May 29, 2023
The Athletic

Siegel: Not everything is right with the Maple Leafs

SAN JOSE — A day before the Leafs faced the Sharks, practice was almost over when a frustrated Sheldon Keefe put an end to things.

“Everyone in here, please,” he said.

The Leafs coach wasn’t happy with what he saw. The execution wasn’t there. He expressed his displeasure forcefully. Then he ran the drill backwards again. It was done right this time. And that was it. The training was over.

A day later, his team failed to execute against a Sharks team sitting near the league basement. This comes after losses earlier this season to the Arizona Coyotes and Montreal Canadiens, two teams that finished last season in last place.

The leaves have yet to look real the leaves this season. Nothing like the team that posted a franchise-record 115 points last season. Instead, they seemed lost, incoherent, and uninspired. Not much is going right at the moment.

“Of course we want to build traction,” Auston Matthews said after the loss to the Sharks, which came three nights after a disappointing defeat in Vegas. “I just don’t think we really put together a full 60-minute game. I think that consistency in the game and the momentum shifts and stuff like that is kind of hurting us right now.

The Leafs trailed after 26 seconds in San Jose and then slipped into a 3-1 hole.

“I think there was just too much ups and downs, not much consistency throughout the game,” Matthews continued. “There were times where we obviously did some good things and had good possession and some good plays on offense. There were also times when we just stagnated a bit and couldn’t really move much.”

(D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports)

Keefe’s lineup shakeup had only a mediocre effect.

Alex Kerfoot’s addition to the top line helped spur two goals – one from David Kampf, the team’s unlikely five-a-side goalscorer, another from Mitch Marner. However, it was hardly a dominant outing.

As Matthews noted, the Leafs struggled to convert one good shift into another.

Of greater concern was how things were going for the one line that remained intact: the trio of John Tavares, William Nylander and Nick Robertson.

They were pinned to their own end for most of the night, to the point that Keefe had to remove both Nylander and Robertson from the line in the third period and replace them – with Kerfoot and Calle Jarnkrok – for defensive zone draws .

The Tavares lineup had to shoulder an unusual proportion of faceoffs in the defensive zone due to the roster reshuffle. The coaching staff wouldn’t send the hard stuff to the line that contained Michael Bunting and Denis Malgin. And they certainly aimed to get the Matthews group on the offense as often as possible.

So Tavares and co. were tasked with more of that burden (38 percent faceoff percentage in the offensive zone). Shot attempts were 13-4 for San Jose when Tavares, Nylander and Robertson were on the ice.

Nylander, in particular, was held without being shot or attempted. Tavares is still looking for his first five-a-side goal of the season.

“I thought San Jose’s best players gave us a really tough time today,” Keefe said. “Every time these guys got on the ice, they tipped the ice.”

In a roundabout way, that sounds no different than the message Keefe conveyed after losing to the Coyotes. San Jose’s best players — Logan Couture, Erik Karlsson, Timo Meier — all played against the Leafs’ best players — and won those minutes.

Keefe may need to return to the drawing board, whether it’s bringing Michael Bunting back to the top or finding a different look for the Tavares group. It may be time for Nicolas Aube-Kubel to take another look at the bottom end of the lineup.

The one line that should definitely stay in place for now is the one that reunited Kampf with Pierre Engvall. That unit, which had Zach Aston-Reese filling things in, was the most successful group in San Jose. Although only one faceoff landed in the offensive zone, the line ended with an expected goal mark of nearly 90 percent.

In the second game in a row, the Leafs gave up too many good things, too many quality opportunities (although two of San Jose’s four goals came on a power play).

“We need to figure out those sales,” Marner said. “We give a lot of teams a lot of weird rushes, a lot of chances our way. We don’t help our D much, especially forward. We’re not going back to pucks. They were much hungrier for the pre-check. Our team has been so good at that in recent years, getting pucks back and creating offense with them. The forward group, we need to get a lot hungrier for the puck. We need to create a lot more chances on ice and help our D a little bit more.

We didn’t play our game in the first two thirds,” added an unusually open fight. “I feel like we came back a little bit in the third and started playing a little bit harder. It wasn’t good the whole game.”

Keefe wasn’t happy with the way the puck moved forward from the D. In other words, how the team initiates its attack. That, he says, has stalled offense and allowed his team to spend more time defending.

The Leafs are about 50 percent of expected goals for the season. Not good. Last season it was 56 percent.

“We must execute,” Keefe said. “You watch the game, you see how many times we don’t execute passes. We have a lot of really good players, a lot of skill on our team, and we just don’t connect on passes, like tie-to-tie passes, where we either make the wrong decision and fit the wrong type, or we hold too long and it will be interrupted. This is a big problem for us.

“Our inability to efficiently move the puck across the ice slows our overall game on offense and it also hurts our game defensively because we’re getting stressed right now. In the second period we couldn’t get our defense off the ice because we just couldn’t get the puck up.”

Although Marner blamed those problems on forwards, Keefe said, “It starts with the D. Your first touch (with the puck) has to be better.”

The defense is looking overexposed at the moment with Jake Muzzin and Timothy Liljegren both injured. Those are two of the usual top six (or seven) of the mix, including the second best defender (TJ Brodie is top at this point) on the team.

The Leafs have no choice but to continue to lean on a struggling Justin Holl until Liljegren returns next month. They’ll need to find an outside replacement for Muzzin if he doesn’t return this season.

(D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports)

Keefe didn’t think switching pairs would fix the Leafs’ problems, but it’s worth considering even if the options aren’t entirely obvious.

First, Morgan Rielly and Brodie’s split would be in the name of balance.

Option 1: Hand Brodie, the Leafs’ most trusted defenseman, to Holl.

But then who’s playing with Rielly? Rasmus Sandin offside?

Option 2: Get Brodie and Mark Giordano back together.

Again, who’s playing with Rielly?

Option 3: Keep Rielly and Brodie together, but trade Sandin for Giordano.

Is there enough mobility and puck movement ability in a Giordano-Holl combo when Holl is struggling like he is at the moment? Can the Leafs play Sandin and Mete together?

Option 4: Split Rielly and Brodie up, but go extreme by pushing Rielly to the right until Liljegren is ready to play. Remember, Rielly spent time on the right flank in both training camp and the offseason.

Brodie – Holl

Like I said, there aren’t many great options.

It’s obvious the Leafs feel like there’s only so much they can throw at Giordano. He should play more in Muzzin’s absence. In the end he plays less. That may have to change.

Another issue is that the Leafs’ power play is yet to get underway, although Matthew’s one-off explosion was encouraging.

The most positive development of the early season was Ilya Samsonov’s game. There aren’t many players who get off to a flying start. Keefe felt the need to push difficult from day 1.

It was certainly a rocky start.

It’s still October, 74 games to go, still early. And the Leafs started out in a similar way last season before turning things around.

“That’s not an excuse, is it?” Kampf said. “The season has already started, so we have to be ready from the start of the season.”

Statistics and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

(Photo: Kavin Mistry/NHLI via Getty Images)

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