After a couple poor defensive efforts in recent games it has people asking the question, is this team solid enough defensively? The Boston game, quoted by some Maple Leaf players as a “statement game” seemed to answer some of those questions. Even without Tavares they were able to pull off the victory. Ugly at times, it still shows that the season is young and problems need to be answered.
The Washington game, the defensive structure in the second period fell apart. Allowing 3 goals in 1:07, two in 11 seconds. A lot of articles and comments wanted Mike Babcock’s head, saying its time for him to go. Nine games in, a team above .500. Those statements are absurd.
Watching that game, it was clear what is going wrong with this team. The defensive structure needs work. Defensemen aren’t quiet set in the early parts of the season as chemistry will take some time to get used to. But also, they need more defensive help from the center ice position. On the 2nd Washington goal, the goal that started all the madness in that second period. Kuznetsov was to be covered by Matthews, when the puck came out to the neutral zone Mats and Johnnson changed at the same time. This allowed Kuznetsov to gain speed from his own blueline, untouched and blow by the defense and eventually past Hutchinson. Even with Tavares trying to cover, the speedy centerman left everybody flat footed.
The second goal, 11 seconds later was also scored by an untouched centerman in Backstrom. A loss on the draw, and a tip into the zone allowed for entry. This followed by a missed assignment by Kerfoot, who allowed Backstrom to slip into open ice and pot an easy goal.
These mistakes need to be fixed if this team is going to be making any noise in April. Since the season is so early, it is the perfect time for these issues to arise. John Tavares now being out will really test the center ice position, as players will need to step up.
They proved they could do it against the deadliest line in hockey, The Bergeron line. Their chemistry is unmatched by anyone in the league as they seem to know exactly where each other are. Every Leaf fan has seen the Pastrnak one timer too many times. Seeing it again Saturday night brought back those ugly memories from the past.
Mike Babcock trusted the Goat with most defensive zone faceoffs, and that fourth line proved to be up to the task of shutting down that Bergeron line. Without Tavares, everyone seemed to step up. From inserting Spezza in the speedy 3rd line with Mekayev and Kapanen. Flip flopping Marner and Nylander on Matthews line seem to work as well. But seeing that fourth line of Shore Gauthier and Timashov working all zones of the ice showed some promise. Flip flopping centerman and a gritty for-checking Timashov look like an NHL 4th line that the Leafs haven’t had in years past.
They have been able to survive game one without JT, but a small sample size doesn’t fix everything. They won’t get a break as they will face Columbus Monday followed by another matchup against the Bruins on Tuesday. These young kids will have to show they are worth every penny of those contracts.
Help seems to be on the way. Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott are due to return, possibly by the end of the week. It will add much needed depth to this lineup as these two will be making their season debuts after off season surgeries. They will look to build off a previous season that showed a lot of upside.
Cap concerns now arise as these two come off LTIR. With all signs pointing to Nic Petan being one of the odd men out, as they look for a better fit for him around the league. But they will need to move out 3 more players, whether they decide to trade or send to the minors. The battle seems to be between Shore, Spezza, Holl, Marincin, Gravel, and Timashov.
With Petan and Gravel having already cleared waivers, they can be sent directly to the AHL. But they would still need to move 2 of these players in order to be Cap compliant.
Jason Spezza’s days in Blue and White might be coming to an end. The veteran center just doesn’t have the speed or the coaches trust to remain with this team. Shore and Timashov have proven to be better players in the early part of the season and seem to be trusted in big time situations.
The last player that could be moved is Justin Holl. Even though he has looked solid, Mike Babcock seems to have a fixation on Martin Marincin. But this decision won’t come easy as Holl has proven he can play a top 6 role on the back end of this Maple Leaf’s defence.
The Leafs early season defensive struggles have been awful at times. Allowing too many odd-man breaks, missing too many assignments and being caught flat footed at times. These flaws aren’t what you want to see from a cup contender. But the NHL is all about adjustments and every team has early season struggles. We will see if this team can continue to build chemistry, make adjustments and strive for a long playoff run.
NHL- Jeremy Davison