Toronto Maple Leafs: What We Know About the Team So Far


The expectations going into this season for the Toronto Maple Leafs were not high given the team’s position as a rebuilding club. Although it is early on it looks like the team is making strides to play a more structured style unlike in the past.

It is hard to get a true sense of what an NHL team’s identity will be early in the season, especially after six games. The Toronto Maple Leafs have benefited from the success of the Toronto Blue Jays (minus the events of Game 4 in the ALCS) because the attention has not been focused on them. Despite their record early on there are some positive things to be taken out of the first six games.

Playing More as a Unit

When a team like the Leafs does not have a lot of talent, especially with their forwards, it is up to the team to work as a unit in order to have a chance at victory. There will be times where individuals will have to step up when the team is struggling, but with the way Mike Babcock wants to run this team it will be on the players to work with each other.

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A lot of the goals scored this season by the Leafs have been the result of hard work from a five man unit. It makes them less predictable which was something the team was with Randy Carlyle. As good as a player Phil Kessel was in Toronto, the opposition figured out how to shut him down, which cooled down the team’s offence. While the Leafs do not have someone with Kessel’s talent, they are making the necessary adjustments to try to win games as a collective unit, as opposed to holding one player accountable for the outcome.

Jake Gardiner Regaining Confidence

There was a lot of eyebrow raising when Gardiner got a five-year extension as he struggled defensively with Carlyle. One of the first things that Babcock said that he wanted to accomplish was to try to get Gardiner and Morgan Rielly to be key contributors on the blueline. So far Gardiner has found his way to the top pairing with Dion Phaneuf and while it is still early, it looks like Gardiner could be on his way to regaining his old form that saw him as a positive possession player while providing offence, particularly on the power play.

Apr 8, 2015; Columbus, OH, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner (51) against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. The Jackets won 5-0. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

What the Leafs need from Gardiner is to be a capable top four defencemen that can be on the second power play pairing and hopefully if Babcock keeps him at around 20-22 minutes per night then he can be effective. He is the team leader in average time played five-on-five at 18:21. Babcock talked about Gardiner’s play of late with the Toronto Star saying, “We need Jake [Gardiner] to be a real important player for us,” said Babcock. “Obviously, we’re getting good minutes out of Hunwick and Rielly. We need Jake to be a real important puck-mover for us.” So far it looks like the Leafs are getting that from Gardiner and if he can continue to improve offensively, then that five-year deal could be looking good for the Leafs.

Balanced Lines

When you look at the Leafs line combinations this season the team has not put all their so-called top scorers on one line, or even on the top two lines. Instead Babcock has employed something similar to what he had in Detroit where the team has a grinding forward on each of his lines along with a player that has offensive upside.

Oct 10, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Leafs Joffrey Lupul (19) scores a goal against Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson (41) in the second period at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

From what it looks like, the Leafs do not have a so-called top line or top defensive pairing because of players being spread out. He just matches up his lines so that he goes up against what the opposition puts out. For example the line of Daniel Winnik, Joffrey Lupul and Nick Spaling are considered a checking line but Lupul can provide offence while not having to focus too much on defence.

Once the team is ready to call up their top prospects, Babcock has the opportunity to put them in complementary roles so that they can make the adjustment to the NHL level or put them on a line on their own in order to have a sound offensive threat.

No Moral Victories

One thing that Babcock has done out of the gate is try to keep his team focused on improving and to not get caught up in any hype that might be building up. As much as people want the team to remain in contention for a top 10 pick, that is not what is on Babcock’s mind. While the media continues to say that he must be proud of his team’s effort he is not going to accept losing.

Some people may believe that Babcock is going crazy for saying that but it is easy to understand what he is trying to accomplish. With the way the Leafs have played the team could have won four out of its first five games, the game in Detroit was not a winnable game. The game in Columbus was one that the Leafs had handed to them because the Blue Jackets did not get a strong goaltending performance from Sergei Bobrovsky. The games against the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators could have been wins because they were close games that the Leafs gave a strong effort from start to finish.

Oct 10, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau (15) scores a goal past Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson (41) in a penalty shootout at Air Canada Centre. Senators beat Leafs 5 – 4. Mandatory Credit: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs offence has had its low and high points to start this year with a season high six goals against the Blue Jackets, shutout by the Red Wings, scoring one goal against the Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins, but coming back from a 3-0 deficit against the Senators to lose 5-4.

One area the team needs to take advantage is on the power play because they have had their chances. The Leafs sit 23rd on the league in power play percentage with a 13.3 percent success rate but it is still early. They are also 75 percent on the penalty kill, which is also something the team needs to work on going forward, but again it is early and it should improve.

Now while there have been improvements made with Babcock there are still some issues that are going to make it tough for this team to be a contender for the playoffs.


Oct 3, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier (45) makes a save against the Detroit Red Wings during the first period at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The last few years the goaltending has been one of the few things that the Leafs did not have to worry about, but so far this season it has been the goaltending that has let the team down in a couple of games.

Jonathan Bernier was named the starter out of the gate by Babcock, which came as no surprise. The surprising part, though, has been the mental errors that Bernier has made. If Bernier can be dialed in from the start then he should be able to bounce back, but that is something he has to do himself because it is not the team’s fault that he has let in the first five shots in his first three starts.

He did have a better start against the Buffalo Sabres and hopefully that is something he can build on. Here’s what Babcock had to say about Bernier the other day.

Sep 26, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer (34) makes a save on Montreal Canadiens forward Dale Weise (22) during the first period at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

While Reimer has a 1-0-1 record, he has allowed 3 plus goals in both of his starts, which is not going to be good enough for him to more starts right now.

While Reimer has provided timely saves for the Leafs in both of his games there have been goals that have gone past him that should not have. So if Reimer wants to earn more starts he needs to get his GAA to at least below 2.50 and his save percentage to .910. Right now his GAA is at 2.91 and his save percentage is at .890.

Reimer can certainly improve on those stats, but if he wants to get more starts then he is going to have to go above that, which will be a tough task if he is limited in his starts.

Lack of Talent in Top Six

The Leafs have only six forwards with contracts beyond this season and four with contracts after the 2016-2017 season. Part of the reason is because the players under contract were meant to be a part of the Leafs core under former GM Dave Nonis.

Well, the Leafs got rid of Kessel and apparently tried to move Bozak and Lupul but to no success. Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk have to be the most talented forwards that the Leafs have. Right now the Leafs top six forwards are Kadri, Lupul, Bozak, Shawn Matthias, P.A. Parenteau, and That is not a dangerous group, but moving forward that will not be the case.

Sep 21, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Connor Brown (61) carries the puck against the Ottawa Senators at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Ottawa 4-1. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs focus has been shifted to drafting and developing, which means a lot of the Leafs best talent is with the Toronto Marlies, or in the juniors.

As the team moves forward and continues to properly draft and develop talented prospects the Leafs will be full of talented players. If you look at the Toronto Marlies there is a lot of talent, especially with forwards like William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Connor Brown leading the group.

Momentum Swings

One thing that has been evident with the Leafs this season is when they have momentum in the game the Leafs will continue to press hard. Unfortunately, when the other team gets momentum the Leafs get caught chasing the play and try to just survive. This is what Babcock had to say about it.

"“When the momentum swings happen in the games we seem to get carried away one way or the other,” Babcock said. “(There’s) no moral victories in the NHL. You either won or you lost. It’s real simple that way. But, the process is there and we’re trying.”"

This is where having a player like Rielly, Gardiner and Michael Grabner, all of whom have great speed, can help them get the puck out of the zone or pressure the opposition.

So while the expectations for the team may not be high, it does not look like it will be a season wasted for the Leafs as the team is making strides towards improvement. It may not show in the number of wins they have, but it will show in how the players play under Babcock as the season progresses. That is all Leafs’ fans can hope for during the rebuild.

Next: The Short, But Beautiful Reign of Tim Leiweke

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