Photo by: Charlie Martin
The Toronto Maple Leafs have never been known for a strong month of play in October, and this year has been no different. Although the Maple Leafs have a positive record with being tied for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, they have looked rather disinterested to start the season.
They are currently 25th in goals-per-game (2.8), 12th in goals against per game (2.8), 16th in powerplay percentage (18.2%) and 15th in penalty kill percentage (80%). The subpar play to start the season is due to the top dogs not looking like top dogs.
Star centre Auston Matthews, who is coming off a franchise breaking 60 goal campaign, has just one goal in his first five games. His counterparts Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting are failing to pick up his lack of effort, each with one goal, three assists to start the season. A line that had combined for 118 goals last season has just three to start this season – not the start Leafs Nation or themselves were looking for.
On the other hand, the second line has been a bright spot to start the season. Captain John Tavares has looked like the $11 million dollar player they paid for back in the summer 2018. Tavares is sitting at a ppg pace with one goal and four assists in five games. He is also leading the team in expected goals per 60 this season with 2.11 and points per 60 at 3.28.
His linemate William Nylander has been the best Maple Leaf, offensively driving play with 3.12 points per 60 and the most high+medium danger chances on the team. Due to his hot start he has seen his ice time jump almost a full minute from last season – 18:16 to 19:14.
Although Tavares and Nylander have been magical thus far, the left wing spot on that second line is still up in the air. This year Denis Malgin—who returned from a two-year stint with Lausanne FC and Zurich Lions in the Swiss-A league—earned the spot out of training camp on the second line LW. He has looked like a new player becoming more of a checking winger than he has been in his career.
However, in the first four games Malgin only had one goal, and there were parts of games where he was nearly invisible. Thus, with the relief of cap space due to Matt Murray going on LTIR, 21 year old prospect Nick Robertson was recalled from the AHL Marlies and slotted in on the second line LW Thursday night.
Robertson had an immediate impact in his first game with the Leafs this season, scoring two goals, one being the OT winner over the Dallas Stars. In the small sample size, Robertson seems to be the Top Six winger that the Leafs have been looking for.
But Robertson has faced many injuries to start his young career, being held to only 49 games through two full seasons in the AHL. If Robertson can stay healthy, he should be here to stay.
The Maple Leafs third line of Engavall, Kerfoot and Jarnkrok has been great both offensively and defensively. They have been generating the most offense with a 3.15 expected goals per 60, while also being the best defensive line with 0.8 goals against per 60. It is safe to say that coach Sheldon Keefe has found a combination that will be steady all season long.
The fourth line featuring, former third line centre David Kampf, defensive specialist Zach Aston-Reese and Nicolas Aube Kubel has been the go to defensive line despite the 3rd line having better numbers. They have just over 85 per cent of their shifts starting in the defensive zone and have been shutting down other team’s top lines.
The Maple Leafs defense came back exactly the same as last year. Top pairing, Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie have been below average, most of that falling on the shoulders of Morgan Rielly, who has been on the ice for just over 50 per cent of the goals scored against the Maple Leafs.
TJ Brodie has picked up where he left off last season. He has been Sheldon Keefe’s go-to defencemen in tight situations and has not disappointed, having the least amount of giveaways of all Maple Leafs starting defenseman.
The Leafs other two defensive pairings have consisted of Justin Holl, Jake Muzzin, Rasmus Sandin, Mark Giordano and Victor Mete so far this season.
Jake Muzzin, who is coming off an injury riddled 18 month, was hurt yet again in the Leafs game vs Arizona on Oct. 17, this time sustaining a brutal neck injury. Muzzin has been placed on IR and there is no timeline for his return.
Justin Holl—who was paired with Jake Muzzin to start the season—has looked like many different players in the small sample size this season. His odd defensive gaf continues to drive leafsnation crazy but when he keeps it simple he is a solid fifth or sixth defencemen in the NHL.
Youngster Rasmus Sandin continues to improve every game as he becomes more poised with the puck and gets better defensively. For a defenseman who is seen as offensive, he leads the team in hits after five games. He has been a pleasure to watch on the back end thus far.
On the other hand the Veteran Mark Giordano has lost a step—which is expected as a 39-year-old playing in the NHL. However, in isolated minutes this year he has been competent on both sides of the puck and continues to lead the team in completed breakout passes.
Let’s not forget about the currently-injured Timothy Liljegren who embraced a top four role at the end of last season. The return of Liljegren to lineup could not come quick enough as an offense first, Victor Mete continues to be a liability in the defensive zone.
Now onto the goaltending. GM Kyle Dubas made a bold move in the offseason and picked up two-time Stanley cup Champion Matt Murray after an injury riddled three years for the netminder. The question was not, “is Murray a number one goalie?” It was “can Murray stay healthy?” The answer was “no.” Matt Murray left his second start of the season with an abductor injury and is expected to miss at least four weeks.
Luckily for the Maple Leafs, Kyle Dubas also acquired 25-year-old goaltender Ilya Samsonov in the offseason. Samsonov was a highly touted prospect when drafted by the Washington Capitals in 2015 and was expected to be as good as his Russian counterparts Igor Shesterkin (New York Rangers) and Ilya Sorokin (New York Islanders). Although Samsonov has yet to reach the elite level of his fellow countrymen, betting on himself with a one year deal on a potential Stanley cup contending team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, was a decision that has paid off thus far.
Through three starts with the Leafs, Samsonov is 3-0 with a 1.96 GAA and a .927 SV per cent. Samsonov is expected to be the starter for the next few weeks, starting in most, if not all of the Maple Leafs games until Matt Murray is ready to return.
So with slow starts from Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Michael Bunting and Morgan Rielly as well as injuries to Jake Muzzin and Matt Murray should Leafs fans be hitting the panic button just over a week into the season? In my opinion, no, the Maple Leafs are too deep of a team to lose their stride completely and with William Nylander, John Tavares, TJ Brodie and Ilya Samsonov carrying the torch thus far, the team is bound to start playing elite-level hockey soon enough.