Hello, and welcome back to my Beginner’s Guide series for this year’s Toronto Maple Leafs. If you missed it, I introduced the series on Friday talking about the team in general, but now we get to talk a bit more about the players themselves. Today we’ll be focusing on the offensive side of the ice, so I’ll provide you with some expectations for our offense and our power play, as well as the forwards. Let’s get right to it.
Part of what has made the Leafs a consistent playoff team over the last few years is their skilled and speedy forwards. That starts at the top with our main core of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander (and Morgan Rielly on the back end being an offensive minded player as well), and in the past few years has also trickled down on the depth charts as well.
Because of a need to move out money to improve our defense, that isn’t as much of the case this year. While we still have a pretty good bottom two lines, there are a lot more question marks this season than in the past. While we have plenty of forwards to fill out the depth chart, none of them are guaranteed to be a hit for us aside from Alexander Kerfoot.
So, this could lead to us being less offensive than past years, but with most of the main core entering their prime, they might be able to carry the load a little bit, with the depth chipping in when necessary.
The power play
Their offensive talent has definitely shown up on the man advantage as well. Over the last four years, the Leafs have the fourth best power play, converting on 23.5% of their chances. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, and Pittsburgh Penguins have done better on the power play. That’s pretty good company. A lot of this is once again due to the main core of players, and the flexibility that’s come with it. In 2016-17 and 2017-18, the Leafs mostly split their elite players into two units, and had the second best power play in that span as a result. The last two years, they’ve loaded up the top unit and played them most of the time. While it hasn’t worked out as well, they’ve still had the seventh best power play during that time as a result.
The first look at #leafs revamped power play units
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) January 8, 2021
Right now it looks like they’re going to split the units, but who really knows by the time the season starts. In the past, they’ve usually just had Matthews/Tavares/Marner/Nylander/Rielly as the top unit and mostly used that, but we’ll see what they end up going with (and how long it lasts).
Does this team’s power play sound fun to watch? Well too bad, you’ll probably only see it once or twice a game this season. Over the last four seasons, the Leafs have had the third fewest power play opportunities in the league. And it’s not because every team is just magically more disciplined when they play the Leafs, it’s mostly because of a couple unwritten rules the referees have. First off, they love to keep the calls even, and the Leafs have taken the fourth fewest penalties in the league, which means they aren’t going to get many calls their way either. Another big reason is that the refs have a fear of “influencing the game” by giving a skilled power play like the Leafs lots of opportunities, because it would make it easier to win games, even though by not doing their job and calling penalties, they’re still influencing the game in an even worse way.
Trust me, you’ll hate the refs by the end of the season.
Now, let’s quickly go over the forwards who are likely going to see some ice time this season.
While some fans will argue this, don’t let them fool you: Matthews is this team’s best player. Not only that, but he’s arguably one of the best players in the league, up there with the likes of McDavid and MacKinnon (don’t tell other hockey fans though, they get insulted that you’d even mention Matthews in the same sentence as them). If there’s one thing that no one can dispute he is one of the best at is scoring goals. Since entering the league, Matthews has the second most goals to a guy named Alex Ovechkin (who is considered the greatest goal scorer of all time at this point), and if you dive deeper and look at stuff like even strength goals, goals per game, or goals per 60 minutes (similar to goals per game, just adjusted for a player’s ice time), it’s even closer. He almost scored 50 last season, and will probably have at least a few Rocket Richard trophies (best goal scorer award) in his career. When the pucks on his skill, he can change the game with the flick of a wrist, and every shot of his is a scoring chance. He’s that good. He also decided he wanted to be even scarier, and improved his defensive game last season, which is why he’ll get some time on the penalty kill as well. If there’s one player on this team you have to watch, it’s Matthews.
Tavares is the only part of our core who wasn’t originally our own draft pick. Drafted first overall by the New York Islanders in 2009, Tavares played nine seasons with the Islanders and jumped ship the second he could because they were that terrible. It’s fine though, they don’t need him apparently. He immediately clicked with Marner in his first season here, and put up 47 goals and 88 points, a career high for him. Last season, he was given the captaincy, the 25th in team history, and their first in three years. He had a good season as well, just slightly worse than last year, so everyone thought he was bad. I don’t know, we’re a weird fanbase. Regardless, Tavares helps establish our biggest threat, that being our 1-2 punch down the middle with him and Matthews. Tavares is an elite player, and is really good at elevating the play of his linemates. He’s not the greatest defensively, but for some reason he’ll get played in a shutdown role and still do well. He’s just magical that way.
If there’s one thing that Marner is really good at, it’s passing. He’s one of the best playmakers in the league right now, and he manages to do it in some of the prettiest ways possible. When the puck is on his stick, you can probably expect that it’s somehow going to find it’s way on the stick of someone with a scoring chance. His shot isn’t the greatest, which can be a problem from time to time, but overall it’s fine. He also has become really good defensively and has gotten a lot of penalty kill time, so as far as on ice complaints, there really aren’t much. He frustrated some fans last season with his very public contract negotiations (mostly done through his dad and his agent, but still, very public), resulting in a deal that is a bit of an overpayment, and then not living up to it, but we’ve mostly moved past it at this point. He’s too much of an adorable bean to hate.
Speaking of players who frustrate the fans, Nylander is also a divisive player in the fanbase, but unjustifiably so. He’s always been the subject of trade rumours in the media because “we have to improve the defense, so we gotta get rid of one of the main core to do it, and it makes the most sense for it to be Nylander” for some reason, but it really heated up in 2018-19, when he didn’t sign a contract to start the season, and then had a disappointing season after signing the contract. Was it a disappointing season overall? Yes. Was it entirely his fault? No, Kyle Dubas handled the negotiations poorly as well, but for some reason, Nylander takes all the blame. He responded with a 31 goal season, but people seem to have made up his mind about him. At the very least, “What do you think of Nylander?” is the easiest question to ask a Leafs fan to figure out if they’re stupid or not.
It’s a shame because he is a really good player. He’s a great playmaker, has an excellent shot, and recently devleoped a knack for the front of the net, part of the reason for his great season last year. His defense is a bit lacking, but he’s not going to be perfect. On a worse team, he’d easily be the team’s first line winger, but here he fills out a high end top six.
Kerfoot is the Leafs third line center, but has some unfortunately big shoes to fill as he was part of the trade that sent away long time beloved Leaf Nazem Kadri. While he wasn’t nearly as good, Kerfoot had a lowkey good 2019-20 season as far as his defensive responsibility play driving went, but the offense wasn’t quite there. Hopefully he should rebound this season, and help round out our center depth really well.
Hyman is everyone’s favourite workhorse. His whole career, he has lived along the boards, and been spectacular at getting the puck and giving it to whatever elite forward he’s playing with. I’m entirely convinced that if you threw a piece of bread in a park around thousands of geese, Hyman would somehow still come out with the bread. He wasn’t the best at finishing his chances earlier on, but the last couple seasons has actually become a much better goal scorer and turning into a legit top six forward.
Mikheyev was a signing from Russia last season that surprised everybody, getting off to a strong start before an injury derailed his season. He wasn’t the best during the playoffs, but he should probably rebound. Like Hyman, he’s great on the forecheck, responsible defensively, and can finish his chances. He also is really, really fast once he reaches his top speed. Oh, and he likes soup. You might not think that’s relevant, but it is.
Simmonds is a Scarborough native who Leafs fans have wanted on their team for a long time. In his prime, he was an elite power forward, great at tipping pucks in front of the net, and had excellent tenacity, not afraid to get in a fight every once in a while. He isn’t that player anymore, but he brings a level of physicality to the team that is missing in the lineup. The rest of his play, meh, but I’m sure he’ll be great for morale.
Vesey was once a big name college free agent who the Leafs were looking to get until he ended up signing with New York Rangers. The problem with most big name college free agents is that they tend to be underwhelming, and Vesey was that. He’s never put up a ton of points, but he’s okay enough at driving play that he won’t kill you. He could be a solid depth signing, but don’t have high expectations for him.
Robertson was a second round draft pick for the Leafs in 2019, and had a very quick development, playing so well in the OHL that he ended up making the Leafs team in the playoffs. He got a goal in their series against the Blue Jackets, and we all loved it. He’s a solid skater, and he has a really good shot, and once he really finds his groove in the NHL, he could be a pretty good top six winger. He’s also only 19, so be patient with him.
Spezza was once a high end center for our provincal rival, the Ottawa Senators, and we really didn’t like him because of that. However, he’s 37 now, and he still hasn’t won a Cup, so he’s joined the Leafs these past couple years to try for it. He’s not the playmaker that he used to be, but he’s become a really good defensive center, and can still put up points, and also provides that veteran experience that is always needed.
Much like Spezza, Thornton is not the player he once was. In his prime, Thornton was one of the best playmakers in the league, probably even of all time, but at 41, he’s in the same position as Spezza. He wants a Cup, and he thinks his best shot is with the Leafs right now. It seemed like he was never going to leave the San Jose Sharks, but he has brought his still really good playmaking skills with him to Toronto. He’s currently slated to play on the first line with Matthews and Marner, but he’s probably going to be more of a depth player this season.
Yeah, don’t worry, we don’t really know who this guy is either.
Our big long-necked boy was a 7th round pick in 2014, and surprised many by actually becoming a decent NHL player. He put up solid point totals in 2019-20, but he isn’t really expected for that. What he is for sure is a defensively responsible fourth line winger who can also play center, and be slotted into the middle six when injuries make it need be. The perfect utility player, if you will.
Like how Mikheyev was our signing from Russia last season, Barbanov is that this season. Because of that, we still don’t know exactly what to expect from him, or how he’ll handle NHL minutes, but I’m sure Leafs fans will either love or hate him, with no in between.
Dubas traded for Petan a couple years ago, and while he had upside then, that has mostly faded away now. He’s got some skill to be injected into the lineup when injuries require, but he lacks the consistency to be in the lineup every game.
The Leafs recently acquired Anderson this summer in a salary dump deal, getting rid of Andreas Johnsson’s contract. He’s had decent underlying numbers when he’s played, and he’s only 22, so there’s the potential for something there.
Malgin was brought in last season in one of Dubas’ low key good trades, but up to this point Malgin hasn’t played a significant role for the team. He has the skill and the upside to be a solid middle six player, but he isn’t quite there yet. There’s also a good chance that he’s staying in Europe this season, after playing there during the offseason.