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Leafs win a Rorschach test for fans

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There are reasons for optimism and pessimism. Lets go through them.

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

It’s hard to get too upset or critical in the moments after an emotional, come-from-behind win against your arch-rivals. Sheldon Keefe said as much last night.

But in the cold light of day, we can strip away the emotion somewhat and try and learn some things about this confounding, brilliant disaster of a team.

It was sloppy

Both the Leafs and the Habs had some real sloppy moments last night. This is to be expected to some degree. With an abbreviated training camp and no preseason games, players were thrown straight into the deep end of a high tempo, meaningful game. Even in the best of times, early regular season NHL games are characterized by busted coverages, terrible line changes, and bench penalties. And we’re certainly not in the best of times.

That said, the Leafs appeared to be the sloppier team by some distance last night. I thought the too many men penalty that looked like a slow motion train wreck in real time was the best example of it. But perhaps it was the time the Leafs gave up a breakaway when penalty killing due to a bad change.

Either way, it wasn’t very pretty. For all the talk the Leafs had about getting out of the gate fast, increasing the intensity of their camp, and the attitude they would need to be a contender, this is one respect where they looked quite similar to their old selves. I’m sure every team thinks this, but the self-inflicted errors need to slow down. Yes, you are going to have moments, and even games, where you’re sloppy and shooting yourself in the foot. However, in the long run, you hope those are minimized. The margins in the NHL are really small, and while I think the Leafs are good, they’re not good enough to win if they’re playing themselves as much as their opponents.

It’s not that deep

The Leafs, that is. This is no real surprise, and not a dramatic change from what we saw last year. The poor years from Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson (who, in fairness, faced injury issues as well) resulted in the Leafs too often being a two line team that was basically just passing the time when either the Matthews or Tavares lines were not on the ice.

This year, the hope was that the cobbled together bottom two lines could provide a little more than the down years of Kapanen and Johnsson, with the savings being allocated to the defence via T.J. Brodie (we’ll get to him). It’s only one game, but that did not occur last night.

The Matthews line carried play tremendously at even strength. Tavares’ line went fairly even in shots, and did well in the minutes where they weren’t played with the Dermott-Bogosian pairing (they played about 3 minutes with that pairing, whereas Matthews played 2). It’s worth noting that the Tavares line performed worse in expected goals than in shots, though part of that is due to a couple point blank shots from Josh Anderson and Nick Suzuki that followed a Brodie DZ turnover and Rielly getting walked. I should mention here, to avoid the trap of ‘The Leafs are protagonists of reality’, that this was not so much a terrible play by either Brodie or Rielly as much as it was a brilliant one by Suzuki. He knocked the puck straight out of the air when Brodie cleared it to his vicinity, and then made a great move to get by Rielly (though I guess that part isn’t too hard). Either way, this sequence was not really the fault of the forwards, and in a single game sample, one or two big chances can swamp everything else. I’m still quite comfortable assuming competence from the Tavares/Nylander pairing.

The players on the top two lines were responsible for all Leafs goals as well. Nothing too shocking there. The Leafs are a team built around stars; those stars made plays that ultimately led to winning the game. That’s some of the cushion you get when you have four elite offensive players. Sometimes Nylander will turn a tepid power play into a goal with a bar-down snipe. Sometimes Marner will punish you on a 5v3. Sometimes you get a good break, and top players take advantage.

However, that cushion is best used as a ‘break glass in case of emergency’. It’s not something that is sustainable on a game-in, game-out basis. There’s a very fine line between winning games on shooting talent and winning them on luck. As we saw against Columbus, you can’t always rely on that. Even some of the goals created by the Leafs elite talent had more than a hint of good fortune to them. Nylander’s first goal was a 1% shot that hit the jackpot, and Vesey’s only resulted from a clearing attempt that hit the back referee. That’s not incredibly sustainable.

So instead, the Leafs bottom 6 needs to provide the occasional jolt of offense. It’s unclear how they will do so. The Mikheyev - Kerfoot - Hyman line is like deploying three satellites without considering the body they’re going to orbit. There’s no consistent offensive generation from this group.

It was hard to get a read on the Leafs fourth line. They didn’t play much, and aside from a Simmonds chance off a broken rush, not much happened when they were on the ice. Montreal is a team that’s difficult for the Leafs depth to excel against, as forward depth is exactly Montreal’s strength. That shouldn’t be the case against other Canadian teams, and the Leafs can’t rely on their top six saving them forever, nor can they afford to play Matthews and Marner 24+ minutes per night consistently.

It’s good to have a friend

The aforementioned play where Suzuki dummied Brodie and Rielly aside, I was quite happy with both of them. It was nice to see Rielly play with a genuinely decent defenceman, and while this is no one’s idea of Pronger - Niedermayer, they combined well with both sets of star forwards and were great extensions of the offense. Rielly remains defensively weak, but his offense is always there, and it was needed for the Leafs today.

Conversely, Zach Bogosian had a pretty miserable debut. I don’t think anyone is expecting much from him. The hope is that he doesn’t hurt us too much. That hope isn’t going to be realized when he takes multiple penalties though. Beyond the penalties, he looked incredibly stilted and awkward with the puck.

I remember a couple shifts where Dermott and Bogosian were playing with the Tavares line in the first, and neither were good. In one of them, Bogosian lost a puck battle behind the net with Dermott puck watching, leading to a centering chance that Dermott had to make a desperation play to block. In another, they started in the offensive zone, and Tavares won a draw cleanly to Bogosian. Five seconds later, the puck was somehow in the Leafs end. That shouldn’t happen. Wasted shifts of either of the top two lines are a bit of a minor disaster for the Leafs, since they’re the only offensive generators. With Aaron Dell on the roster, the Leafs don’t have the flexibility to swap anyone out right now. Bogosian would be the prime candidate based on game 1.

It’s all your fault

I hate analyzing goaltenders on goals against. But Frederik Andersen, like all starting goalies, is the single most important player in driving team success or failure, so we should at least make an attempt to assess his game. The top line numbers aren’t good. Four goals against on 32 shots (3.49 xGA per Evolving-Hockey) doesn’t inspire confidence. That said, it’s a single game, and looking at shots or even xG loses a lot of context because of the factors that xG is blind to (passing patterns, defender positioning, etc.). These may wash out in larger samples, but they certainly don’t in a single game.

All of the goals Andersen let in are fairly explainable. First one was a weird bounce off the post that left him out of position, second was a perfect snipe with a screen, third was a breakaway, fourth was a partial breakaway. Of course, you can go down this rabbit hole and convince yourself that no goalie has ever been at fault for a goal, and as someone who spent a lot of time watching Andrew Raycroft and Vesa Toskala, I can assure you that is not the case.

In the end, this seems like a bit of a Rorschach test of a goalie performance. What you say about it says more about you than Andersen. All we can do is hope that we get an unequivocally good performance in the future.