TEAM at TEAM: Game 34
Time: 7:00 pm Eastern Time
Broadcast/Streaming: Sportsnet and Fox Sports-Florida
Opponent SBNation Site: Litter Box Cats
In the last episode of Leafs on the road, we had the heartwarming story of Auston Matthews going home for Christmas. Christmas is over, and it’s time to get back down to business, and nothing says business like a Florida vacation.
The Leafs start their two-game, back-to-back, tour of Florida (who is their travel agent, anyway?) with a game against the Panthers, a team trying to do what the Leafs are doing: forge a whole new identity.
They Panthers changed their uniforms, their GM, their AGM, their coach, their assistant coach, most of their defencemen, and now the ownership control has transitioned from America’s new Secretary of the Army, Vincent Viola, to Doug Cifu, a minority owner.
It’s the order you do these things in that determines if people laugh at you or not, I guess. Because minus the army gig, Toronto did much the same thing, only they started with the man in charge: Bendan Shanahan. They didn’t do that part last.
Shanahan took control, and made changes—wholesale sweeping changes that involved firing a lot more good people than Florida ever had on the payroll good, bad and indifferent—and he did it in an orderly top-down fashion. One might almost call it with military precision.
Aside from a chaotic timeline in all these changes in Florida, the Panthers are suffering most from a television deal made by a former owner that leaves them poorer than they should be. It’s hard to claw your way out of that kind of hole, but they are making a lot of good choices as they do it. Even if the timing of a lot of the changes speaks to a lack of courage of their convictions. Why not just fire Gerard Gallant in the summer?
But the important question is: why aren’t they winning?
That is a very good question, and a look at their most recent game before Christmas where they lost to the Detroit Red Wings in a shootout, shows that the Panthers could not sustain any offence at five-on-five against one of the oldest, slowest, least productive teams in the NHL.
On the power play, and in the overtime, they generated shots in huge bunches, but that was it for the Panthers, and once Detroit was only one goal behind—even accounting for scoring effects—they took it to the Panthers hard. The ultimate outcome was the luck of overtime and shootouts, but getting to overtime was superior five-on-five play by Detroit. Detroit, by the way, was icing an AHL goalie in his first ever NHL game.
The Panthers are dull. They play like an old team that can only score on the power play, and they routinely generate offence at a rate that counts as abject failure by the Leafs and results in bag skates or demotions to the fourth line.
The main culprit in all this Florida ennui is Aaron Ekblad and, to a lesser extent, Keith Yandle. They are both elite players, superior modern defencemen, and they aren’t driving the offence at anything like their real ability. They are both too easy to counter attack to get away with that kind of dull front-facing play. The Panthers cannot be the old New Jersey Devils, they have the wrong players for it, but so far, that’s who they most resemble.
A slow and turgid offence, and some easy to exploit defensive play sounds like candy for the Leafs. We shall see how it goes.
Toronto Maple Leafs
(from the most recent practice)
Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - Connor Brown
James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Mitch Marner
Leo Komarov - Nazem Kadri - William Nylander
Matt Martin - Frederik Gauthier - Nikita Soshnikov
Morgan Rielly - Nikita Zaitsev
Jake Gardiner - Connor Carrick
Matt Hunwick - Roman Polak
(from the most recent game via shiftchart.com)
Seth Griffith - Aleksander Barkov - Jaromir Jagr
Nick Bjugstad - Colton Sceviour - Jussi Jokinen
Derek MacKenzie - Kyle Rau - Paul Thompson
Keith Yandle - Aaron Ekblad
Mark Pysyk - Michael Matherson
Jason Demers - Jakub Kindl
The Leafs made some roster moves after the last game, and Antoine Bibeau is expected to get one start, possibly this game. They also called up Byron Froese, who will likely sit out if Tyler Bozak is ready to return as he says he is.
Your random stat to show you how hyped up on speed the Leafs offence is: They lead the league in Corsi For per 60 minutes, and the temptation is very strong to assume it is the rookies who are responsible for that. Matt Martin has a CF/60 rate of 53.30, the highest he’s ever had, barring the five games he played as a rookie. His career average prior to this year was 48.19. So even the fourth line is driving a hot rod this year.