Four games of the Leafs’ season are now in the books, and they’ve won three of them, putting on some truly exciting and occasionally exasperating hockey in the process. Our staff got together to talk about things they did and didn’t expect so far.
Who’s surprised you, in a good way?
Fulemin: Patrick Marleau. I was always fairly positive on the Marleau deal, but he’s looked just grand out there to me. Speed is still excellent and he showed enough finish in the opening game for me to feel pretty good about that end of things. The Kadri line hasn’t always been perfect, and Brown might shuffle in to replace Komarov at some point, but I’m pretty happy with the Marleau/Kadri duo.
Kevin: Morgan Rielly. He’s been a real standout offensively and there’s a little bit less pressure on him now that Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev are sharing the toughest minutes. His ability to gain the zone provides the Leafs with yet another weapon on the man advantage, and he’s performed quite well thus far next to Ron Hainsey. Zaitsev is also impressing offensively despite less powerplay time, and Eric Fehr is playing better than I expected.
Hardev: Andreas Borgman. He has his flaws, for sure, but for a player who has only played a handful of games in North America, his play so far has been a pleasant surprise. The fact that he, and to a lesser extent Calle Rosen, could step Mike Babcock’s third pair right away, without needing to spend some time adjusting in the AHL, is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Katya: Nikita Zaitsev. He’s been the best defenceman on the ice most of the time. He is clicking with his point shots, which should be his hallmark and somehow never succeeded last season. He’s figured out the neutral zone more and is relied on less there because he’s with Gardiner. Honourable mention goes to Ron Hainsey, who is fine at his job and surprisingly good offensively.
Arvind: I think Rielly has had a great start to the season - perhaps not unrelatedly, Babcock seems to have spread out the tough competition more so it is no longer the sole duty of Rielly’s pairing. He and Hainsey seem to be working relatively well together, which is good to see. Their possession numbers are higher than I expected them to be.
Seldo: JVR and Patrick Marleau. It's been good to see these two get their hands right into the offense and be leaders on the scoreboard.
Who’s disappointed you?
Fulemin: Calle Rosen, sort of. The thing about Rosen is that I expected him to spend at least his first few months in the AHL, so in a sense I expected him to not be NHL-ready, and I don’t think he is. But he’s had some rough outings. I love him and his skating, and every now then he does something great, but he could use some seasoning before he’s going to hold down an NHL shift.
Kevin: Absolutely no one, at least offensively. The defensive side of the equation is a different story all together, but I am not ready to panic after four games. Tyler Bozak’s line is predictably weak defensively once again, and Calle Rosen is not off to an impressive start. It would be nice if Frederik Andersen could improve on his .871 save percentage, but that’s not entirely his fault.
Hardev: I agree with Kevin, but he said it first, so I’m going to have to nit-pick. Mitch Marner hasn’t looked the same after the first four games relative to any of the times last year when he was healthy. I’m not going to hate on a guy for not having a strong start (one secondary assist at 5v5 thusfar) but something does feel off about his game. He seems to lack the tenacity he had last season (a season that very easily could have been played in London). Marner is the driving force of that third line and if he can get back to the Mitch we all know and love, that line will look a lot better.
Katya: I’m with Kevin on this overall, but the biggest disappointment has to be the PK. They looked so smooth and on the ball in pre-season, but now even the best players on the team are dreadful shorthanded. Given that and that the Leafs also take way too many penalties, this has to be a failure laid at the door of the coaching staff. It’s broke, guys, fix it.
Arvind: Freddie, I know you’re getting shelled with grade-A chances, but an .871 is not acceptable. Even when you adjust for shot quality, Andersen has been mediocre at best. That the Leafs are 3-1 with such poor goaltending is a testament to their offensive danger, and a bit of luck going their way too (they will not shoot ~12% at evens all year).
Seldo: Reiterating what people have said above, the special teams and the assistants responsible are my picks here. Thankfully it’s something that can be improved upon as the season progresses.
What’s one thing that’s gone just as you expected?
Fulemin: This is a freebie, but Hyman - Matthews - Nylander is going to annihilate the universe, and I love it. I’ve always believed that was a combination that a) was made up of great parts and b) was more than the sum of its parts, and it looks mighty fine.
Kevin: The Leafs can score in bunches. This team is generating a ton of high danger scoring chances, and this is a great sign going forward. Auston Matthews and William Nylander continue to form an outstanding duo, Mitchell Marner remains a top-end playmaker, and James Van Riemsdyk did not forget how to put the puck in the net over the summer. Everyone’s hockeydb page is bound to look impressive this year.
Hardev: Zach Hyman is scoring more. Zach scored 10 goals while shooting at a Nazem-Kadri-in-2015 rate of 6.4%. If he was at the league average of 9-10% he would have had 15 goals and
no one not many would be complaining that he is with Matthews and Nylander. I firmly believe that Hyman was simply unlucky last year. If he keeps doing what he’s doing, he will be able to finish a lot of the chances (read: rebounds) Auston and Willy set up for him.
Katya: I called the forward lines arrangement for the most part before training camp began. Bob McKenzie had to tell everyone Komarov would move to the right wing, but other than that, I was pretty much there. And I think it’s hard to complain about the performance of those lines. By the way, did you know the Leafs are second in shots for and sixth best in shots against? That’s score adjusted, which does not, as some have said, account for all of the offensive push the Leafs had vs the Devils. All those power plays have obscured some lights-out five-on-five play. We’ll talk goals against when there’s been a few more games in the can though.
Arvind: After years of having terrible coaches, I love taking it for granted that the Leafs will be well-prepared, well-drilled, and well-motivated by Babcock and his coaching staff. He’s certainly among the best coaches in the league, both at the tactical and player management side of things. We’re lucky to have him.
Seldo: The forwards have been playing that same up-tempo, score-the-goals style. Plus they've increased that in the first few games.