Coming out of the All-Star break, the Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in familiar territory, submitting an excellent regular season through 52 games while several questions remain unanswered with 30 contests remaining.
Here are six key questions and observations that summarize Toronto's season to date, while also providing a crystal ball into what needs to be addressed with visions of winning a Stanley Cup — or at least one round — embedded into every decision.
(All stats from Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, CapFriendly)
Mitch Marner is Toronto’s MVP due to his two-way excellence
Mitch Marner is Toronto’s MVP, he’s a deserving All-Star selection and probably should’ve been joined by William Nylander if the league knew what it was doing. Marner has been one of the best players in the NHL in large part to his two-way excellence.
He shattered a franchise record by notching a point in 23 consecutive games from Oct. 27-Dec. 15, registering 11 goals and 34 points over that span. Toronto boasts the reigning Hart Trophy winner in Auston Matthews, Nylander is having the best season of his career, and yet it’s Marner who stands alone here.
Mitch Marner becomes the first player in #LeafsForever history with 60+ points in each of his first 7 career seasons.
Only Mats Sundin (12) & Darryl Sittler (9) have more 60-point seasons in franchise history.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) February 2, 2023
Marner is one of the league’s preeminent playmakers and he leads Toronto in scoring with 60 points — 19 goals and 41 assists. This isn’t particularly new as Marner’s on pace for 97 points assuming he plays in all 82 games. But he’s doing it with tremendous flair and added responsibility, he drives every line he’s on, usually paired with Michael Bunting and John Tavares. He’s the defensive anchor of that line — although Tavares has posted a better expected goals against per 60 at 5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick — and he’s provided surplus value on both facets of the special teams.
— NHL (@NHL) January 26, 2023
Marner ranks 48th in expected goals against per 60 among all qualified skaters (500 minutes total) and is the central force behind Toronto’s penalty kill. He ranks third in the NHL in 5-on-5 takeaways — Nylander ranks second, for what it’s worth. He’s displayed a constant motor and will head deep into the opponent’s zone to stunt their initial drive and if he fails to disrupt the play, he constantly tracks back onto the next puck carrier while dictating where David Kampf or Zach Aston-Reese ought to be. He’s scored two short-handed goals and his presence forces opponents to be extremely careful where they’re placing the puck.
The seventh-year veteran doesn’t want individual accolades. He’s laser-focused on team success. But he’s been the Maple Leafs’ best player, he’s smashed franchise records, he’s scoring with spectacular style, he’s constantly accountable to the media, and he wants nothing more than a parade this summer. Marner won this superlative without too much consideration for Nylander, Tavares or Auston Matthews, which speaks volumes about his outstanding first half and change.
The concerns about Auston Matthews’ offensive production are exaggerated
Everyone’s waiting for the reigning Hart Trophy winner to play like he did in 2021-22 and, to a degree, that’s reasonable. But the concerns over Matthews’ lack of offensive production are exaggerated. Matthews has registered 25 goals and 53 points in 47 games, so while he won’t displace Connor McDavid for the Hart this year, he’s still playing like a superstar. There’s evidence to suggest that he’s due for a volcanic eruption when he returns from injury: Matthews is third in the NHL with nearly 16 individual expected goals at 5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick, sixth in shots and seventh in individual scoring chances, while the Maple Leafs control a 58-percent share of the expected goals when he’s on the ice at 5-on-5. The sky is not falling!
Matthews was ruled out for three weeks on Jan. 27 with a knee sprain. The All-Star break will provide some more time for Matthews to heal, and then return at full strength. If we follow the initial timeline provided, Matthews could return against the Blackhawks on Feb. 15 or against the Canadiens on Feb. 18. It’s in Toronto’s best interest not to rush Matthews back. Toronto is certainly worse without Matthews, but with a playoff date against Tampa Bay all but cemented, it’s imperative that he rests.
Matthews is displaying greater attention to detail on the defensive side, he’s already set a career-high with 63 blocked shots in all situations, and he’s embodied the idea that the Maple Leafs’ core forwards need to morph into two-way menaces. When he returns, it’s not unreasonable to expect Matthews to go on a scoring binge. To suggest that he’s not living up to expectations thus far is unfair.
Will Morgan Rielly get his groove back?
Morgan Rielly returned to the lineup on Dec. 29 after missing more than a month with a knee injury. After a few dicey games in January, I took the optimistic long-view about Rielly’s season, concluding that some of the concerns about his defensive lapses may have been overblown. Rielly’s expected goals and Corsi splits are right about where they were in 2021-2022, so there isn’t much that’s new about his game.
morgan rielly's percentile rank in even strength defensive WAR among blueliners throughout his career:
16-17: 48% :)
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) February 2, 2023
Rielly has struggled defensively, on the ice for 29 goals for and 25 goals against at 5-on-5 this season, which isn’t always the best metric for evaluation. He’s been prone to a number of careless errors, however, and the criticisms of Rielly are more easily applied through the eye test. He’s taking bad routes to the puck, he’s often caught puck-watching — during Wednesday’s game against the Bruins, he was guilty several times. Rielly turns the puck over at a nearly 2.5:1 ratio and this is the most damning indictment of his play this year.
If Rielly provides surplus offensive value for the Maple Leafs, then you can overlook these flaws. He’s the power play quarterback but the Maple Leafs can also run a five-forward unit with fluency. He has one goal and 23 points in 37 games. Sheldon Keefe spoke about the team’s internal growth and it may be telling that he singled out Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie as the veteran defenders. Will Rielly find a way to cut down on his glaring turnovers as the Maple Leafs inch towards the playoffs?
Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren's internal development is a positive surprise
Toronto leads the NHL in man-games lost and its had to deal with prolonged absences from Rielly and Jake Muzzin. It’s not worth factoring Muzzin back into the 2022-23 picture. Muzzin’s $5.63 million salary is in the LTIR pool and if the Maple Leafs are going to take some home-run swings at the deadline, he will have to remain on reserve.
For a moment it spelled impending doom, but first-round picks Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren have both taken major leaps. Sandin was in the middle of a breakout year before suffering a neck injury on Dec. 20 that kept him out for two weeks and mildly impeded his progress — he’s been a strong asset for the Maple Leafs, but has slumped into the break with two of his worst games of the season against the Senators and Bruins, respectively. Liljegren used to be such a high-variance player, but he’s no longer an erratic component, his plus-skating facilitates a ton of clean zone exits and his development has been significantly aided when he plays alongside Mark Giordano.
Sandin and Liljegren are currently paired together. This is what Sheldon Keefe said about Sandin, before expanding into a detailed answer about both him and Liljegren prior to the Feb. 1 loss to the Bruins:
I think he's just learning to pick his spots really well, offensively and defensively. I think that's a big part. I think that sometimes with the young defenseman with Rasmus and Timothy for that matter, at times the game can be a little higher-event in both ways, in terms of what you're giving up, in terms of what you're gaining. Sometimes, you'll make a great play on one end but you're being a little too aggressive in the wrong spots that can (affect) the game the other way. I think this year as things stabilize, you see less of that. I think that's what is happening with Rasmus.
Sandin and Liljegren will have to continue to improve at their current rate of development for the Maple Leafs to sustain a deep playoff run, and that’s not unreasonable based on how they’ve performed this year. Reinforcements may be on the way, but both players have certainly earned Keefe’s trust.
Timo Meier has to be Toronto’s top trade target
There’s ample speculation about what the Maple Leafs ought to do at the deadline. Toronto is projected to have $2.725 million in deadline cap space via CapFriendly, so it may take some clever maneuvering from Kyle Dubas and Brandon Pridham to make an impact move.
Vladislav Gavrikov would be a welcome addition to the Maple Leafs blue line, he’s been quietly terrific for a Blue Jackets team that falls apart when he’s not on the ice. He currently has a $2.8-million cap hit and is slated to become an unrestricted free agent, where you can bet Toronto’s market size and status as a leading contender will certainly have some appeal. He stays at home, he can play in all situations and he can provide some more balance to a stellar Maple Leafs defense that hasn’t got the best out of Rielly and will almost certainly be missing Muzzin.
Jakob Chychrun would also be a home run for the Maple Leafs. He’s 24 years old with two years of team control remaining, he’s a budding star and he directly aligns with Toronto’s window. The asking price is the only thing that would hold Toronto back, with Arizona reportedly seeking at least two first-round picks and a top prospect.
If we’re talking about big swings, the Maple Leafs have to consider Timo Meier as their top candidate. Meier leads the NHL in individual expected goals at 5-on-5, he’s recorded 28 goals and 48 points in 51 games and he’s 26, fitting directly with Matthews, Marner and Nylander’s timeline. Meier carries a $6-million cap hit for this season, while his qualifying offer next year starts at $10 million. This won’t be a rental for the Maple Leafs, they’d be adding another top-tier forward to their existing core.
I’m of the opinion that picks and prospects shouldn’t matter to the Maple Leafs at this stage of their contention window. San Jose could be amenable to a package of a 2023 first-round pick, Matthew Knies and/or Nick Robertson, plus another conditional pick. Toronto could also try to move prospects Filip Kral or Topi Niemela as well. Adding Meier to the Maple Leafs offense would make this team the most explosive offense in the NHL, if it isn’t already.
As it stands, the Devils, Rangers and Kraken can offer better packages for Meier. But the idea of adding a 26-year-old star to the club, with the potential to re-sign and re-tool the lineup in the offseason, may be too good to pass up. Modesty is an overrated virtue both in sports and in life.
How do the Maple Leafs load-manage Ilya Samsonov?
Ilya Samsonov is Toronto’s clear No. 1 goaltender entering the break. Samsonov and Murray entered a timeshare with both goaltenders performing well above expectations, before Samsonov took advantage of a poor run from his teammate and took a stranglehold of the starting job. Murray suffered an ankle injury prior to the Jan. 28 game against the Senators, so for the time being, Samsonov is the No. 1, with AHL call-up Joseph Woll sitting in the No. 2 spot.
Four years ago, the Toronto Raptors introduced the idea of load management, rested superstar Kawhi Leonard and won their first title. Load management is no longer a novel concept in sports. For those worrying about Samsonov, it’s not the worst idea to give Woll a prolonged look coming out of the break — he should get one of the starts during a home-and-home against the Blue Jackets, and you can pencil him in against the Blackhawks and Canadiens without worrying about the result. Toronto doesn’t face a tough test until Feb. 26 against the Kraken and, by then, they can take a long-view about what’s best for Samsonov down the stretch.
An easy schedule and a timely break works in Toronto’s favour, with Samsonov as the No. 1 and Murray overperforming in the role as the No. 2.
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