For the past two months, the Toronto Maple Leafs have looked like a completely different team from what we all watched at the beginning of this season and last season. They weren’t the best team defensively by any means, but they played to their strength, which was being a fast offense-focused team.
By December, the Leafs seemed to have changed their playing style into a more defensive approach with a focus on dumping and chasing the puck versus carrying it. Now, this may have been Mike Babcock’s way of forcing the team to play defense and develop into a team that can play at both ends of the ice. This way, come the playoffs, the Leafs will be a team that can go beyond the first round.
And it was a good point in the season to try this, as the Atlantic Division is incredibly weak this season outside of the top three teams in the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and the Leafs. Through 51 games the Leafs sit at 61 points and 15 points ahead of the trailing Detroit Red Wings.
But now with the All-Star weekend over, the NHL is into the final stretch of the season heading to the playoffs and it was time for a change for the Leafs. Heading into the Jan. 24 game against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Leafs had only won three of their nine games in the new year and their league-leading offense had all but dried up.
So with just a few changes to the forward lineup, the Leafs won back-to-back games against Chicago and the Dallas Stars and once again looked like the high-flying team from the start of the season. Babcock needs to stick with this optimized lineup that has jump-started the Leafs’ offense and restrain himself from going back to the original lines that had become stale.
Kadri Is Back on Track
The easiest way to look at the Leafs’ scoring troubles is by comparing the start of the season to now. From the start of the season to Nov. 30, the Leafs led the NHL with 91 goals in 26 games. Then from Nov. 30 to Jan. 29, the Leafs sit 17th in the NHL with 67 goals in 25 games. That’s almost a third fewer goals in the same amount of games.
Now the Leafs did lose Auston Matthews for a few games, but losing one player shouldn’t decimate the offense from the rest of the forwards. The biggest change was with Nazem Kadri, who in the previous 20 games before the game against Chicago had just two points.
And yes, you read that right. Kadri had just one goal and one assist in 20 games. Every player goes through slumps, but this was exceptionally bad considering Kadri was second in shots during that time and had a 1.8 shooting percentage to show for it. This is the same player that had 32 goals and a career-high 61 points the previous season.
So by moving Leo Komarov off of the Patrick Marleau and Kadri line and bringing Mitch Marner on, it totally changed the line’s dynamic. Marner brings speed and a playmaking drive to the line that fits well with two previous 30-goal scorers. In the short time that this line has played together, for all of two games, Kadri has come away with three goals.
This was a line change that was sorely needed to get Kadri’s season back on track.
New Fourth Line and Bozak Getting Defensive
So with Marner moving off of the James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak line, they got a new winger in Connor Brown. Brown is the best choice for this line as he brings some much-needed defensive reliability while still allowing the line to be an offensive threat.
Although this doesn’t solve the problem of van Riemsdyk and Bozak being dreadful in their own end, it at least provides a band-aid to the problem. Personally, those two need to be split up as the Leafs are at a disadvantage every time they get stuck in their own end. The Bozak line still didn’t look great, but if Bozak and van Riemsdyk have to stick together, then this was the only smart decision.
Then the biggest change was the fourth line. Out was Matt Martin, and Frederik Gauthier was sent back down to the Toronto Marlies. Dominic Moore was brought back into the lineup and Kasperi Kapanen was called up, and both were put on a line with Komarov. With a fourth line including Kapanen and Komarov, it meant that the line was defensively responsible and gained a scoring threat in Kapanen.
Through nine games with the Leafs, Babcock gave Gauthier a look as the fourth-line center, but it quickly became clear that he’s far from being an NHL-capable player. He looked out of place and put the team at a disadvantage multiple times because of his poor decision-making and skating. Now he is still only 22 years old and has time to improve, but it’s going to take a lot for him to become an NHL regular.
Although Martin is having a great season, he’s the obvious choice to come out of the lineup so that Kapanen can finally get back in. And with that change, the Leafs have optimized their lineup so that every line has a scoring threat while also being responsible in their own end.
Babcock on whether he'll revert to old lines after break: "Obviously they played good, I saw that too." Basically said he'll take the break to think it over.
Previously he said the plan was to put Kadri and Komarov back together at home.
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) January 26, 2018
The real test now with this lineup is seeing if they can continue this success before Babcock decides to revert the lines back to their original state, as he’s been quick to change lines back to what is considered safe when things aren’t going their way.