The sky isn’t quite falling for the Toronto Maple Leafs just yet, but after pushing their chips all-in at the March 3 trade deadline, expectations, and worries, are mounting.
To be clear, this is a Maple Leafs team capable of winning it all — or at least, their imminent first-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning — but experimentation with the team's lineup in pursuit of the optimal combinations before the postseason begins has rendered some erratic results. Toronto has posted a 4-3-1 record since March 3.
Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, however, implored fans and media not to overthink the constant tinkering.
“We've beaten New Jersey. We’ve beaten Carolina. We’ve beaten Edmonton. We’ve taken Colorado to a shootout. All the best teams in the league, we’ve fared pretty well against in the last two weeks so to overthink anything too much, I don’t think would be appropriate,” Keefe said via TSN’s Mark Masters.
After submitting arguably their worst performance of the season in a 7-2 loss to the New York Islanders on Tuesday, it’s time to assess what’s been working and what hasn’t for the Maple Leafs since the trade deadline.
What hasn’t been working
Morgan Rielly’s erratic play and Mark Giordano’s fatigue leads to shaky pairings
Morgan Rielly probably hasn’t been as bad as his critics have suggested, and he was the Maple Leafs’ best player against the defending champion Colorado Avalanche on March 15. Rielly is still capable of logging heavy minutes against the NHL’s best lines, but his performances continue to vary widely. It may be unfair to pin the inconsistent defensive pairings solely on Rielly, but finding an ideal partner for the team’s de facto No. 1 is a top priority — the rest will surely figure itself out.
Rielly has been partnered with Erik Gustafsson, Luke Schenn, TJ Brodie and Timothy Liljegren since March 4, and we’re not going to count the six minutes at 5-on-5 he’s played with Jake McCabe. Many people have argued that Gustafsson’s similar strengths make him redundant as he’s best used as a power play quarterback and the offensive well he tapped into with the Capitals this year has seemingly dried up. Gustafsson has been Rielly’s most common partner at 5-on-5 since March 4 and the pair has produced a 44 percent share of the expected goals, while being on the ice for two goals against and none for in 35 minutes.
Toronto has controlled a mere 38 percent of the expected goals and 44 percent of the actual goals when Rielly’s been on the ice at 5-on-5 since March 4 via Natural Stat Trick. This isn’t great. I’m of the opinion that Rielly should be paired with Schenn, who facilitated Quinn Hughes’ development in Vancouver, or with Brodie, until the team sees results.
It’s also worth noting that Mark Giordano is beginning to look fatigued. Giordano has been on the ice for a team-worst eight goals against since March 4, with common partner Justin Holl on the ice for seven. Giordano was a godsend during the first half of the year, as Holl, Liljegren and the since-traded Rasmus Sandin all played the best hockey of their careers with the 39-year-old by their side. Giordano was finally rested for the first time against the Senators on March 18, and getting him back to his first-half form should be Toronto’s second priority.
It’s not all bad for the Maple Leafs, of course. Rielly is capable of turning his game up on a moment’s notice, and this underwhelming month for the club has still resulted in a 4-3-1 post-deadline record. This has always been the time to experiment but Keefe and his staff have to use the final 12 games of the regular season to find the right formula.
A 'pissed-off' William Nylander gets demoted to the third line
Nylander was demoted to the third line for the better part of two games, before Keefe reinstalled him in the top-six during the final frame of Tuesday’s loss to the Islanders. The 26-year-old was alternating between lines, along with Marner, in the team’s 11-forward format which would necessitate greater defensive responsibility and more attention to detail.
It’s worth mentioning that Nylander is having a career year, but he’s gone four games without a point, last scoring against the Buffalo Sabres on March 13.
"I haven't been happy about my game, I've been pissed off about it," Nylander said after Tuesday’s loss via Sports Illustrated’s David Alter. "It happens and you just have to dig yourself out of it."
In fairness to Nylander, he was one of the lone bright spots against the Islanders, as the Maple Leafs controlled 84 percent of the goals at 5-on-5 when he was on the ice. Nylander has since been promoted back to his place in the top-six alongside Michael Bunting and John Tavares, and will likely remain on this unit Thursday against the Florida Panthers.
Nylander has been outstanding all season but perhaps he was overextended when being tasked with carrying a line with Sam Lafferty and Bobby McMann. Lafferty has been beneficial as a penalty killer and his elite speed can theoretically cause problems for opponents but he’s not much of a scoring threat while McMann is a replacement-level NHL player. Although he’s firmly in the prime of his career, perhaps the Maple Leafs asked too much of Nylander and he should, in theory, return with a vengeance.
What has been working
Calle Jarnkrok’s partnership with Matthews and Marner
Jarnkrok has made the most of his increased opportunities, partnered with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner for large stretches of March. He is quietly having a career year for the Maple Leafs and during a stretch where goal-scoring has occasionally dried up over the past ten games, Jarnkrok leads the team with five goals at 5-on-5 during that span, via The Athletic’s Jonas Siegel.
This next statistic is perhaps more indicative of the Maple Leafs’ poor possession numbers overall through March, but Jarnkrok ranks third on the team with a 46.9% share of the expected goals when he’s on the ice at 5-on-5 after March 4, via Natural Stat Trick. Only the injured Ryan O’Reilly and Matthews (52 percent, for what it’s worth) have bested Jarnkrok.
The 31-year-old has been able to use the space that Matthews affords him to get his shot off in tight spaces. Jarnkrok evidently has been hiding a quick-twitch release that he’s been able to unleash with greater frequency, and this goal (listed above) against the Ottawa Senators on March 18, created from Matthews’ diligent work in the corner is a prime example.
If you want to make the cynical argument that anyone could look good with Matthews and Marner, fine, have at it. You still have to bury your chances and Jarnkrok has been an able partner in transition, keeping up with the blistering pace the two superstars want to set.
CALLE JARNKROK 🚨🚨
NEW CAREER HIGH WITH HIS 17TH pic.twitter.com/FfEITcSUcG
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 19, 2023
Jarnkrok is used to playing bottom-six minutes and puck retrieval is the optimal quality for anyone playing on the left wing of the Matthews-Marner or Matthews-Nylander line. During a March 15 loss to the Avalanche, Jarnkrok was instrumental in setting up the Maple Leafs’ lone goal, picking off Nathan MacKinnon and beating Samuel Girard to the puck before swinging it to the other side of the ice, allowing Marner and Matthews to cook in the offensive zone.
two great plays by Jarnkrok that lead to the Rielly goal pic.twitter.com/S77sz6azUH
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 15, 2023
You have to win pucks back in order to stay on Toronto’s nominal top unit, and though the Maple Leafs’ lines may change when Ryan O’Reilly returns, Jarnkrok’s ability to excel alongside the Leafs' best players gives Keefe even more flexibility entering the playoffs.
Jake McCabe-Timothy Liljegren appears to be working
There’s plenty of anxiety and consternation over the Maple Leafs’ defense and we’re not trying to disavow you of that thought. There is one positive, however: the Jake McCabe-Timothy Liljegren pairing appears to be working, with enough volume not to write it off as a complete anomaly.
McCabe-Liljegren have been Toronto’s most-used pairing at 5-on-5 after the deadline, logging 45:29 together. They’ve controlled just under 51 percent of the goals at 5-on-5, they’ve been on the ice for four goals scored versus three against, and they appear to have complementary skills.
"IT'S JAKE MCCABE TIME!" - Jake McCabe pic.twitter.com/ZjoPOYxR6Z
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 16, 2023
McCabe has been an active shot blocker — sometimes to his own detriment, as he’s accidentally notched a pair of own-goals — with plus-skating ability and good defensive awareness. He’s not completely risk-averse and will enter the zone when necessary, but he’s not going to sacrifice good defence for good offence. Liljegren, meanwhile, is an excellent skater and has developed nicely while playing quality minutes in a third-pairing role this year.
There’s not much to suggest this pair will remain intact ahead of Thursday’s game. TJ Brodie has returned to the lineup after a one-game absence, and he’ll be paired with McCabe, while Liljegren practiced alongside Gustafsson. As the defensive experiment continues onward, at least Keefe has one combination that had some success in March.