For the first time this year, the Toronto Maple Leafs fell to an overtime defeat on Saturday evening. Toronto, outplayed on the road by the Edmonton Oilers, are now 7-2-1 through 10 games. With a couple of days off, Sheldon Keefe and his Leafs can rest.
The Leafs played 10 games in 18 days to open the year. Keefe’s roster started the season with four games in six nights, before alternating day-on-day-off for the next 12. Toronto’s packed January schedule featured four games against Connor McDavid’s Oilers and a western road trip. All during a pandemic.
Of course, organisations across the NHL share Toronto’s woes. The 2021 season will be like none other, a fact compounded by the Seattle Kraken’s imminent arrival in the Western Conference. That said, the Maple Leafs are now 17.8 percent of the way through their 56-game regular-season schedule.
It’s time to draw some conclusions about where Toronto is headed.
Sheldon Keefe and the Maple Leafs: What’s New?
At the time of writing, Toronto lead the North Division and sit tied for first in the NHL standings. Toronto’s start to the season has progressed as expected. The Maple Leafs are arguably the best team in Canada; this year represents the best opportunity for them to prove it.
Through 10 games, Toronto has scored 33 goals and conceded 29; their goal differential ranks among the NHL’s best. Even so, Keefe’s team has under-performed at both ends of the ice at 5-on-5. Toronto’s actual goal difference (axDiff) is -5 (per Hockey Reference), indicating that the Leafs should become more efficient as the season progresses.
Toronto face the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday evening, here are some issues to look out for.
Alexander Barabanov Is Under Serious Pressure
Alexander Barabanov sacrificed a lot to get his shot in the NHL. The Russian winger missed an entire KHL season and was thrust into action without going through a full training camp. Adapting to life in the NHL was always going to be difficult for the 26-year-old; however, Barabanov is in real trouble after six games in white and blue.
The Russian has averaged 6:03 minutes of ice time through his opening six NHL appearances. In that time, limited as it has been, Barabanov has failed to impress. The 26-year-old’s two shots, neither of which looked like finding twine, has not been enough to stave-off his critics.
Before Barabanov arrived, Sheldon Keefe said: “We’re really excited to add another player to the fold here that we think has got a great experience and great skill set.”
“Very high character as well, just checks a lot of the boxes that you’re always looking for when you’re adding a player that you fully expect to step in and be an important part of your team.”
To date, Barabanov has failed the NHL eye test. His stats are equally unimpressive. Unless the St Petersburg-native improves rapidly, he will be heading back to Russia. Barabanov still has a lot to prove.
Frederik Andersen Is Not Under Serious Pressure
Following a rocky start to the season, the Leafs’ netminding-Dane has been perfectly fine.
Andersen has registered a career-best high-danger save percentage of .833 (per Hockey Reference) and looks confident between the pipes.
His .892 save percentage isn’t particularly impressive but Andersen has rebounded from last year’s playoffs. In plain terms, the former Anaheim Duck has delivered the bare minimum: Andersen isn’t giving up freebies this year.
With Jack Campbell out of the picture for a while, Andersen has time to improve further. For once, having Michael Hutchinson on the bench might help Toronto’s Dane. The situation isn’t perfect, but Sheldon Keefe will be content with the Leafs’ goaltending so far.
Toronto’s Powerplay Is Hot Under Sheldon Keefe
The Leafs’ 43.3 percent powerplay scoring rate is impressive. (The league average is 21.59 percent)
Toronto is fine with a man disadvantage too; the Leafs are 76.92 percent on the penalty kill. (The league average in 78.41 percent)
Of Toronto’s 33 goals this season, 16 have come on the powerplay; plus, there are reasons to believe the Leafs can uphold their special unit record. If Mikko Lehtonen establishes himself in the top-six, his creativity on the puck will become a huge asset.
Plenty can be said about how division realignment has helped the Leafs – those comments are valid. However, this season is simply about finishing in Canada’s top-four, winning a playoff series, and seeing what the future holds. Ultimately, a 7-2-1 start is very promising indeed. Sheldon Keefe will take it.