Hardev has the honor of being a staff writer for both Raw Charge and our friends over at Pension Plan Puppets. So, who else better than to interview than himself to get a perspective on things on the other side of the ice?
How are Leafs fans feeling ahead of this series?
Pretty dejected, to be honest. The loss to the Habs broke a lot of fans in ways we haven’t seen before since the Harold Ballard years. There are still plenty of fans who are all in, you’ve probably seen the “PASSION” meme going around. It’s loud, it’s chaotic, no one agrees with each other, there are factions, people trying to stand out by being different or loud, everything. It’s like a big family or politics.
Is the Game 7 curse really a thing?
A curse is a curse until it’s broken. As of right now, yeah, the Leafs are cursed. In this era, it’s been because the stars showed their youth and the supporting cast wasn’t there to help. I also think when the Leafs get frustrated (like with CBJ) they fall apart rather than come together. Players who don’t see or feel the noise, like William Nylander, will just keep scoring and producing, but Mitch Marner acts like a Leafs fan on Twitter having a total meltdown of his play. Has he gotten over that? That’ll decide the series. I think the supporting cast around the stars is going to help them more than it has in the past.
What are the Leafs strengths?
Offensively, Auston Matthews is unstoppable pretty much every night. Mitch Marner has had a season so good he might have forgotten to skip the playoffs. The Leafs third line is modeled (not exactly) off the Lightning’s third line. They are big, long, dominant on possession, might not score, but keep you in the defensive zone long enough to get Matthews over the boards.
Defensively, this is the deepest team the Leafs have had ever. They have seven guys who have succeeded in real top-four minutes this year, often out of necessity because of Jake Muzzin’s bad season and other injuries. Timothy Liljegren has been a revelation, especially alongside Mark Giordano.
The Leafs are the best team in the league shorthanded. Both in terms of not giving up goals, but also scoring goals themselves. Any of their forwards can go off for a breakaway at any time, and they’re encouraged to do so. It’s not just Marner. Engvall, Mikheyev, Kaše, Kämpf, Kerfoot, they can all do damage shorthanded.
What are the Leafs weaknesses?
Ok, what are the *real* Leafs weaknesses?
Defensively, they rely on owning possession and reducing the number of chances against that way, rather than having great in-zone defense. They definitely try to be good in their own zone, but they’re just not that type of team. Morgan Rielly is not like Hedman defensively, Lyubushkin has struggled recently after a good start, and Jake Muzzin has been a shell of his former self all year due to injuries and decline.
Jack Campbell has been great, but also unplayable in stretches every year since he got here. Erik Källgren is okay, but he’s not close to a 1B. Goaltending is the biggest issue. If the Leafs pitch a shutout in this series I would be shocked.
Contrary to the Lightning, the Leafs don’t have the ability to make lots of adjustments on the fly, or adjust to different playing styles. They’re almost stubborn in that sense. Jon Cooper has the ability to out-coach Sheldon Keefe. The Leafs also take a lot of bench minors for too many men because Keefe throws out lots of different combinations of lines all game. Nylander is regularly with Matthews and Tavares. Engvall, Kämpf, and Mikheyev or Kaše are also together a lot. All of that leads to chaos on the bench. Almost like having too many choices.
How do the Leafs lose?
If a team can get a lead early and weather the storms of lines coming at them from the Leafs, they won’t be able to use their volume of attacks to break through. That means covering up rebounds and having a damn good goaltender. During those games, they’ll sometimes push too far and give up even more goals against — that’s when other teams have us. And that’s even when morale and a whole series can be over.
The Leafs also lose when they play bad teams. For some reason, they just can’t get themselves interested in playing bad teams most of the time. They have a bad record against bad teams, in this regular season and in past playoffs. Those teams have found that if you focus on shutting down the offense early, they’ll gift chances the other way. From there, it’s just a game of winding down the clock and getting them frustrated.
The Leafs are also still very cowboy in that if they get into a high-scoring game, they’ll completely forget that defense exists and won’t be focused on holding any leads late. Turning the offense off is not something they can do.
The Leafs also lose when Mitch Marner acts more like a third liner than a star and can’t get himself off the half walls. He can shut down his own line by holding the puck too long and eventually giving it up. That’s how three or four of the last playoffs have gone and is majorly the reason for Dom L’s “Heavy Hockey” article he wrote recently at The Athletic.
Which Leafs player do you (openly? secretly?) wish would see far less ice time?
Alex Kerfoot is really average, and I don’t know why he’s stayed on the team this long. He lost the 3C job, and they could do better with someone else in a complimentary forward role. Ilya Lyubushkin has also been a lot worse when the play ramped up recently. I’d try to get him out of the lineup, and put Brodie back with Rielly. The shooting spike for Ilya Mikheyev might also be over.
Why is William Nylander on the third line?
Because Sheldon Keefe knows Nylander can dominate and run any line he’s on, and the other two guys with him make Nylander better defensively. All of this is a way to increase the depth of the offense and be able to roll lines better. It also gets mitigated in-game because Nylander has regular shifts after penalty kills or in the offensive zone with Matthews, or with Tavares when the team is behind. I still think it’s an overall improvement if he’s back in the top-six.
What do you enjoy the most/least about Sheldon Keefe’s coaching style?
I think Keefe knows really well what works best for the Leafs. He knows how to maximize his stars, not get married to depth guys, and his special teams are great. Unfortunately, those features lead to stubbornness about making adjustments or finding another way at 5v5. The Leafs haven’t developed how to shut a game down, except for the rare exception. One of Keefe’s only plays is to play the odds and hope the team gets the bounces. And that’s how all coaches are, but the Leafs are forced to live and die by that due to the stars they have.