6 Leafs observations and questions popping out of the break

Popping out of the All-Star break, the Toronto Maple Leafs discover themselves in acquainted territory, submitting a wonderful common season by means of 52 video games whereas a number of questions stay unanswered with 30 contests remaining.

Listed here are six key questions and observations that summarize Toronto’s season thus far, whereas additionally offering a crystal ball into what must be addressed with visions of successful a Stanley Cup — or a minimum of one spherical — embedded into each choice.

(All stats from Pure Stat Trick, NHL.com, CapFriendly)

Mitch Marner is Toronto’s MVP as a result of his two-way excellence

Mitch Marner is Toronto’s MVP, he’s a deserving All-Star choice and possibly ought to’ve been joined by William Nylander if the league knew what it was doing. Marner has been probably the greatest gamers within the NHL largely to his two-way excellence.

He shattered a franchise document by notching some extent in 23 consecutive video games from Oct. 27-Dec. 15, registering 11 targets and 34 factors over that span. Toronto boasts the reigning Hart Trophy winner in Auston Matthews, Nylander is having the most effective season of his profession, and but it’s Marner who stands alone right here.

Marner is likely one of the league’s preeminent playmakers and he leads Toronto in scoring with 60 factors — 19 targets and 41 assists. This isn’t significantly new as Marner’s on tempo for 97 factors assuming he performs in all 82 video games. However he’s doing it with great aptitude and added duty, he drives each line he’s on, normally paired with Michael Bunting and John Tavares. He’s the defensive anchor of that line — though Tavares has posted a greater anticipated targets in opposition to per 60 at 5-on-5 by way of Pure Stat Trick — and he’s supplied surplus worth on each aspects of the particular groups.

Marner ranks forty eighth in anticipated targets in opposition to per 60 amongst all certified skaters (500 minutes complete) and is the central power behind Toronto’s penalty kill. He ranks third within the NHL in 5-on-5 takeaways — Nylander ranks second, for what it’s price. He’s displayed a relentless motor and can head deep into the opponent’s zone to stunt their preliminary drive and if he fails to disrupt the play, he consistently tracks again onto the following puck service whereas dictating the place David Kampf or Zach Aston-Reese must be. He’s scored two short-handed targets and his presence forces opponents to be extraordinarily cautious the place they’re putting the puck.

The seventh-year veteran doesn’t need particular person accolades. He’s laser-focused on group success. However he’s been the Maple Leafs’ finest participant, he’s smashed franchise information, he’s scoring with spectacular type, he’s consistently accountable to the media, and he needs nothing greater than a parade this summer season. Marner gained this superlative with out an excessive amount of consideration for Nylander, Tavares or Auston Matthews, which speaks volumes about his excellent first half and alter.

The considerations about Auston Matthews’ offensive manufacturing are exaggerated

Everybody’s ready for the reigning Hart Trophy winner to play like he did in 2021-22 and, to a level, that’s cheap. However the considerations over Matthews’ lack of offensive manufacturing are exaggerated. Matthews has registered 25 targets and 53 factors in 47 video games, so whereas he gained’t displace Connor McDavid for the Hart this 12 months, he’s still playing like a superstar. There’s proof to recommend that he’s due for a volcanic eruption when he returns from harm: Matthews is third within the NHL with practically 16 particular person anticipated targets at 5-on-5 by way of Pure Stat Trick, sixth in photographs and seventh in particular person scoring probabilities, whereas the Maple Leafs management a 58-percent share of the anticipated targets when he’s on the ice at 5-on-5. The sky shouldn’t be falling!

Matthews was dominated out for three weeks on Jan. 27 with a knee sprain. The All-Star break will present some extra time for Matthews to heal, after which return at full energy. If we observe the preliminary timeline supplied, Matthews might return in opposition to the Blackhawks on Feb. 15 or in opposition to the Canadiens on Feb. 18. It’s in Toronto’s finest curiosity to not rush Matthews again. Toronto is actually worse with out Matthews, however with a playoff date in opposition to Tampa Bay all however cemented, it’s crucial that he rests.

Matthews is displaying larger consideration to element on the defensive facet, he’s already set a career-high with 63 blocked photographs in all conditions, and he’s embodied the concept that the Maple Leafs’ core forwards must morph into two-way menaces. When he returns, it’s not unreasonable to anticipate Matthews to go on a scoring binge. To recommend that he’s not residing as much as expectations to date is unfair.

Morgan Rielly returned to the lineup on Dec. 29 after lacking greater than a month with a knee harm. After just a few dicey video games in January, I took the optimistic long-view about Rielly’s season, concluding that among the considerations about his defensive lapses could have been overblown. Rielly’s anticipated targets and Corsi splits are proper about the place they had been in 2021-2022, so there isn’t a lot that’s new about his recreation.

Rielly has struggled defensively, on the ice for 29 targets for and 25 targets in opposition to at 5-on-5 this season, which isn’t at all times the most effective metric for analysis. He’s been susceptible to quite a lot of careless errors, nonetheless, and the criticisms of Rielly are extra simply utilized by means of the attention check. He’s taking unhealthy routes to the puck, he’s typically caught puck-watching — throughout Wednesday’s game against the Bruins, he was responsible a number of occasions. Rielly turns the puck over at an almost 2.5:1 ratio and that is essentially the most damning indictment of his play this 12 months.

If Rielly offers surplus offensive worth for the Maple Leafs, then you’ll be able to overlook these flaws. He’s the facility play quarterback however the Maple Leafs can even run a five-forward unit with fluency. He has one purpose and 23 factors in 37 video games. Sheldon Keefe spoke concerning the group’s inner development and it could be telling that he singled out Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie because the veteran defenders. Will Rielly discover a approach to reduce down on his obtrusive turnovers because the Maple Leafs inch in direction of the playoffs?

Toronto leads the NHL in man-games misplaced and its needed to take care of extended absences from Rielly and Jake Muzzin. It’s not price factoring Muzzin again into the 2022-23 image. Muzzin’s $5.63 million wage is within the LTIR pool and if the Maple Leafs are going to take some home-run swings on the deadline, he must stay on reserve.

Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren have been superb on the Maple Leafs blue line this season. (Getty)

Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren have been excellent on the Maple Leafs blue line this season. (Getty)

For a second it spelled impending doom, however first-round picks Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren have each taken main leaps. Sandin was in the midst of a breakout 12 months earlier than struggling a neck harm on Dec. 20 that stored him out for 2 weeks and mildly impeded his progress — he’s been a robust asset for the Maple Leafs, however has slumped into the break with two of his worst video games of the season in opposition to the Senators and Bruins, respectively. Liljegren was such a high-variance participant, however he’s not an erratic element, his plus-skating facilitates a ton of unpolluted zone exits and his improvement has been considerably aided when he performs alongside Mark Giordano.

Sandin and Liljegren are at present paired collectively. That is what Sheldon Keefe stated about Sandin, earlier than increasing into an in depth reply about each him and Liljegren previous to the Feb. 1 loss to the Bruins:

I believe he is simply studying to choose his spots very well, offensively and defensively. I believe that is an enormous half. I believe that generally with the younger defenseman with Rasmus and Timothy for that matter, at occasions the sport could be a little higher-event in each methods, by way of what you are giving up, by way of what you are gaining. Generally, you will make an excellent play on one finish however you are being somewhat too aggressive within the fallacious spots that may (have an effect on) the sport the opposite method. I believe this 12 months as issues stabilize, you see much less of that. I believe that is what is occurring with Rasmus.

Sandin and Liljegren must proceed to enhance at their present charge of improvement for the Maple Leafs to maintain a deep playoff run, and that’s not unreasonable based mostly on how they’ve carried out this 12 months. Reinforcements could also be on the way in which, however each gamers have actually earned Keefe’s belief.

Timo Meier needs to be Toronto’s high commerce goal

There’s ample hypothesis about what the Maple Leafs must do on the deadline. Toronto is projected to have $2.725 million in deadline cap house by way of CapFriendly, so it could take some intelligent maneuvering from Kyle Dubas and Brandon Pridham to make an affect transfer.

Vladislav Gavrikov can be a welcome addition to the Maple Leafs blue line, he’s been quietly terrific for a Blue Jackets group that falls aside when he’s not on the ice. He at present has a $2.8-million cap hit and is slated to change into an unrestricted free agent, the place you’ll be able to guess Toronto’s market measurement and standing as a number one contender will definitely have some attraction. He stays at dwelling, he can play in all conditions and he can present some extra stability to a stellar Maple Leafs protection that hasn’t obtained the most effective out of Rielly and can virtually actually be lacking Muzzin.

Jakob Chychrun would even be a house run for the Maple Leafs. He’s 24 years outdated with two years of group management remaining, he’s a budding star and he instantly aligns with Toronto’s window. The asking worth is the one factor that will maintain Toronto again, with Arizona reportedly searching for a minimum of two first-round picks and a high prospect.

If we’re speaking about large swings, the Maple Leafs have to think about Timo Meier as their high candidate. Meier leads the NHL in particular person anticipated targets at 5-on-5, he’s recorded 28 targets and 48 factors in 51 video games and he’s 26, becoming instantly with Matthews, Marner and Nylander’s timeline. Meier carries a $6-million cap hit for this season, whereas his qualifying supply subsequent 12 months begins at $10 million. This gained’t be a rental for the Maple Leafs, they’d be including one other top-tier ahead to their current core.

I’m of the opinion that picks and prospects shouldn’t matter to the Maple Leafs at this stage of their rivalry window. San Jose may very well be amenable to a package deal of a 2023 first-round decide, Matthew Knies and/or Nick Robertson, plus one other conditional decide. Toronto might additionally attempt to transfer prospects Filip Kral or Topi Niemela as nicely. Including Meier to the Maple Leafs offense would make this group essentially the most explosive offense within the NHL, if it isn’t already.

Because it stands, the Devils, Rangers and Kraken can supply higher packages for Meier. However the thought of including a 26-year-old star to the membership, with the potential to re-sign and re-tool the lineup within the offseason, could also be too good to cross up. Modesty is an overrated advantage each in sports activities and in life.

How do the Maple Leafs load-manage Ilya Samsonov?

Ilya Samsonov is Toronto’s clear No. 1 goaltender getting into the break. Samsonov and Murray entered a timeshare with each goaltenders performing nicely above expectations, earlier than Samsonov took benefit of a poor run from his teammate and took a stranglehold of the beginning job. Murray suffered an ankle harm previous to the Jan. 28 recreation in opposition to the Senators, so in the intervening time, Samsonov is the No. 1, with AHL call-up Joseph Woll sitting within the No. 2 spot.

4 years in the past, the Toronto Raptors launched the concept of load administration, rested famous person Kawhi Leonard and gained their first title. Load administration is not a novel idea in sports activities. For these worrying about Samsonov, it’s not the worst thought to present Woll a chronic look popping out of the break — he ought to get one of many begins throughout a home-and-home in opposition to the Blue Jackets, and you’ll pencil him in in opposition to the Blackhawks and Canadiens with out worrying concerning the consequence. Toronto doesn’t face a tricky check till Feb. 26 in opposition to the Kraken and, by then, they will take a long-view about what’s finest for Samsonov down the stretch.

A simple schedule and a well timed break works in Toronto’s favour, with Samsonov because the No. 1 and Murray overperforming within the position because the No. 2.

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