The 2021-2022 Maple Leafs

It seems incredible that a Canadian NHL team has not won the Stanley Cup since Montreal did it in 1993.

Yes, 1993.  29 years ago.

I said last year that the 2020-21 Montreal Canadiens were probably the least talented team to ever make the Stanley Cup Finals.  I seem to have been vindicated in my opinion by their performance this year: they are nowhere near the level they seemed to reach in the 2021 playoffs.   Really good teams rarely fail to perform well in the years just before and after a championship appearance.   Even after the loss of a star player, most great teams will have a core of solid talents that carry them through the early rounds.  My theory was that their progress then was largely due to Carey Price and sheer determination and hustle and a bit of luck (the Leafs were very close to eliminating them in the first round).  This year, the Canadiens lost Price to personal issues and collapsed as a team.  It will be a while before they return to a competitive level, though perhaps not as long as we used to think.  NHL teams lately have shown a remarkable ability to rebuild quickly.

The Leafs have what is probably the best team they have ever put on the ice, with the exception of goal-tending.  Austin Matthews may well be the best over-all player in the NHL this year; Mitch Marner is not far behind– if he is behind.  Marner’s incredible vision on the ice is remarkable.  In a game tonight against the Islanders, he made a back-handed pass right onto the tape of Nylander’s stick that seemed jarringly unlikely given his position, headed into the corner.  He has an uncanny awareness of where the spaces are, where his team-mates are, and who is a position to shoot.  He does this a lot.  How many goals would Matthews have if he were playing with someone else?  But then, how many assists would Marner have?  Last night, in the absence of Matthews,  Marner set up Nylander several other times but Nylander missed all except one, and that one squiggled through the goalie.

One commentator tonight (April 23) mentioned, in an off-hand manner, that Marner might be “underrated”.  I think he’s right.  They showed a list of the top five candidates for the Hart trophy:  the leading scorer of the past 3 months was not on the list.  Yes, that’s Mitch Marner.

Michael Bunting is supposed to be the gritty line-mate to compliment Marner and Matthew’s finesse but it would be useful if he receive passes with a bit more dexterity and cash in on some of the golden opportunities his line-mates give him.   Why do other teams hate him?  Sure, he draws a lot of penalties, but he’s not really a “dirty” player.   But other teams tend to go after him for some unknown reason.

In addition to Marner and Matthews, the Leafs have several pretty good secondary offensive threats, particularly in Nylander, a mysterious player who often seems to be punching the clock, until you notice that he has 6 goals in the last 8 games.  Where did they come from?  He often misses the net, because he always tries for the corners, usually the upper corners, but his shots are crisp and quick, he’s a great puck handler, and he is very fast.  He may score 50 some day.  John Tavares should be providing more of a threat from the 2nd line than he currently does.  He’s just not as sharp as Marner or Matthews but I give him credit for grit and determination for a good player past his prime.

Ilya Mikheyev is also impressive.  The Leafs have had speedy forwards before but often without a deft touch at the net (Russ Courtnall, Kasperi Kapanen): Mikheyev shows signs of figuring out how to actually get it past the goaltender once he has broken free of the defense, which he does a lot.  Alex Kerfoot is a threat– like Tavares, gritty and persistent, and he’s also pretty fast.  Pierre Engvall has good nights and may end up being a key part of the team if it advances.  He is big but also quick and a threat on the penalty kill.

Jason Spezza should really sit down.  He’s just not that quick anymore.  When is the last time he got a goal?  Filler.  He seems like a likeable guy but, sheesh, the Leafs are gunning for playoff success here and I really believe a younger talented player like Blackwell would be more helpful than Spezza at this point.

On defense, I believe Reilly may be over-rated.  Yes, he’s a good skater and gets a lot of assists, but he also occasionally rushes to the net and shoots right at the goalie’s midsection, or he rushes down the ice, blowing past players to the left and the right, then he dumps the puck in.  Tonight, he broke in alone on goal and couldn’t manage to do anything except fall down in front of the goalie as the puck slid away.  Still, it’s very hard to measure the defensive impact of a player who, through good skating and puck handling, minimizes the time the other team spends in possession of the puck.   It’s one thing for a defenseman to block a shot; it’s even better if the other team never got the shot in the first place.

Mark Giordano is not bad.  He seems reliable.  Ilya Lyubushkin is a question mark: he often just fumbles around with the puck, unsure of where to go or what to do.  Jake Muzzin is okay and a balance to the more offensive-minded partners on defense.   Brodie makes a lot of mistakes lately.  Justin Holl made a lot of mistakes earlier in the season but has improved though he still makes bad decisions in his own zone– turning around and going back and getting trapped in the corner, or passing to someone who is about to be checked.   Actually, he does that a lot.  Timothy Liljegren has been playing well lately, going to the net when the opportunity presents itself.  Rasmus Sandin makes mistakes but also looks promising.

The Leaf’s biggest 5 on 5 weakness is their inability to break up the play when trapped in their own zone: the puck seems to ricochet around the boards from one attacking defenseman to another until they can force a scramble in front of the net or a one-timer from the side.  Buffalo, for some reason, seemed adept at breaking up that kind of zone trap against the Leafs,  but the Leafs seem flummoxed by that kind of action in their own end.  They chase and  scramble along the boards and then give up the puck.

The real problem– and Leafs’ management knows it — is that, aside from a spell earlier in the season, Jack Campbell has not been reliable in goal, and Petr Mrazek has been awful.  Erik Kallgren showed some promise but has also had disastrous nights.  At one point, it appears that Kyle Dubas was involved in secret negotiations for Fleury from Chicago but they fell through, and it’s Campbell, probably, for the playoffs, and I shudder to think the Leafs might be involved in some close games.

In the last few years, Frederick Anderson fooled fans by making a brilliant save or two and then losing sight of a shot from the point, or losing track of the puck in a scramble in front of the net and giving up a cheap goal.  Fans tend to judge goalies generously if they make a spectacular save or two, but the really great playoff goalies are consistent.  Nothing is more depressing than to see a team make a gritty, determined effort to tie the game only to see a fluke shot go in at the other end, something that happened regularly with Frederick Anderson, memorably against Boston two years ago.   And nothing gives a team more confidence to make daring attacks than a spectacular save by their goalie after one of those daring attacks goes wrong, as Price did last year for Montreal.

Any of about a half-dozen teams or more could win the Stanley Cup this year:

  • Toronto Maple Leafs
  • Colorado Avalanche
  • Florida Panthers
  • Tampa Bay Lightening
  • St. Louis Blues
  • New York Rangers
  • Minnesota Wild
  • Carolina Hurricanes

Another half-dozen, including Boston and Pittsburgh, have an outside chance of pulling a few upsets in the  first or second rounds of the playoffs.

There is no magic formula to determining who is most likely to win.  There are always surprises and disappointments.  On paper, the Panthers and Avalanche would be favorites, but both are beatable– any team is– on a good night for the other team  (the Panthers, at home tonight, just barely escaped with an overtime victory against the Leafs who had the better chances in the 3rd period).  Over a best of seven series, good luck, great goal-tending, and that intangible, random, thing we sometimes call “focus” or “inspiration” or “grit” can play a huge role in determining the outcome.  We’ve all seen teams with amazing scoring prowess suddenly totally smothered by disciplined defensive team with great goal-tending.   It happened to Toronto, Vegas,  Pittsburgh, and Colorado in 2021.   It could happen to any of the great offensive teams this year, Florida, Toronto, and Colorado.

The Leafs have gone 17 seasons without winning a single playoff series, and are 0-8 in potential series winning games over that stretch.  That may sound really, really awful, but keep in mind that it’s a big league and those numbers are not all that unusual.  There are teams that have done even worse.

What the Leafs have going for them is, firstly, that they have the best winning percentage in the NHL against playoff opponents (and the worst against teams that are not going to make the playoffs), and, secondly, Matthews and Marner both have a year of additional experience and a painful awareness of how awful they were last year in seven games against Montreal (Matthews: 1 goal, 4 assists; Marner:  0 goals, 4 assists).   Matthews in particular seems determined to add more grit and aggression to his performance and seems, at times, more capable of willing himself into a more dominant role against even formidable opposition.

We’ll see.

Tonight (April 24, 2022) the Leafs beat Washington in a shoot-out despite being badly outplayed through most of the game.  The Leafs’ performance was not reassuring in reference to their playoff prospects.  My impression is that teams that are capable of tight defense tend to prevail over teams that emphasize offense.  The Leaf defense tonight was often terrible, leaving players uncovered, allowing breakaways, giving the puck away, and endless chasing in their own zone.  Quite often, Washington simply pushed Leaf players aside and took the puck.

And yet, the Leafs scored two goals in the later stages of the 3rd period, by Mikeyev and Spezza(!), including one with the net empty, to overcome a 3-1 Washington lead and take it to overtime– where they took a penalty.  In the shootout, almost everybody missed until Kerfoot managed to tuck one in to win the game.

Erik Kallgren, it must be said, did marvelously well in the shoot-out, stopping every attempt except the very first one.

I don’t get why it isn’t obvious to the Leafs that they need a different strategy for breaking up plays along the boards in their own zone.

I also can’t comprehend why anyone in the Leafs’ brain trust actually believes the back-pass on the powerplay is even remotely useful.  I’ve been watching them do this forever and it mostly fails.  Why does anyone think it is working?





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