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Three Pressing Questions for the Leafs

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What are we looking for in the next third of the season.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Minnesota Wild David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

With the William Nylander saga finally behind us, we can finally turn our full attention to what is on the ice, and tune out everything else. A third of the way through the season, with the Leafs finally having their desired lineup in place, there are a few questions and ideas that I’ll be keeping track of as it progresses.

Do the Leafs add at the deadline?

As covered in Katya’s piece today, the Leafs still have plenty of cap space for this season. Some of that can be earmarked for performance bonus room (though Auston Matthews’ injury has made it less likely that he obtains them), but put simply, the Leafs will have the cap space to add whoever they want in February.

If they do choose to add players, the Leafs more or less have to look at expiring contracts, or players expiring in 2019/2020 on reasonable deals (preferably also on teams that don’t mind retaining salary). The rental market this year is potentially strong, though many players wouldn’t necessarily make sense for the Leafs. Artemi Panarin would be hilarious to add to this forward group, but Columbus is good and seems unlikely to trade him, preferring to take their chances in free agency. Mark Stone and Matt Duchene would also look amazing in blue and white, and have the added bonus of embarrassing the Senators, but they likely don’t trade either of them to Toronto, if they choose to trade either of them at all.

Gustav Nyquist, Carl Hagelin, and Wayne Simmonds seem the most likely types of forward rentals for the Leafs to go to. All can play LW, are on teams that could feasibly be non-competitive in February, and wouldn’t command outrageous fees. Whether the Leafs should add to their forward group is another question, and one that will be determined by watching them play over the next 20 games or so.

On the defense side of things, the rental market is far weaker. You very quickly find yourself trying to get excited about Alex Edler (meh), Jay Bouwmeester (ugh), or Adam McQuaid (no thanks).

When you look to players with a year remaining after this season, Chris Kreider, Tyler Toffoli, and Chris Tanev are potentially appealing for the right price and potentially some salary retention. It will be interesting to keep an eye out for the needs of the Leafs come February and how aggressive they are in dealing futures in order to improve their odds of winning today.

Will the shot share grow?

Over the last two years, the Leafs have been an offensively deadly, defensively porous team that operates right around 50% in shot share and expected goals. They leverage their elite shooting talent, strong goaltending, and special teams in order to perform at a higher level than that shot share would suggest. However, when you’re competing against the best teams in the playoffs, those percentages can disappear on you. Your competition will generally also have better than average shooters, goaltending, and special teams. While the Leafs stack up with anyone in the league in those traits, it’d still be very welcome to see them improve their ability to carry play at even strength, and dominate teams as opposed to trading chances.

The Leafs finally have their desired roster. Nylander is back. Matthews is back. There are no real excuses for poor results anymore. They’ve weathered the absence of those two as well as anyone could have hoped for. Now they have to show that they’re true contenders with both of them back.

The most likely outcome is a small uptick in shot share and expected goal percentage, which will hopefully offset the expected reversion to the mean of the Leafs’ hot shooting and Frederik Andersen’s stellar goaltending. As to whether that will be enough to win a playoff round or four... that remains to be seen.

Will Dermott take on more?

The Leafs top two pairings (Rielly - Hainsey, Gardiner - Zaitsev) have shot share and expected goal share below 50%. That’s not an ideal way to build your team (though it’s worth noting that both pairs are fairly close to parity by expected goals, and further away from parity when looking at shot metrics). The third pair (Dermott - Ozhiganov) has a shot share of 57%, and an expected goal share of 50.25%. The former figure is eye-popping, while the latter suggests they’re treading water, and nothing more. However, in the eyes of fans, it is a foregone conclusion that Travis Dermott will see more and more minutes in the top four this season. He’s been stealing a few even strength shifts from time to time, particularly after the opponent ices the puck. He’s also played more on the penalty kill already than he did through the entirety of last year. However, his usage is still that of a third pairing defenceman, and it’s not terribly close to that of a top four defenceman.

Dermott represents the one internal hope of potentially improving the Leafs top four by the end of the season. His progression, and just as importantly, his progression in the eyes of Mike Babcock, will go a long way to determining whether said improvement actually takes place.