What We’ve Learned About the Leafs – Small Sample Size be Damned

By Tom Hunter (@PuckDontLie)

The Toronto Maple Leafs are now seven days into their ‘Centennial’ season (it’s not actually their 100th season but who’s counting?) and while it’s far too early to draw any conclusions about the team, one thing is for certain – this season will be a heck of a lot more fun than last year. The team is young, fast and in only two games has created an excitment that makes these three off days feel like an eternity.

Like I said, it’s only been two games – and not even I am crazy enough to draw any conclusions after only two games right? If you know me and follow me on Twitter, you certainly know that’s not the case.

So let’s take a look at a few things I’ve learned about this team after just two games.

Auston Matthews is the real deal

“He’ll never be offensively dynamic.”

“He doesn’t play with the type of exciting flare that others do.”

“Patrik Laine is the better prospect”

These are all narratives that were created by draft analysts this past summer, and it took Auston Matthews a single game in the NHL to make them look foolish.

He’s the franchise cornerstone, the likely next captain of the team, and the player upon which the team will be built for the next decade. No, he’s not on the same level as Connor McDavid – no one is – but he’s a lot closer than many might have thought.

In just two games, Matthews has looked strong, poised and responsible both with and without the puck.  It’s rare to find a shift that makes Matthews look like the 19-year old rookie he is. With four goals in his NHL debut, Matthews not only made history, but he showed the doubters that he can be just as offensively dynamic as anyone from his draft class.

Auston Matthews isn’t a two-way forward – he is a scoring center first and foremost but also happens to have the potential to be elite defensively. We knew he’d be good. I’m not sure we knew he’d be this good, this fast.

 

Who said he’s not ready for the NHL?

Through two games this season, Mitch Marner has shown that his offensive game will transition very well to the NHL. It’s commonplace to watch a CHL star and say “he’s going to need to adapt to succeed at the next level”.  While there are a lot of good defenders in the OHL, there is a reason that the top guys play upwards of 35 minutes in some games. Second and third pairing defenders are often not very good. Things that are done with the puck in junior often don’t work against the level of competition you see in the NHL.

In Junior, Nazem Kadri was a wizard with the puck, he would do things that would leave spectators and opponents in awe. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the type of game that would work in the NHL and it took him few years to figure that out.

It’s not going to take Marner nearly as long.

Mitch Marner is showing us that his dynamic ability with the puck is not going to need as much tweaking as most. He’s been outstanding almost every time the puck has been on his stick, and if not for some bad luck in Ottawa, he could have as many goals as Matthews through two games.

There are still things that need to be fixed. He took a very dumb penalty Saturday night that led to a Bruins goal and he has shown a tendency to put too much faith in his defenders – leaving the defensive zone very early. These are bad habits you see from 99% of junior players making the jump to the NHL and things that Babcock and his staff should be able to coach out of him very quickly.

 

The back-end needs major help

The Maple Leafs do not have a very good group of defencemen.  Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are good. Nikita Zaitsev looks like he has the potential to get there. Connor Carrick might be a decent 3RD down the road, but everything else is junk.

There are glaring holes, and the answers are not in-house. Think what you want of the potential of Travis Dermott or Andrew Nielsen, but we shouldn’t be anticipating either of them being anything more than a bottom pair defender on a good NHL team.

In order for this team to be good, a major addition or two need to be made. There is an unquestionable need for a right-handed defender that can play in the top-4. That need leads to the inevitable speculation of a trade for Jacob Trouba – unfortunately, I just don’t see it happening. Adding Trouba would be huge for the future of the organization, the problem is that it would likely just create holes elsewhere in the lineup.

What would I do? I’d wait it out. I don’t think this team will be good enough to be a playoff contender this season anyway so why not wait?

If I’m the Leafs, I go all-in on Kevin Shattenkirk this summer. All sign point to the 27-year old going to free agency on July 1 and he would be the perfect solution for the Leafs. If Shattenkirk decides he wants to go elsewhere, or the contract demands start to get a little scary, there’s another UFA option – Michael Stone from Arizona.

Stone is 18 months younger than Shattenkirk and could likely be had for a much more sensible contract. He’s a step-down, but Stone would be a guy that would look very good in the second pair, on Jake Gardiner’s right side.

 

Maybe we should think about locking up JVR long-term

Over the past 6 months, James van Riemsdyk has almost become the forgotten man on this team. Thanks to the new-found depth created by moving Marner and Nylander back to the wing, many have started to opine that JVR is a guy that could be traded to fill holes elsewhere.

One thing seems clear after two games – and Mike Babcock definitely knows it – JVR is the absolute perfect compliment to Mitch Marner.

When lines were starting to come together in training camp, many Leafs fans wanted to  see what Mitch Marner could do with Auston Matthews – the coaching staff had other ideas. Marner and JVR were paired up, and we learned again why Mike Babcock has a better hockey mind that we do.

JVR is a player that doesn’t need the puck on his stick to make an impact, Mitch Marner is. The big winger has the size and hockey sense to be able to play off Marner in a way that has created scoring opportunities for both players. Now if only we could find a center to play between them.

A one/two punch of Matthews/Nylander and JVR/Marner is something that could be a recipie for a lot of success.

He is a free agent at the end of next season, and many believe that JVR might price himself out of Toronto. If I’m Leafs management I make extending the 27-year old priority #2 this summer after finding a RD.

Sure he’s a little older than the rest of the core, but Marian Hossa shows us how signing a slightly older star to complement the young core can be very valuable to a successful team.

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