Nine games into the 2019-20 season, there are a few concerns surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs. While much of the attention has been on their questionable defensive play and back-up goaltending woes, there are a few players that the team is looking for to step up.
Captain John Tavares and star winger Mitch Marner have been dealing with a slow offensive start to the regular season through eight of the nine games. With them being two key offensive threats last season, it’s hard to imagine that they would be the ones to start off slow. Auston Matthews is already among the league leaders in goals, William Nylander is back in his groove, and Morgan Rielly (while defensive game is an issue) has 11 points.
Marner and Tavares combined take up just over 27 percent of the team’s cap space. With their cap hits, it’s easy to jump up and say that they need to be producing at a high rate. While they’re still getting points, it’s not at the pace that they were scoring last season. However, here are a few reasons why there is no cause for concern.
They’re Too Good to Be Average
We know that Marner and Tavares are capable of performing at a higher level than what we have seen. Last year, the two dominated together as Marner had a career year in goals (26), assists (68) and points (94). Tavares managed to set a new career high in goals with 47 and almost hit the 50-goal mark.
After eight games together, the duo has looked average. Their possession stats are strong, having a 56.59 Corsi for percentage at five-on-five. While they’re getting their chances, the results haven’t been on their side. In addition, they have combined for three goals while being on for nine against.
In comparison to last year, the numbers are down but not at a drastic rate. Here’s a look at Tavares and Marner’s points through their first eight games:
|John Tavares||6 goals, 5 assists, 11 points||3 goals, 4 assists, 7 points|
|Mitch Marner||4 goals, 7 assists, 11 points||3 goals, 6 assists, 9 points|
While a total of seven points for Tavares and nine for Marner may not seem a lot, both are still in the top five in team scoring. Marner is just above a point per game while Tavares is just under that mark, which is still respectable. It may not be at the same pace as last year, but they’re still on a good path.
While Marner will be on pace for 100 points, it might be tough now that he won’t have Tavares as his centre as he is sidelined with a broken finger. But this seems to be where Marner tends to shine. Last year when Matthews was sidelined with an injury, Marner stepped up and tallied 18 points in 14 games.
Could this be Marner’s moment after signing his massive six-year, $65.358 million contract and prove his worth without his centreman? It’s starting to look that way, after registering two primary assists, including one on Rielly’s game-winning goal against the Boston Bruins.
While this is the perfect time for Marner to step up, it’s also a time for others to contribute more, as well.
Depth Scoring Continues to Shine
While Tavares’ injury is another glitch for the Maple Leafs, they have at least one thing going for them — their depth scoring. With him out, it’s been reported that Alexander Kerfoot will his place on the second line, while Jason Spezza will replace Kerfoot on the third line.
Babcock had other plans for his lines. While Kerfoot is now the second centre, Marner was bumped up to the top line with Matthews and Andreas Johnsson against the Bruins. This change proved to pay dividends as Kerfoot scored and provided a lot of energy on the Maple Leafs’ second line.
“Kerf’s way better than we expected,” head coach Mike Babcock said in an article by TSN’s Mark Masters. “He’s way grittier, got more grease to him. We think he’s going to make way more plays as time goes on and he gets more comfortable. He’s just got to continue to work on his defensive side more so he has the puck more. That’s the big thing for him.”
Kerfoot, along with second-line winger Ilya Mikheyev, have been nothing but impressive in their starts. Kerfoot has five points in nine games and Mikeheyev, who got promoted to the Tavares line against the Washington Capitals, has seven points.
The fact that the depth players were scoring before the Tavares injury is a really great sign and this could attribute to the lower numbers for Marner and Tavares. A team that gets contributions from everyone is always a good thing, whether your top players are playing well or not.
This will alleviate some of the pressure on the top players. One example is the game against the Detroit Red Wings where the depth players shined. Frederik Gauthier, Trevor Moore and even Dmytro Timashov have proven to be effective in depth roles and have continued to have a tremendous impact each game.
Scoring depth for any team will go a long way during the season and playoffs. Even though teams pay the big dollars for their star players, if the Maple Leafs’ scoring depth continues to do what’s made them successful, then the team will be in a good spot, even with Tavares’ injury.
The Zach Hyman Effect
If there’s one theory that might be feasible, it’s the absence of Zach Hyman. Even though the two superstars’ play shouldn’t be hampered due to their high skill level, having someone with Hyman’s presence to constantly attack and get in on the forecheck does serve a purpose for the two.
With Kasperi Kapanen on that line, you had three players with speed, skill and the ability to play fast. While that does seem like a great recipe for success, it wasn’t working out with Kapanen on that line. It seemed like the chemistry wasn’t there as it was when Hyman was on the other wing. Kapanen’s play style is much different than Hyman’s. When Kapanen was taken off the Tavares line against the Capitals, he seemed to be more confident and at ease with his game.
Kapanen tends to be another fast puck-mover, while Hyman’s main intent is to get the play started by aggressively attacking the defenders. When he gets great positioning and possession in the offensive zone, Hyman is able to do all the dirty work down low and in front of the net, giving players like Marner and Tavares the ability to get to the open areas on the ice.
Like this play leading to Andreas Johnsson’s goal.
His play compliments Marner and Tavares and balances everything out on that line. Which is why they were a very successful line together last year.
Both Marner and Tavares are both too good to just be average. Tavares is an exceptional centre and veteran while Marner is one of the most entertaining players to watch when the puck is on his stick. Players go through stretches where they may not put up as many points as they should. In the end, there should be no fear or concern for the way they have played. They’ll get up to speed.