7 Observations from the Maple Leafs First 7 Games

The Toronto Maple Leafs have played seven games in the regular season. They suit up for game eight against the San Jose Sharks tonight. After seven games played, what are seven observations about the team’s play thus far during the season? 

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What do we know about the team now that we didn’t know when the season began? Will things change over the next seven games?

Observation One: Nick Robertson Is Here to Stay

Nick Robertson looks like the real deal this season. He’s played three games and has three points – two goals and an assist. Not only that, he’s engaging fully by blocking shots and digging out pucks. He’s helping the team’s second line prosper. 

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Don’t expect the diminutive forward to be on his way back to the AHL Toronto Marlies any time soon. He’s here to stay.  

Nick Robertson Toronto Maple Leafs
Nick Robertson, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

What a difference this season from last. In two previous tries to crack the Maple Leafs’ roster over the last two years, Robertson only registered two points in 16 games. This season, the 21-year-old Robertson – along with his points – also has registered a plus-1 rating with the teams’ second line. Is he the answer to the team’s question about a second-ling winger?

Observation Two: Sheldon Keefe Doesn’t Always Have His Team Ready to Play

There was a time not long ago, I couldn’t imagine replacing Sheldon Keefe as the Maple Leafs’ head coach. Still, his record deserves consideration for his staying. I’m certainly not making a case to move him. Still, the road has not been smooth this season.

In addition, Keefe’s a much better coach than he was during the team’s first postseason three seasons ago. In that series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, I thought he panicked when he threw all his firepower into one line. When that line couldn’t get the job done, there was no other answer.

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Since then, he’s grown as a coach. He’s thoughtful about what’s happening and he learns on the job. I can see it. That said, the team hasn’t been ready to play in three games this season. Monday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights was only the last one.

As well, the Maple Leafs’ coaching staff also couldn’t seem to figure out how to get the puck to the net against the Arizona Coyotes. And the Montreal Canadiens’ game was there for the pickings. They didn’t pick it. 

I don’t know what’s happening; and, it might just be my imagination. However, when this team shows up flat – especially when the first line isn’t scoring like we expect them to – that gives me pause.

Observation Three: Thoughts of John Tavares’ Demise are Greatly Exaggerated

All offseason, I had read so much about John Tavares losing his speed and falling into mediocrity. It hasn’t happened so far during this regular season. He’s been nothing but solid as a player. 

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

He has hands of gold; and, can he shoot the puck into a small space? Yes! The 32-year-old Tavares continues to have a solid season. Thus far, he has three goals and five assists (for eight points). He’s also playing well on the power play, with five points. 

In the third period against the Golden Knights, Tavares went down after taking a 97-mile-an-hour slapshot from Rasmus Sandin off the side of the knee. I was more than greatly relieved to see him return to the ice later in the game. The team needs him.  

Observation Four: Forget His History, Ilya Samsonov Can Play  

Ilya Samsonov has done everything he can to keep the Maple Leafs in the games he’s played. He seems to give up a random goal now and then, but when he’s settled in he’s settled in. 

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In his only loss during the team’s last game against the Golden Knights, had he been able to hold the score at 1-1 as it was after the second period, it would have been one of those games the goalie stole. The fact is that the Maple Leafs have not won a game when he hasn’t been in the net. 

Samsonov is 4-1 in five starts. The most goals he’s given up in a game is three. This loss wasn’t his fault. In fact, were it not for him, the score would have been much worse than 3-1.

The 25-year-old Samsonov has only allowed 10 goals in his five games. That’s good enough. As I noted in another post, there’s also something reassuring about Samsonov’s demeanour in the crease. He reads the plays in front of him really well. He doesn’t panic when the opposition is pressing. 

Ilya Samsonov Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Samsonov, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

In addition, Samsonov has a quirky personality thus far during media interviews. If he can keep playing as he has, he’s going to become a fan favourite. Jack who?

Observation Five: It Isn’t the Same Without Matthews and Marner Scoring

Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have not yet hit their stride. After the Vegas game, Matthews and Marner are still stuck on one goal apiece. As far as point totals, they’ve totalled nine assists between them (Matthews has five and Marner four), which puts them both one good game from a point-a-game pace. However, that just isn’t good enough for these two Maple Leafs’ stars. 

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The truth is that I’m anticipating a breakout game for both tonight in San Jose against the Sharks. Given the play of the team’s second line, I don’t think it’s time to break up the first line yet. However, waiting for the two to break out has made Maple Leafs’ fans more than a bit anxious.

I do have to credit Matthews for playing hurt. It was obvious he was beaten up during the Dallas Stars, but he kept coming. One part of his game is his determination to succeed. Given that, I have to believe he’ll determine his way out of his goal-scoring slump and bring his first-line partners with him.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes a save on Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs
(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

It’s also good that Matthews is making smart plays on the ice. His overtime pass to Robertson for the game-winner was perfect for several reasons. He’s still playing well, he just needs a three-point game to get back to a point-a-game pace. 

Observation Six: The Fourth Line Is Not Doing Its Job – Yet

This observation is probably the most troublesome. I was looking forward to watching the Maple Leafs’ fourth-line play this season. I loved the idea of throwing the old way of thinking about fourth-line play out the window as a “rest stop” for the top six during the game.

I thought the plan for the Maple Leafs to strategically create a crash-and-bang fourth line that would beat down the opponents’ top-scoring lines all game long was a good one. I thought it would bring physicality by committee. I also thought they had found the guys for it. 

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So far, it hasn’t worked as well as I thought it would. The fourth line hasn’t found its personality. They are not as hard to play against as I expected. They haven’t yet hit, disrupted, beat on, overwhelmed, or won the battles they’ve needed to. Instead of the other team looking over their shoulders all game long, the fourth line has not provided the kind of play I expected.

Stubborn as I am, I still think the idea of such a fourth line is a good one, especially for the postseason. But, I admit. It hasn’t happened yet. 

Observation Seven: Having a 23-Man Roster Makes a Difference

When Matt Murray went down to an injury and onto LTIR, the one upside was that the Maple Leafs’ salary-cap space was increased. That has allowed some extra bodies, and those extra bodies made a difference in the team’s play. 

Wayne Simmonds Toronto Maple Leafs
Wayne Simmonds, Toronto Maple Leafs Right Wing (Photo by Steven Kingsman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Early in the regular season, when the Maple Leafs carried a 20-player roster, it was tough to make needed changes. With a 23-player roster, changes can be made more easily. That means new players sit out a game. It has to be good for internal competition.

So Far: Not All Good & Not All Bad

As I’ve laid out seven observations for the season thus far, not all of these are good. Then, not all are bad either. 

Interestingly, because the season is still young, a number of these can change. It will be interesting to look back in another seven games or so and see what we know better about this team.

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