Welcome to the first week of December. The 2020-21 regular season is a quarter of the way finished, and the Toronto Maple Leafs – to the surprise of many, including their own fans – are on top of the NHL with 35 points. Last night they were joined by the Florida Panthers who beat the Buffalo Sabres.
Still, after Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe has engaged in some fiddling with the lines and some doubling-down on key principles such as (a) everyone plays defense and we need to be ready to win 1-0 games and (b) start the game with energy and don’t get caught on your heels right off the get-go, the team seems to be in a good place both psychologically and on the record sheet. Obviously, there remain things to fix. Nick Ritchie hasn’t scored a goal and the goalie situation is unsettled. Jack Campbell’s backup has not yet emerged.
In this post, and perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek, I want to look at three things that – right now, at this point during the season – I really like about covering the Maple Leafs. This is turning into one of the most enjoyable Maple Leafs’ seasons in recent memory for me and, I know, for others. [Thanks Gcmgome for giving me the idea for doing this post.]
What I Like #1: The Maple Leafs Are Committed to Playing Great Defense
Oddly, in a season where last season’s shut-down defensive pairing of Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl are not playing as well as they have (they are recently playing better), the team’s defense is even improved from the huge jump it made last season. Part of that’s the improved defense and part is improved commitment to defense by the forward lines.
Obviously, Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie are still playing well. Furthermore, Rielly has played with more confidence since his contract extension. As well, the emergence of Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren has helped fans forget they needed to re-sign Zach Bogosian. Both young Swedes have the makings of solid NHL defensemen.
To my eye, the pairing of Muzzin and Travis Dermott has been every bit as effective as Muzzin’s pairing with Holl. It even seems that, given coach Keefe’s deployment, the Maple Leafs have an extra defenseman in the wings in case of an injury. That’s a potentially positive thing for the future.
However, the offense is also defensive. Ondrej Kase has a motor that won’t quit. While he comes with an NHL offensive resume, he’s happily fitting in with his childhood friend from the Czech Republic David Kampf to give the team that aggressively successful checking third line Keefe has always wanted.
Kampf was always a great defensive player with the Chicago Blackhawks, who surprisingly didn’t qualify him. And, when he moved to Toronto, Kase decided to come as well because he wanted to play with his friend – really that’s what happened. Unpacking the value of that thought would take many words, but that’s another post. Unless their salary needs grow past the Maple Leafs’ abilities, which is true with any NHL team these days, does anyone see Kampf or Kase going anywhere soon? Not me.
What I Like #2: Jack Campbell Might Get the Vezina, But He’s Not Alone
Jack Campbell is leading the NHL in three key goalie categories. He has 13 wins (Frederik Andersen has 11); his goals-against-average is 1.72 (Andersen’s is 2.04); and, his save percentage is .943 (Andersen’s is .928). Campbell is also tied for the lead in the NHL in games played with 19. The team would probably like to change that.
Although the Petr Mrazek goalie-1B story has yet to unfold because of his groin injury, that doesn’t mean Campbell is alone in the organization. Suddenly, it seems the farm system has some merit at the goalie position.
There are three young goalies of note. It’s impossible to ignore the success of Joseph Woll who, when he was called on to back up Campbell, seemed to be the best of some not-so-solid choices. But Woll’s created into his own narrative. Second and third, within the past year, the Maple Leafs picked up Erik Kallgren and Keith Petruzzelli. Kallgren was carrying the Toronto Marlies before he was injured, and Petruzzelli was tearing it up in the ECHL.
In early November, Petruzzelli of the Newfoundland Growlers was named the ECHL Goaltender of the Month for October. Four days ago, he won his first AHL start in overtime when Alex Steeves (another great Maple Leafs’ prospect) scored to win the game. In other words, the goalie situation for the organization is not as bleak as once thought.
What I Like #3: I Don’t Keep Hearing Calls to Trade William Nylander
The other thing I personally like about the team right now is that calls for William Nylander’s head have all but disappeared. There was a time not long ago when “Trade Nylander” seemed to be a rallying cry for a host of Maple Leafs’ fans. He’s weak, selfish, doesn’t care, is a “pretty-boy,” won’t play defense, hogs the puck, can’t play within a system, needs motivation, etc. were all leveled against him.
Given Nylander’s strong play this season, those calls have diminished. He’s the second-leading scorer on the Maple Leafs with 23 points in 24 games. His line partner John Tavares is the leading Maple Leafs’ scorer with 25 points in 23 games. Do you think they play well together?
I haven’t heard a thing about Nylander being overpaid in months. That’s refreshing. It often made me wonder how some Maple Leafs’ fans could enjoy games – even wins – when there was so much to be unhappy about.
Obviously, Readers Must Consider the Source
In academic research, which I did for decades and still teach at several Canadian universities, there’s a principle called “conceptual framework.” It means that research is not just cut-and-dry. When one reads any research, it helps to understand where the researcher is coming from.
That works on this post, too. My perspective comes from a place. My conceptual framework is that (a) I focus on the positive and not the negative and (b) I try to consider both the immediate and the contextual history.
That said, I’m enjoying this team and this season. The coming back-to-back road trip will be difficult; but, heading into it, even if the team loses both games I won’t believe the sky is falling. There’s something different about his team, and I’m enjoying watching the season unfold.
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The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act).
If you wonder why he doesn’t use his real name, it’s because his son – who’s also Jim Parsons – wrote for The Hockey Writers first and asked Jim Sr. to use another name so readers wouldn’t confuse their work.
Because Jim Sr. had worked in China, he adopted the Mandarin word for teacher (老師). The first character lǎo (老) means “old,” and the second character shī (師) means “teacher.” The literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” That became his pen name. Today, other than writing for The Hockey Writers, he teaches graduate students research design at several Canadian universities.
He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf