Underestimated. Not ready. It doesn’t matter what excuse you want to use to explain the reason for the Toronto Maple Leafs losing another early season game – this time to the San Jose Sharks. Regardless they came away with no points and, once again, more questions than answers.
The Sharks remain without skilled forward Evander Kane, as he was suspended by the league for an ‘established violation’ of COVID-19 protocol, and started the season with Adin Hill and James Reimer as their goalie tandem. Many didn’t expect the Sharks to show up the way the have to start the year, but the team has gotten off to a hot start and now sit at 4-0-0 following the 5-3 victory over the Maple Leafs on Friday night.
As for the Maple Leafs, their game was far from pretty and head coach Sheldon Keefe had a lot to say following another disappointing game from his two stars on the top line. Still, we decided to take a look at a few parts of their game that stood out against the Sharks.
Maple Leafs’ Power Play Still in Shambles
It was a part of their game that let them down late in their playoff series last season against the Montreal Canadiens and it hasn’t picked up, even under new power play coach Spencer Carbery.
Through the teams first five games in 2021-22, the Maple Leafs power play is operating at just under 19 percent (18.8) and are ranked 17th in the league. They’re tied for the fifth most opportunities this season with 16 power play opportunities, having scored just three power play goals thus far.
While their penalty kill is operating at an 87.5 percent success rate on the season, they were able to shut down the Sharks power play three times on Friday night. That said, the Sharks have the best penalty kill in the NHL so far not having given up a single power play goal and that didn’t change against the Maple Leafs – holding them off the board on two opportunities.
It’s still very early in the season and it’s not time to panic just yet, but if the Maple Leafs want to make it past the first round, let alone make the playoffs, the power play is going to be a key factor in getting the job done and it’s got to start clicking soon for them.
Maple Leafs’ Ritchie Experiment Needs to End
It’s a small sample size, but Nick Ritchie being the third on the top line has proven to be a failure thus far. And there’s no sign of it getting any better. Whether he can’t keep up or he doesn’t have the intangibles required to play alongside Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, the Ritchie experiment took a turn on Friday when he was benched by Keefe to finish off the first and second periods.
It’s been suggested that maybe Michael Bunting would be a better fit on that top line, but maybe Marner and Matthews need to be separated as well. For whatever reason that top line isn’t clicking. That top power play unit isn’t clicking. And Matthews and Marner – you guessed it – aren’t getting it done offensively so far.
Now timing could be an issue with Matthews who is just getting back from his injury. And for Marner it could be a confidence thing the way that Leafs Nation turned on him in the offseason. But the fact that Ritchie is playing wing on the Maple Leafs first line isn’t helping the cause.
And while Keefe tried to deflect the blame in his post-game comments following the loss to the Sharks, saying that Marner and Matthews are as much to blame as Ritchie, the decision to continue to put Ritchie there with no success over the first five games, brings into question his coaching decisions as well.
Either way, regardless of who you want to blame, Ritchie’s time on the top line should be close to an end. His replacement? Well, that’s up for debate.
Maple Leafs Need Help in Net
Finally, if there was one clear takeaway from Friday’s loss, it’s that the Maple Leafs are going to need support in net if Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek can’t stay healthy. To this point, Campbell has done his job and with the confidence of the team playing in front of him, but against the Sharks, Michael Hutchinson looked lost. He looked like he was guessing on every shot from the Sharks’ players and in four instances guessed wrong.
Career-wise his numbers aren’t standout type numbers. He has a 2.79 goals against average (GAA) and .906 save percentage (SV%) while sporting a 55-55-15 record in 136 regular season games – 29 of which are with the Maple Leafs.
But if the Maple Leafs want to set themselves apart from other teams this year, that kind of effort isn’t going to cut it. In fact, the hope is that Mrazek can bring something more when he returns from injury.
Campbell’s numbers are great to start the year, but he can’t play every game and he will slip up at times this season. The Maple Leafs need a credible back up and if Friday night was any indication, Hutchinson likely isn’t the guy.
With that all said, don’t hit the panic button yet Leafs Nation. While hockey fans aren’t used to it lately, this is an 82-game season and there’s a lot more time left for the Maple Leafs to figure it out.
Maple Leafs Back in Action on Saturday
As for having a short memory, the Maple Leafs will get a chance to forget all about the loss against the Sharks as they will be back on the ice Saturday in Pittsburgh when they take on the wounded Penguins. But the Maple Leafs shouldn’t take them lightly. You never know what could happen.
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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.