Saturday night’s decisive win over the Vancouver Canucks marked the midway point of the season for the Maple Leafs, and their second game of the New Year. Through the first half of the season the Leafs have met or exceeded many expectations, but as any Mike Babcock interview will remind you, there’s always room for improvement. For some it may be staying healthy (looking at you Matthews), and for others it may mean simply getting into the lineup. In any case, starting the year off right means New Year’s Resolutions, so here’s an idea of what we might be able to expect from the boys in blue this 2019.
Connor Brown: After coming in hot with a 20 goal rookie campaign, Brown has seen his offensive output dwindle each subsequent season, dropping to 14 in his sophomore season, and down to only 3 thus far this year. As he is projected to only score 6 goals this season, the easy out would be to simply say score more goals. This might be a little unfair, as Brown has seen his average ice time drop from 16:12 in his rookie campaign, to just 14:42 so far this season. With the offensive juggernaut the Leafs can unleash on any given night, Brown might best serve the team by resolving to maintain the +6 rating he has earned thus far this season. If Brown can continue to consistently defend well, while also moving up and down the lineup (injuries, etc.), his dip in offensive production shouldn’t be too much of a concern for the blue and white.
Tyler Ennis: Although his season has unfortunately been derailed by a broken ankle, Ennis has had an excellent start following his release from the Minnesota Wild. Starting the year on a line with Auston Matthews, Ennis looked a little out of place, but has since found a home on the fourth line. The diminutive forward has used his impressive speed to amasse 7 goals through 33 games, while only playing an average of 10:08 per night. This would project to just over 17 goals had he stayed healthy for the duration of the season… not too shabby for a fourth-liner making 650,000 on a one year ‘show-me’ type contract. Prior to his injury, Ennis was almost certainly on his way towards a raise next season (likely with another team), so upon his return he’ll need to continue to prove he still belongs at the NHL level each and every night.
Frederik Gauthier: Heading into the offseason, Freddy the Goat knew he was going to be in the mix for the fourth line centre slot. It has been obvious so far this season he knew that to get his foot in the door he had to increase his footspeed. Since day one with the Maple Leafs the Goat’s speed has come under scrutiny, and dare I say he has all but put those concerns to bed. He will never be a great skater, but this season he has shown he can keep up with the majority of fourth lines in the league. Moving forward, he’ll need to remain solid defensively (+4 through 33 games this season, compared to -4 in 9 appearances last year), and continue to use all of his 6’5”, 235 lbs frame. As Freddy is well aware, head coach Mike Babcock has a penchant for players who play a heavy game. While Freddy’s hits per game have increased from 1.05 (2015-2018) to 1.3 this season, he’ll likely need to ratchet up his physicality in order to crack the lineup once smaller, more skilled players such as Tyler Ennis return to the team.
Zach Hyman: In many regards, Zach Hyman has had an excellent first half of the season. Despite missing 10 games due to injury and suspension, Hyman has managed to find the back of the net 7 times, a pace that would have seen him reach a career high if he were to have played the full 82 game schedule. He has also amassed a +10 on the season, while maintaining a solid 50.4% Corsi For Percentage. At first glance, one area for Hyman to turn over a new Leaf this new year (pun fully intended) would be in the PIM category. Hyman has taken 11 more penalty minutes than any other Leaf this season, while also playing 10 fewer games than his closer competitor (Kadri). Over the course of his career Hyman has averaged 0.47 PIMs per game, but this season that number has ballooned to 1.31 per game. Upon further inspection you’ll find that 20 of Hyman’s PIMs were earned during the December 8th tilt with the Bruins following a questionable (and ultimately suspendable) hit on Charlie McAvoy. After removing this outlier from his PIM total, we see his per game average drop back down to 0.69, well within reach of his career average. This suggests that perhaps Hyman was buying into all of the “Leafs need to play tougher” rhetoric that has been circulating lately. In any case, both Hyman and the team as a whole will find the most success this season is he resolves to stay within himself. The Leafs need Hyman to be the relentless, puck-retrieving forechecker he has always been, not the mis-cast, watching from the pressbox tough guy we saw for two games following the McAvoy hit.
Andreas Johnsson: It has been a tale of two seasons for Johnsson thus far, that can most readily be split by the hat trick he scored against the Flyers in a span of just 7 minutes and 35 seconds. By all accounts Johnsson did not have a great training camp, and was mired in a slump to start the season. Johnsson’s first 18 games saw him score just 3 points, and average 11:38 of ice time while slotting in and out of the lineup. In the 19 games since (and including) his hat trick, Johnsson has scored 16 points, is a plus 11, and has seen his average icetime jump to 14:14 per game. Johnsson’s improved play has seen him promoted to a line alongside Auston Matthews, and the young Swede hasn’t looked back since. In a recent interview Johnsson attributed his early struggles to thinking too much, and that his resurgence has been a result of relying more on instinct. Whatever the case, Johnsson’s resolution should definitely be to stay the course, as his current pace has the kid on track for a hefty raise when his entry-level deal expires July 1st.
Nazem Kadri: While Kadri has been a possession monster through the first half of the season (53.8% Corsi For %), he has yet to translate that possession dominance into offensive statistical success. Although he is currently (just barely) on pace for a career high in assists (31), he is also projected to hit his lowest goal total (18) since 2015-16 when he buried 17. While many may attribute this to being shuffled down the lineup, his average ice time has remained shockingly close to his career average, and he has seen ample time on the first powerplay unit. A more likely cause of Kadri’s offensive decline may lie in his shot selection. Despite taking a similar amount of shots as he has in previous seasons, Kadri’s shooting percentage has dropped substaintially from 15.2% in 2017-18 to just 9.1 this season. To put that into perspective, if Kadri were shooting at 15.2% this season, he would have just over 15 goals and would be on pace for about 29 for the season. Kadri has been known as a streaky scorer throughout his career, and there is still plenty of time this season for him to get the offense going. In order to do that he will definitely have to focus on boosting that shooting percentage, and improving his shot selection may be the easiest route.
Kasperi Kapanen: Through the first half of the season Kapanen has exceeded expectations in almost every possible way. With Nylander missing the first two months negotiating his new deal, Kapanen has made the most of his opportunity playing alongside Auston Matthews. After replacing Tyler Ennis on the Matthews line, Kapanen scored a goal and an assist in a comeback victory against Chicago, and has since tallied another 23 points for a total of 25. Kapanen has used his speed well, continuing to create offence off of the rush, while also providing solid back-pressure. If there was one area where Kapanen could focus his attention in 2019, it might be on the powerplay. Although he has not been given ample opportunity to this point, the zero sitting in the PPP column remains one of the few blemishes on Kapanen’s otherwise quality statline. With the Leafs’ recent struggles on the man advantage, Coach Mike Babcock has shuffled his powerplay units, and it appears as though Kapanen could get an extended look on the top unit with Tavares, Marner, Kadri and Rielly. Although it appears the young Finn is going to cash in this offseason regardless, if he can get hot on the PP his value as an RFA will only increase.
Par Lindholm: Pegged as the early favourite for the fourth line centre job in camp, Lindholm has bounced around the bottom six playing both centre and wing for the Leafs this season. Despite his status as an NHL rookie, Lindholm is a veteran of 7 pro seasons in Sweden, where he honed his skills with Skelleftea AIK. Thus far, Lindholm’s speed has proven to be NHL calibre, and he has been good in the faceoff dot (51.6%). As the season continues, he should be a safe bet to remain in the lineup, but should Leafs’ management decide they need more size or grit, he could find himself watching from the press box heading into the playoffs. While I do not expect Lindholm to add more sandpaper to his game, he should look to control the puck more, as his possession numbers could potentially be his downfall (47.2 Corsi For %).
Patrick Marleau: While Patrick Marleau is on pace for his lowest offensive output since his rookie season, he has hit several incredible milestones this year that cannot be ignored. Playing in his 1617th career game pulled him into sole possession of 9th overall in league history. Should Marleau remain healthy for the rest of the regular season, he will overtake Scott Stevens, Dave Andreychuk, Chris Chelios, and Mark Recchi for the 5th spot. If that wasn’t enough, Marleau also recently passed Maurice “Rocket” Richard for 30th on the all-time goals scored list, with his 545th career goal. Those are two insane milestones for the Leafs’ team dad, both of which he should be incredibly proud. The guy is an absolute, no-doubt-about-it, first ballot hall of famer, and by all accounts an amazing human being. For these reasons, I believe Patty’s New Year’s resolution should simply be to keep grinding away, and maybe… just maybe hoist that big silver thing in June.