, “I thought Spezza was real good and I thought he was real happy to be doing what he’s doing. He was great on the bench. He was great on the ice. He was good in the room.” He furthered the thought, “I was impressed with him tonight. I was impressed [that] he was happy with what we need him to do.”

Player Review Four: Frederik Andersen

Andersen played great all night in goal. He was solid stopping the puck in five-on-five situations, but he looked especially calm facing down a number of clean breakaways, which the offense seemed to give up several times. Except for the one Blue Jackets goal, he looked as if he thought the game well.

On that one goal, even when I watched the replay several times, I couldn’t figure out why Andersen went for the poke-check. It looked like he got caught between a thought and an idea. He gambled and lost – goal against. Otherwise, he was solid all game and made stopping pucks seem like a regular day at the office. The team can’t count on Andersen to do that all season long, but on this one night, it worked.

Player Review Five: Frederik Gauthier

It’s worth talking more about Frederik Gauthier because he seems to have become a leader on a fourth line that line is adding good value to the team. The Leafs fourth line finished with 7 attempts for / 0 against and 5 shots for / 0 against at five-on-five. That’s good work. Whenever the fourth line played, it seemed to keep the puck hemmed into the Maple Leafs offensive zone. And, when the fourth line does that, that helps everyone.

Toronto Maple Leafs Frederik Gauthier
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Frederik Gauthier (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Prior to training camp, a number of hockey commentators believed Gauthier’s time might have expired with the team. But there he is, night-after-night, being the staple on a productive fourth line. His size, reach, and powerful cycle have earned him regular time and he’s taken advantage of it.

Related: 5 Maple Leafs Player Reviews From 5-3 Game 1 Win

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

On Saturday, Oct. 5, the Maple Leafs return home to play the Montreal Canadiens, who are looking for their first win and trying to prevent the Maple Leafs from going 3-0 in their season’s start. Michael Hutchinson will start in goal Saturday, and Spezza returns to the press box.