It is easy to look at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ dominant three-game stretch against the Edmonton Oilers and think that the team wasn’t being challenged.
Some will say that the North Division hasn’t presented the same intrigue many predicted considering how convincing the Leafs have rolled over teams. They would also say that Toronto wouldn’t be having such an easy time if they were playing the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning.
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While it’s fair to say the Leafs would be challenged by Boston and Tampa, the same could go the other way. With the newly made divisions in the NHL, many teams have taken advantage of playing easier schedules as the Leafs have.
They currently lead the league with 38 points with Tampa Bay and Carolina behind them with 31 but the Leafs also have played more games than both teams. Toronto is second in the NHL in goal differential at +31 and just came off a series of games where they limited the top two scorers in the NHL to a single assist in three games.
That is no fluke considering Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl didn’t just start lighting the world on fire because they are only playing against Canadian NHL teams. Really, this has more to do with teams starting to make the necessary adjustments based on how often they have been playing the same opponent.
The Leafs have been challenged at times this season when you look back at the two games they played against the Calgary Flames. At the same time, when you look at the way the team is playing, it’s becoming more apparent that the team’s depth is rounding into form.
Also, Toronto’s defensive play has finally earned the recognition it deserves considering the way it’s played over the last month. Whether or not they need to consider adding some depth in case of injuries remains to be seen but this is the best version of the Leafs we have seen since their years with Pat Burns and Pat Quinn.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Defensive mindset a big reason for team’s dominant season
When Kyle Dubas said he wanted his team to be tougher to play against, you can start to see what his vision was when he added T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian. Really it all started with the trade for Jake Muzzin a couple of years ago.
Being a tougher team doesn’t always mean to be the more physical team which is certainly the case with Toronto considering they rank 28th in hits per 60 minutes. Instead, you see the entire team committed to blocking more shots and taking time and space away from opposing players.
That type of approach has the Leafs fourth in takeaways per game and that usually leads to more offensive chances considering they aren’t spending as much time in the offensive zone.
"“There’s still room for improvement, but I think we’ve definitely made some pretty huge strides from last year into this year,” Auston Matthews said after Wednesday’s win over the Oilers. “That’s obviously positive and I think we’re realizing what it really takes to win and that’s going to be playing well on the defensive side of the puck for us to really break through and play a long time in playoff time.”"
Toronto isn’t just waiting for the playoffs to turn on the switch and round out their defensive game. It’s easier to have that already established and have the players’ buy-in now and not when things get tougher.
They will hit some rough patches between now and the end of the season but as long as Sheldon Keefe can ensure that the team doesn’t waver from the commitment to playing team defence, they should be able to remain atop the North Division.
What are your thoughts on the Leafs’ play lately? Are they the best team in the NHL or are they benefitting from an easy division? Let us know in the comments below.