The good and bad of Maple Leafs’ hot start

The good and bad of Maple Leafs' hot start
Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Remember (the latest instance) when the sky was falling for the Toronto Maple Leafs?

In late October, the Maple Leafs were 2-4-1, mired in a four-game losing streak. In losses to the behemoth Hurricanes and beat-up Penguins, the Maple Leafs were outscored 11-2. Fans who pledged to only care about the playoffs suddenly got quite worried about the regular season.

After a few hot weeks, the Maple Leafs backed up requests for fans to stay calm. Now those fans can go back to worrying about the playoffs, because the Maple Leafs’ regular season’s back on track.

By squeezing past the Rangers, the Maple Leafs pushed their winning streak to five games. Over their past 11 games, they’ve only lost once (10-1-0). The Maple Leafs enter the weekend with a 12-5-1 record, tentatively ranked second in the top-heavy Atlantic Division.

So, which forces are driving Toronto’s hot streak? What could continue, and where are the red flags?

And, most importantly, why might the Maple Leafs break through in the playoffs — and what could once again hold them back?

Let’s get crackling like a fallen leaf under a winter boot.

The mostly good of the Maple Leafs so far

By just about every measure, the Maple Leafs look like a very strong team so far this season. You have to dig pretty deep to nitpick.

Mostly positives at even-strength

Whether you prefer sheer shot volume, or quality stats like high-danger chances, the Maple Leafs generally rank seventh-best or better.

Peel things back, and the flaw may be that the Maple Leafs are a “high-event” team whose style might not translate well enough to the playoffs. So far, the Maple Leafs blend dominant offense (via Hockey Viz):

The good and bad of Maple Leafs' hot start 5v5 offense Viz
via Hockey Viz

With defense that looks vulnerable, but not quite terrible:

Good bad Maple Leafs defense Hockey Viz
via Hockey Viz

The lazy temptation would be to call the Maple Leafs “soft.” If that were true, would they be so overwhelming in the most dangerous areas of the ice? After all, those spots aren’t just where you get the best chances; they’re also where you risk the most peril.

All things considered, it’s surprising that this team’s only averaging 2.67 goals per game, 10th-worst in the NHL. If they continue doing what they’re doing, the offense is almost bound to come. Probably in buckets.

Campbell’s been Vezina-level, which is good and bad

If you want to credit any single player for the Maple Leafs’ hot start, it’s undoubtedly Jack Campbell.

Campbell leads the league in Hockey Reference’s version of Goals Saved Against Average, with 12.95. Calgary’s shutout machine Jacob Markstrom is the only other goalie above double digits this season (10.99).

Overall, Campbell’s 10-3-1 with a fantastic .944 save percentage. For a team lambasted for salary cap management, his contract is the gift that keeps giving. (At least, for now. His $1.65M cap hit expires after this season.)

That’s all great stuff — inspiring, even. But let’s get to the worrying part.

[No surprise, Maple Leafs look strong in PHT’s Power Rankings]

As a first-rounder-turned-journeyman, Campbell’s never played more than 31 NHL games in a single season. Meanwhile, Campbell’s played in 15 of the Maple Leafs’ 18 games in 2021-22. Glance at the other goalies’ work (no one else’s save percentage is above .877), and it’s easy to understand why the Maple Leafs lean so heavily on Campbell.

At some point, they need to ease up. Maybe that means Petr Mrazek finally getting healthy. Or, as unpleasant as it may be, the Maple Leafs might want to punt a few games to keep Campbell as fresh as possible.

(When pressed, that offense might outscore a few problem nights.)

So, as great as Campbell’s been the past two seasons, there are some questions in net.

Then again, you could extend those worries to plenty of teams. What if Andrei Vasilevskiy gets hurt? Thus far, Campbell’s been brilliant, and that’s a positive (and fortunate) development for the Maple Leafs.

(Note: many of these stats come from the indispensible Natural Stat Trick.)

Strong special teams

So far, the Maple Leafs boast the NHL’s fifth-ranked power play (26.5-percent) and fourth-most-efficient penalty kill (87.8). That said, we’re not quite a quarter through the 2021-22 season, so are those units legit?

Well, they could both slip, but there’s a lot to like when you look under the hood.

On the power play, the Maple Leafs mix quantity (top Corsi For) with quality (second only to the Oilers in expected goals for [per 60 minutes]). There’s even room to grow, as their power-play shooting percentage is middle-of-the-pack.

Promisingly, the Maple Leafs’ penalty kill isn’t just the Jack Campbell show. They rank second only to Carolina in shot volume stats, and are a top-10 unit in limiting high-danger chances and expected goals on the PK.

It’s early, but both the Maple Leafs’ power play and penalty kill look improved compared to last season. Arguably significantly improved.

The $10.9 – $11.64M question: can Maple Leafs deliver in playoffs?

Overall, there’s a lot to like about the 2021-22 Maple Leafs as of mid-November. Of course, there was plenty to like about last year’s team, which in some ways was better.

To break through in the playoffs, the Maple Leafs need the obvious: their best players to be at their best.

No doubt, depth is valuable, especially as the playoffs grind on. Yet, sometimes it can get a bit overstated. While the Lightning repeated as champions with a versatile lineup, they also depended upon a select group of players to do the heaviest lifting.

So, the Maple Leafs will need Auston Matthews to score goals, Mitch Marner to stay confident and crafty, and John Tavares to stay healthy. Beyond William Nylander, they’ll need points from the Alexander Kerfoots here and there. (And it’s certainly promising that Ondrej Kase‘s heating up.)

Yes, health can “be a skill,” but there’s absolutely a luck element, too. Maybe the Maple Leafs will need the right opening opponent, too?

Truly, the Maple Leafs could fire on all cylinders and still lose to a very good team in the Panthers, Bruins, or Lightning.

Fair or not, few will have much mercy for the Maple Leafs if they once again fail to win a playoff series. Plenty of signs point toward success or failure. Even with a talented roster, it sure doesn’t look like it will be easy.

But maybe they can pull it off?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews returns to ice, hints at retirement

    Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
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    CHICAGO — Longtime Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews returned to the ice but hinted his stellar NHL career could be winding down after 15 years.

    Toews, 34, skated with teammates prior to Chicago’s game with the Dallas Stars. It was his first time practicing with them since a game in Edmonton on Jan. 28.

    He made a statement through the team on Feb. 19 saying he would be stepping away because of the effects of Chronic Immune Response Syndrome and “long COVID.”

    In meeting with reporters, Toews stopped short of saying he hoped to play in any of last-place Chicago’s nine remaining games. His eight-year, $84 million contract is set to expire at the end of the season.

    Toews said he’s feeling stronger, but isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play again for the Blackhawks or another team.

    “Both if I’m being fully honest,” Toews said. “I feel like I’ve said it already, that I’ve gotten to the point where my health is more important.

    “When you’re young and you’re playing for a Stanley Cup and everyone’s playing through something, that means something and it’s worthwhile. But I’m at that point where it feels like more damage is being done than is a good thing.”

    Toews, the Blackhawks’ first-round draft pick (third overall) in 2006, joined the team in 2007 and was a pillar of Stanley Cup championship clubs in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

    At the peak of his career, he was one of the NHL’s top two-way centers, winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 2013.

    In 1,060 regular-season games, Toews has 371 goals and 509 assists. In 139 playoff games, he’s posted 45 goals and 74 assists, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2010.

    Toews missed the entire 2020-21 season with Chronic Immune Response System, which caused debilitating inflammation and fatigue.

    He appeared in 71 games in 2021-22, then started this season with renewed energy before slowing and eventually shutting himself down.

    Entering this season, it looked as if Chicago might deal him, as it did fellow star Patrick Kane, before the March trade deadline. But Kane went to the New York Rangers and Toews to injured reserve.

    Toews believed he was progressing before a relapse in January left him so sore and tired that he could barely “put on my skates or roll out of bed to come to the rink.”

    Toews said his progress over the past month has been “pretty encouraging” and he’s delighted to be back among his teammates. He has no timetable beyond that.

    “We’re just going to go day by day here,” Chicago coach Luke Richardson said. He deserves anything he wants to try to achieve here.”

    Richardson hoped Toews “can take that next step later in the week and hopefully (he) gives us the green light to go in a game.”

    But Toews emphasized his long-term health and ability to lead a “normal life” is most important. He wants to go out on a positive note and not hit the ice for a game playing through excessive pain and dysfunction.

    “It’s definitely on my mind that this could be my last few weeks here as a Blackhawk in Chicago,” Toews said. “It’s definitely very important for me to go out there and enjoy the game and just kind of soak it in and just really appreciate everything I’ve been able to be part of here in Chicago.”

    Budding Wild star Matt Boldy more willing to shoot, and it shows

    Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

    ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Boldy was unable to resist a smile in the aftermath of his second hat trick in five games for the Minnesota Wild, a young right wing and reluctant star trying to make sense of a remarkable hot streak.

    Does the puck feel as if it’s automatically going in the net these days each time he shoots?

    “Yeah, it does,” Boldy said in the locker room after leading the first-place Wild to a 5-1 win over Seattle. “My linemates are playing great. Hopefully you guys are giving them a lot of credit. You look at some of those goals – just putting it on a tee for me.”

    This non-attention-seeker has found himself squarely in the NHL spotlight. Boldy has 11 goals in nine games since Wild superstar Kirill Kaprizov was sidelined with a lower-body injury to raise his goal total to 28, in part because he’s been more willing to shoot. With vision and stickhandling as strengths and the humility of being a second-year player, it’s easy to be in a pass-first mindset.

    “Everybody kind of took turns talking to him. But it’s not that he didn’t want to. A lot of times a situation like that where a guy’s got that skillset, it’s a real unselfish quality, right?” coach Dean Evason said. “But I think he gets now that he helps the team a lot when he scores goals.”

    The Wild were confident enough in Boldy’s scoring ability to commit a seven-year, $49 million contract extension to him earlier this winter, after all.

    “I think I’ve always had that mentality, but sometimes you just get into spots and it comes off your stick good,” Boldy said. “When things are going well, the puck goes in the net.”’

    The Wild are 6-1-2 without Kaprizov. Boldy is a big reason why.

    “You go through the slumps, you learn what you need to do to score. I think he’s found a good way to be in the right spot and shoot the puck when he had a good opportunity,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said.

    The Wild have only won one division title in 22 years, the five-team Northwest Division in 2007-08. They’re leading the eight-team Central Division with eight games to go, with both Colorado and Dallas too close for comfort. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2015.

    With Kaprizov due back before the postseason and Boldy on this heater, a Wild team that ranks just 23rd in the league in goals per game (2.93) ought to have a better chance to advance. Eriksson Ek and Marcus Johansson have been ideal linemates for the Boston College product and Massachusetts native.

    Since the Wild entered the league in the 2000-01 season, only five NHL players have had more hat tricks at age 21 or younger than Boldy with three: Patrik Laine (eight), Marian Gaborik (five), Steven Stamkos (five), Alex DeBrincat (four) and Connor McDavid (four). Boldy turns 22 next week, so there’s still time for one or two more.

    “He’s big. He controls the puck a lot. He’s got a good shot, good release. He’s smart. He switches it up. He’s got good moves on breakaways. He’s a total player,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Fun to watch him grow this year.”

    Pezzetta scores shootout winner; Canadiens beat Sabres 4-3

    canadiens sabres
    Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports

    BUFFALO, N.Y. ⁠— Brendan Gallagher and the Montreal Canadiens rallied back to avoid playoff elimination with less than three weeks left in their season. The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, are running out of chances to stay in the Eastern Conference wild-card hunt.

    Gallagher forced overtime by scoring his 200th career goal, and Michael Pezzetta scored the decisive shootout goal in a 4-3 win over the Sabres on Monday night.

    “It’s one of those things I think we earned that chance. We weren’t fantastic but we did enough on the road tonight to get a win,” Gallagher said. “Smiles all around.”

    The Canadiens could laugh, especially after Pezzetta celebrated his goal by putting his stick between his legs and riding it like a wooden horse — much like former NHL tough guy Dave “Tiger” Williams did during his 14-year NHL career spanning the 1970s and 80s.

    “I’m not sure we’ll see that again. One of a kind,” said Gallagher. “I’d be worried about falling over.”

    Pezzetta scored by driving in from the right circle to beat Eric Comrie inside the far post. Buffalo’s Jack Quinn scored in the fourth shootout round, but was matched by Montreal’s Jesse Ylonen, whose shot from in tight managed to trickle in through Comrie.

    Jordan Harris and Alex Belzile also scored for Montreal, and Jake Allen stopped 30 shots through overtime, while allowing one goal on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal would have been eliminated from playoff contention for a second straight season – and two years removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final – with any type of loss.

    The Sabres squandered a 3-2 third-period lead to drop to 3-6-3 in their past 12. Buffalo also blew a chance to move to within four points of idle Pittsburgh, which holds the eighth and final playoff spot.

    “Just a little hesitation,” forward JJ Peterka said of the Sabres third-period lapse. “We didn’t play with much energy and we didn’t play that aggressive as we played the two periods before. I think that was the difference.”

    Buffalo’s Lukas Rousek scored a goal and added an assist while filling in for leading scorer Tage Thompson, who did not play due to an upper body injury. Peterka and defenseman Riley Stillman also scored, and Comrie stopped 38 shots through overtime, and allowed two goals on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal blew two one-goal leads to fall behind 3-2 on Stillman’s goal at the 8:31 mark of the second period.

    Gallagher scored on the fly by using Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin as a screen to snap in a shot inside the far left post. With the goal, Gallagher tied Bobby Rousseau for 24th on the Canadiens career scoring list.

    “I liked the way we corrected ourselves, it’s a sign of maturity, in the way we stayed on task,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said, in recalling how the Canadiens recently unraveled in an 8-4 loss two weeks ago to Colorado, which plays a similar up-tempo style as Buffalo.


    The Sabres hosted their third Pride Night, with Russian D Ilya Lyubushkin electing not to participate in warmups by citing an anti-gay Kremlin law and fears of retribution at home in Moscow, where he has family and visits in the offseason. The remainder of the team wore dark blue jerseys with the Sabres logo on the front encircled by a rainbow-colored outline.

    During the first intermission, the Sabres broadcast a video in which GM Kevyn Adams said: “This is about recognizing someone’s humanity and true identity. We know there are people out there struggling with who they are, and we want them to know that they have an ally in the Buffalo Sabres.”


    Canadiens: At the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

    Sabres: Host the New York Rangers on Friday night.

    Flyers chairman Scott to retire; Hilferty becomes successor

    Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    PHILADELPHIA — Dave Scott will retire as chairman of the Philadelphia Flyers’ parent company Comcast Spectacor and be replaced by Dan Hilferty.

    Hilferty, who was recently named CEO of Comcast Spectacor, will succeed Scott as chairman of the company on April 17 and as the team’s governor on July 1.

    Scott joined Comcast Spectacor in December 2013 and the Flyers have struggled under his reign. They will miss the playoffs for a third straight season and haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1975.

    “Our number one goal for the Flyers will be to consistently compete for the Stanley Cup,” Hilferty said. “It is going to be a process that will take time to get on that path, but I’m confident we are headed in the right direction with Danny Briere as interim GM, Coach Tortorella, and our hiring of a President of Hockey Operations soon. Our leadership team will be fully focused to deliver on this for our fans while also continuing to make the sports complex the best location for sports and entertainment in the nation.”

    As Chairman and CEO of Comcast Spectacor, Hilferty will lead the company’s entire portfolio, including the Philadelphia Flyers. Spectacor Sports and Entertainment CEO Valerie Camillo will continue to work directly with Hilferty, overseeing the Wells Fargo Center, including its continued transformation, and lead the Flyers’ business operations.