The Toronto Maple Leafs currently possess one of their most lethal rosters in over 100 years of existence.
It’s easy to forget this on occasion, what with William Nylander still unsigned, Auston Matthews‘ quest for the Hart Trophy all but finished thanks to yet another shoulder ailment, and Ron Hainsey somehow continuing to log top pair minutes. But make no mistake, this Leafs team is nevertheless the cream of the NHL’s crop, and a slight November blip certainly won’t be enough to change that.
That being said, it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows in Leafs Nation this season.
Mike Babcock‘s group will enter into Thursday’s bout with the Dallas Stars sitting comfortably in second place in the East, and holding a commendable 8-4-0 record to boot, but certain players have thus far left more than enough to be desired. For this team to finally reach that next level, to exorcise the demons which have plagued the franchise for a half-century, all members will be required to pull their own weight.
And that, unfortunately, has not been the case.
Here are three Leafs who need to kick it up a notch and why they’re likely to do so.
You think I care whether you’re mad at me for calling out the golden boy? I’m not here to make friends. I’m here for the truth. And the truth is, to this point in the season, Travis Dermott has not played up to his potential.
I know what you’re thinking. But bringing the hammer down on Ron Hainsey is too easy right now. This horse was dead at puck drop and Twitter has only proceeded to beat it mercilessly regardless ever since.
And look, I’m not arguing against that. 2018-19 Hainsey is unquestionably his team’s worst defender, or at least he looks that way in the context of his usage, and wasting valuable digital ink on such a well-worn subject serves no purpose.
Dermott, on the other hand, warrants discussion.
It’s easy to glance over at his advanced numbers and see shades of the 21-year-old possession driving stud fans fell in love with, but there’s more at play here. Dermott’s minutes this season are remarkably sheltered even in contrast to last – 56.1% o-zone starts in 2018-19 compared to 2017-18’s 51.7% – and his offensive production has thus far been limited to a single secondary assist.
To be fair, Dermott hasn’t been terrible, not by any stretch, but after witnessing just how good the kid can be when his game is firing on all cylinders, it’s hard not to be left wanting more.
Another thing to remember, and it’s a big one, is that Babcock doesn’t judge Dermott on the same scale he judges a veteran like Hainsey. While the latter prepares to suit up for his 1,000th NHL game on Thursday, doing so amidst his 17th season, the former will take part in what will only be his 47th.
That’s a bit of a gap.
The reality is, coaches actually care about that legacy stuff. And, like it or not, the length of Hainsey’s resume is enough to earn him the benefit of the doubt in the eyes of Babcock, along with some considerable leeway. Dermott, who is still technically a rookie, has yet to earn squat. Which, you know, might explain why his coach is all too keen on scratching him in lieu of an otherwise more deserving elder statesmen.
Hockey is dumb. But I’d wager you already knew that.
Thankfully, Dermott is almost guaranteed to improve as time wears on. A PDO of 91.1 can be held responsible for a good portion of his current downswing to date, a number so ridiculously low it’s practically begging for a progression.
There’s talent here. In fact, we’ve even seen flashes of it as recently as in the past week. Stringing all that talent together in the form of a consistent stretch will determine Dermott’s spot in the lineup moving forward.
Like Dermott, Andreas Johnsson began the 2018-19 season under a cloud of expectation.
Buoyed by his phenomenal showing in the brief stint he spent with the Maple Leafs at the tail end of last year, Johnsson proceeded to tantalize fans in the weeks to come by racking up a ludicrous 24 points in 16 postseason games with the Marlies en route to the franchise’s first Calder Cup.
And again, like Dermott, Johnsson lands himself here not on the back of terrible play, but from a failure to live up to his potential.
From a possession standpoint, Johnsson has actually been quite effective. The 54.7% 5v5 CF/60 he’s managed to post in 7 games pairs nicely with a similarly sterling 5v5 Corsi rel% of 5.2. Even his usage from year-to-year has not been subject to any drastic change. In 2017-18, Johnsson began 36.4% of his shifts in the offensive zone, a decidedly low number for sure, albeit serving as only a slight dip from his current mark of 40%.
So, in regards to his underlying numbers, Year Two Johnsson is not all that different from Year One Johnsson, save for a percentage point or two.
What is different is his role.
Johnsson’s most common linemate in 2017-18 was none other than Kasperi Kapanen, a fellow former Marlie whose game he’d been familiar with for the bulk of the past two years. When paired together, the two put forth a fantastic cumulative 5v5 CF/60 of 57.69%, experiencing little individual drop off during their fleeting moments of separation.
There’s a reason as to why this partnership worked so well.
Both Johnsson and Kapanen are undoubtedly capable possession drivers in their own rights. But even so, neither one is able to stir the drink all by themselves – at least at the time – and, therefore, no one asked them to.
This year, on the other hand, has been a different story.
Par Lindholm has now assumed Kapanen’s prior role as Johnsson’s most common running mate, a decision which has since produced vastly different results. In an admittedly smaller sample size, Johnsson and Lindholm have thus far combined for a 52.27% 5v5 CF/60. Still a respectable output of course, not to mention sitting above the 50% Mendoza line, but the differences can be found in their splits when separated.
In Lindholm’s even strength minutes sans Johnsson – which is, funnily enough, nearly identical to the time the two have spent together – Lindholm drops to a 45.36% while Johnsson actually improves to 57.14%. Suddenly, the circumstances become clear.
This season has seen Johnsson be thrust into the newfound role of the driving force of his line this season, a stark contrast to last when he and Kapanen benefited from each other’s presence mutually.
It’s perhaps likely that Babcock saw Johnsson decimate his way to earning Calder Cup MVP honours and therefore deemed him ready for an uptick in responsibility. With only 16 NHL games under his belt, Johnsson has, expectedly, struggled to adjust.
So, what happens next? Well, for one, Matthews’ absence could end up being exactly what sparks Johnsson back into his former self.
As a gaping hole now festers atop the lineup, perhaps Johnsson finds himself bumped up onto a line with one of either John Tavares or Nazem Kadri, both of whom would inevitably lessen the owness on possession. Or maybe he’s just reunited with Kapanen.
Heck, both outcomes could even arise simultaneously. Who knows? That’s the fun.
Either way, the lacklustre early returns on Johnsson are unlikely to continue, barring any conscious decisions by the coaching staff to shackle him on the fourth line.
Guy’s been invisible so far. Are we sure he’s even playing?
Thanks for reading!