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Around the Atlantic: Jake Muzzin is Toronto’s Ryan McDonagh

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The Leafs and Bolts are the #1 and #2 teams in the NHL. But who’s ahead?

2019 Honda NHL All-Star Game - Metropolitan v Atlantic
SAN JOSE, CA - JANUARY 26: John Tavares #91 and Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs react to a goal during the 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Game at SAP Center on January 26, 2019 in San Jose, California.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Between when I started this article and finished, the Toronto Maple Leafs made a big trade with the Los Angeles Kings. As you probably know by now, the Leafs acquired Jake Muzzin from the Kings in exchange for a first-round pick and two prospects. It was a the first big shoe to drop in the NHL as the league heads towards the NHL Trade Deadline and playoffs.

Everyone around the league — fans, analysts, insiders, trolls — were hounding at the fact that the Leafs defense pales in comparison to the corps they want to face in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Now they have a guy who can play on the first pair with Morgan Rielly, so where does that put them with respect to the rest of the league? Most importantly, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

This is the final installment of the Around the Atlantic series here at Raw Charge. The Bolts play on Wednesday, thank god. But before that happens, I want to thank everyone in the masthead and around the SB Nation family who participated in this exercise. It was my original idea, but I really loved how it grew and evolved as each writer and guest put their spin on it. Hopefully this becomes a regular thing, I really enjoyed it.

If you want to read the whole series, I linked to each article at the end of this one.


How Good are the Forwards?

Auston Matthews. Nikita Kucherov. Steven Stamkos. John Tavares. Brayden Point. Mitch Marner. Nazem Kadri. Tyler Johnson. William Nylander. Yanni Gourde. Ondrej Palat. Kasperi Kapanen. Go down the roster, and you’ll find that each line — each player, really — compares in style and skill to their adversary in blue and white. It’s eery, to be honest with you.

I created a quick online spreadsheet (courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com’s data) with both forward lineups on them, just to visualize just how even each roster is. When it comes to goals, points, shots, shot attempts, and expected goals, anything, the production is the same across the lineup.

Looking at the teams as a whole, it’s clear the margins are small. In 49 games each, Tampa and Toronto are #1 and #2 in even-strength goals. Tampa has a three-shot advantage is shots per game (33-30), but the Leafs get three more shot-attempts per game (63-60). In terms of Evolving Hockey’s expected goals metric, the Leafs expect to get 0.1 more goals per game than the Lightning. Basically no difference. Both teams are in the top echelon of the league in scoring, which is pretty obvious considering the talent on each roster.

Where these numbers vary is when you bring in special teams. The Lightning are running at a 29% power play conversion rate this season, the best in the league. Meanwhile, the Leafs are ninth in the league with a 22% success rate. However, for the Leafs, they lead the league in the fewest power play opportunities with only 122 in 49 games. By comparison, the Lightning are sixth with 166 in the same number of games. That’s about one extra power play per game for the Lightning that the Leafs don’t get. As a result of those two statistics, the Lightning’s all-situations offense looks miles ahead of Toronto.

It’s not that one team is better, it’s that one has been getting the power plays and the other hasn’t. Whether it’s right or not, the power plays will go away once the playoffs start and this big offensive advantage that the Lightning have will disappear.

Keeping on the playoffs vein, despite the probable loss of power play prowess, the Lightning still have an advantage going in. Mental fortitude. Tampa Bay is the veteran group who has been far in the playoffs. They’ve fought against eventual Stanley Cup Champions three times in four seasons. I’m sorry, Bolts fans, that must’ve been a painful sentence to read, but it really is a good thing.

Toronto has only faced Washington and Boston in the first round during this new era of theirs, and they lost both. Boston is Toronto’s boogeyman, and the odds are high they meet in the first round again.

On paper, the Leafs are a far better team than the Bruins — especially now since the Leafs added Tavares over the summer — but one can never discount voodoo. Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak are undeniable Leafs-killers. Somehow, Jake DeBrusk has found himself in that echelon, too. And as always, Brad Marchand has never failed to get under the skin of the Leafs and their fans. Sure, all signs point to Tampa Bay and Toronto meeting in the second round, but one team’s first-round success isn’t quite as much of a slam dunk as the other.

How Bad is the Defense?

They were...

...But not anymore.

I’ve been saying at this site for weeks and weeks that the Leafs have needed a Ryan McDonagh-type player to anchor the top-four of the defense core. They now have that in Jake Muzzin. Going into last night, the Leafs had a top pairing of Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey. Rielly has had a great season — he’s been getting a lot of points and Norris Trophy voting — but as the year’s gone on, his 37-year-old partner Hainsey has fallen and can’t get up. That pairing wasn’t going to last, and going from Hainsey to Muzzin is a massive upgrade. Like the McDonagh acquisition, it now allows the rest of the Leafs defense to play a little lower in the lineup and in a spot that fits each of their capabilities better.

Hainsey is a third-pairing defenseman at this stage of his career and will get to play those minutes. His probable partner Travis Dermott now has a defensive defenseman who can also play the part of a mentor. Dermott has been given heavily sheltered minutes all season, but has shown the ability to succeed in some more defensive assignments. The safety net of Hainsey will make that transition much better.

Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev have been drowning in heavy competition all season. Those two have, by far, the most minutes and shifts on the team and have been for a few seasons now. Evening that usage with Muzzin-Rielly should lighten that load on the two mobile defensemen.

And when it comes to special teams, Hainsey and Zaitsev will also get a massive relief in terms of minutes. Those two have played over 140 minutes on the PK this season in 49 games. The next closest is Dermott and Rielly with 60. Optimizing Rielly and Gardiner on the power play, and a quartet of Muzzin, Hainsey, Zaitsev, Dermott on the PK is a pretty solid way to distribute minutes.

In terms of what it means for the Lightning, time will tell. It’s all still so new! Like most Bolts fans know, it took time for McDonagh to get acclimated to the team’s system from New York. No doubt the same will happen for Muzzin, who has to move from the West to the East. And from a pleasant 70s day with sun to a freaking snow storm and low 20s. It must also be said that in Muzzin’s last five games against the Lightning, he’s been a negative shot, goal, and scoring chance player. The sample size isn’t high, and they are better when you exclude the game this season, but Muzzin is safely under water against the Lightning when he’s not with Drew Doughty.

On the whole, Toronto’s defense core has improved significantly, but they still far short of Tampa Bay’s. Although, I will say McDonagh, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak is a very similar set up to Rielly, Muzzin, Gardiner, Zaitsev, and Dermott. Not as good on the top end, but right there.

Andersen or Vasilevskiy?

One stole a game his team should’ve lost in December and the other did the same in January. Andrei Vasilevskiy and Frederik Andersen are about as even of a high-end goalie matchup as you’re going to get this season.

Just looking at their stats, these two goalies are #1 and #2 in the league at their craft. For goalies who’ve played more than 1500 minutes this season, Vasilevskiy (0.925) and Andersen (0.923) are first and second in the league in save percentage. In goals saved above average, Andersen (16.46) is first and Vasy (15.43) is third. Damn you, John Gibson. Moving over to Hockey-Reference.com, Andersen still carries a lead in terms of quality starts. Using a stat created by Rob Vollman that has historically been a good indicator of good goaltending, Andersen (67.6%) is second in the league in QS% whereas Vasilevskiy is 10th among goalies who have played more than 1500 minutes.

In a nutshell, as good as Vasilevskiy has been this season, Andersen has been right there, if not better, and the difference in their play during a playoff series will mostly just come down to luck.

How about them Marlies?

I’ll be really quick on the Toronto Marlies because they only have a handful of players who might be able to help in the NHL this year and next.

Calle Rosen is a 24-year-old left-handed defenseman on the Marlies who should probably be in the NHL right now. He’s been very good player for the AHL squad, who has seen a lot of key players leave the roster since they won the 2018 Calder Cup. Leafs fans will be clamouring to sit Hainsey for Rosen within a few weeks, and they might get their wish by the time the playoffs come, especially if there are injuries. Rosen has a big shot, moves the puck really well through all three zones, and has become a silent leader on the young squad.

Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin are the sexy young prospects in the Leafs organization. The two teenage first-round picks have both been playing in the AHL and playing well. Unfortunately, both are injured right now. The Leafs apparently expect the soon-to-be 20-year-old Liljegren to make the Leafs out of camp next year on the third pair. If he didn’t get a high ankle sprain at the end of last year, he probably would’ve seen some time this year.

Sandin is a skinny 18-year-old right now, but has shown massive promise as a prospect. He is a seen as a very smart player who is almost always in the right spot. His first pass is good, and he’s scored a bit on the Marlies. He could be a trade piece for a big acquisition down the line for the Leafs, but the kid played for GM Kyle Dubas’ hometown Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds last year (Jake Muzzin did, too), so maybe not.

More Deadline Moves?

Unless the Leafs can get a left-winger to play on the first line with Matthews and Nylander, I don’t expect the Leafs to reach into their wallet anymore. If there are going to be any more moves, it’ll be at the fringes and for the Marlies. Tyler Ennis is expected to be back from a broken foot soon, meaning one of the nine defensemen on the Leafs’ NHL roster will have to go. Who will it be? Igor Ozhiganov, Martin Marincin, or Justin Holl? My guess is it’ll be the last of that trio. A lot of teams will want an offensively-minded right-handed defenseman in his prime making approximately zero dollars. Will the Leafs risk it, or put a waiver-eligible player like Ozhiganov down, despite definitely not deserving the demotion. The former KHLer also has a young family and is in a new country. I’m not sure how much he’ll want to go on AHL road trips making less than $100k.


So, what do you think of the Leafs? Send me your general thoughts and takes in the comments and on Twitter! I can take it, I promise.

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The Maple Leafs are a top-__ team in the NHL

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