Life is good at the top of the NHL standings for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In this Sunday edition of Leafs Musings, we’ll cover Joe Thornton’s impact and long-term lineup fit, some possible lineup changes/experiments, the latest with the 4-4-0 Toronto Marlies, and check in with a quick note on potential deadline target, Mikael Granlund, in the final thoughts at the end.
Toronto’s Biggest X-Factor
The biggest X-factor on any team is always the goalie. They play the full 60 minutes and impact the game more than any player ever could. If Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell put up a .930 save percentage, we all know that the Leafs are going to win a lot of games. If Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell put up a .890 save percentage, we all know that the Leafs are in trouble. The Leafs are like every other NHL team in that respect.
Apart from the goaltenders, though, Toronto’s biggest x-factor is 41-year old Joe Thornton. The future Hall-of-Fame forward boasts 10 points in 10 games thus far, and the Leafs have dominated when he’s on the ice. It’s tough to complain about him so far, but it’s worth noting that he’s the team’s biggest mystery at this point. I have no idea just how good he really is yet (and you probably don’t, either).
Thornton has only played in 10 of Toronto’s 22 games thus far, all 10 of which were spent with Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews (or John Tavares for one game in Edmonton). The question becomes: How much of his great on-ice results are because of him, and how much is simply due to the fact that he’s riding shotgun with two superstars? Is he legitimately better on that line than Zach Hyman is? I’m a bit skeptical — I think very highly of Hyman — but Thornton is certainly a great passer who excels in the cycle. At this point, I have no idea how sustainable these results are.
The next question becomes: How would he look with John Tavares and William Nylander for an extended run? Toronto’s second line is not producing much offense at 5v5 thus far, and we know that Hyman could play with Matthews and Marner if needed. On the surface, it seems like both Tavares and Nylander would be perfect candidates to benefit from Thornton’s playmaking ability. Thornton is also able to play at Tavares’ pace. Could Thornton be the missing puzzle piece for that line? I have no idea, but it’s worth finding out.
The third question is: Could Thornton drive his own line? Thornton played center his entire career, with play-driving metrics that were quite strong as recently as the 2018-19 season. Is he best-suited to play on the wing at this point in his career? Or could he be a good third-line center who could help replicate what this team had when Nazem Kadri was around? If Thornton looks like the same player he was a couple of seasons ago, maybe he could drive a strong third line, where the Leafs have been looking for answers offensively this season.
At this point, I am still mulling over how good Thornton is and where he fits best. It’s clear that he can be a valuable contributor for this team, but he’s only played in 10 games and they haven’t moved him around the lineup at all. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was still a first-line winger come playoff time. It also wouldn’t completely surprise me if he was a bottom-six center.
I’ll be watching Thornton closely over the next few games. Let’s hope that the strong results with Matthews and Marner continue. If he does switch lines, or perhaps moves back to center, let’s hope that he excels at that, too. He’s been incredibly fun to watch thus far, and for me, he’s Toronto’s biggest X-factor going forward. If he’s the 2018-2019 version of himself, the Leafs are a completely different team for the better.
Possible Lineup Changes
Toronto’s lineup against the Flames on Monday night was mortifying. Injuries to Jake Muzzin, Zach Hyman, Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, and Frederik Andersen obviously hurt this team’s depth, but they didn’t do themselves any favours with their lineup decisions. I’d rather not see Tavares with Matthews and Marner again this season except perhaps situationally within games. Making yourself a one-line team for a whole game just doesn’t make any sense.
John Tortorella’s eyes probably lit up when he saw that the Leafs were going with a stacked first line in game five of the play-in series. Sure, it’s a great line, but the opposing team can put their best checking line out there with their best defensive pairing and treat those shifts like they’re killing a penalty. If that line doesn’t completely dominate, the Leafs probably aren’t going to win.
The stakes were much lower on Monday night, but that’s a lineup that I don’t want to see again anytime soon. Alex Kerfoot can’t be the second line center on a team with Matthews and Tavares, especially if Alexander Barabanov is going to be one of his wingers. Sheldon Keefe loves to experiment — and I tend to agree with him more than I disagree with him — but that lineup was ugly. To his credit, he abandoned the stacked first line after 40 minutes, but I think it was doomed to fail from the start.
The Leafs clearly need more from John Tavares offensively at even strength. He has four primary points at 5-on-5 through 22 games, which is not going to cut it on a team built around having two first lines. Both of his 5-on-5 goals came in 7-3 wins, with one being a tap-in set up by Nylander and the other being a point shot. Sure, his shooting percentage is bound to bounce back a bit, but the Leafs need him to be far more dangerous as a facilitator as well. Perhaps the one-game stint on the first line was Keefe attempting to get him going, but if this team is going to go anywhere, they’ll need him to drive his own line eventually.
At this point, I think they have to at least consider breaking up Matthews and Marner. We know that Marner could play with Tavares and Matthews could play with Nylander. Tavares played well with Thornton and Marner on Saturday night, and if he continues to play with them, we should expect to see an uptick in goals from the captain. We’ve seen Matthews have plenty of success when playing with William Nylander and Zach Hyman in the past. This team is at its best when they have two high-end scoring lines instead of one.
With that being said, the Leafs are 16-4-2 and have time to figure things out. They can give the Tavares and Nylander line a few more games to prove what they can do, but at this point, I think they are at least in the process of considering changes.
The answer to the “is Kerfoot a center or winger?” question is simple: He can play both. Playing on the wing reduces his defensive responsibilities and allows him to show off his offensive skillset a little bit more. The question is: Do the Leafs have a replacement for him at center? The line of Mikheyev, Engvall, and Hyman might combine to have a 1% shooting percentage while playing together, but they play heavy shifts and look strong defensively. It’s fine to give Engvall a longer look there, but at this point, I think I’d move Kerfoot back to the middle eventually. It’s not about maximizing Kerfoot’s point totals; it’s about maximizing the team’s success.
The third line took a serious hit this offseason when they traded Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen. At this point, we can’t expect Kerfoot to have success as the third line center if he’s paired with Jimmy Vesey and Ilya Mikheyev. Kerfoot is usually the best player on the third line when he plays there — I don’t think that line magically improves by removing its best player. My preference is Hyman in the top six over Kerfoot.
Let’s put it this way: I’d argue a line of Vesey, Kerfoot, and Engvall won’t suddenly drastically improve if Kerfoot is on the wing and Engvall is at center rather than vice-versa. When people ask “is Kerfoot better on the wing?”, I think they really mean “is Kerfoot better in the top six?”. Like most players, he’s going to have better results with Tavares and Nylander rather than Mikheyev and Vesey, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that playing him there is best for the team.
Essentially, I don’t think that acquiring an average third-line center at the deadline is going to move the dial all that much. I’d rather not give up a second-round pick for the next Brian Boyle or Tomas Plekanec, and it’s difficult to acquire good centers. In looking for a potential difference maker, given the list of players who will likely be available, it’s probably going to be a winger. I’m fine with giving Engvall a chance at center for now and playing Kerfoot with Tavares and Nylander in the meantime, but I think it’s more likely than not that Kerfoot ends up back at center. Unless they want to try Thornton at center, I’m not sure that they have a suitable replacement.
It’s also worth mentioning that Alex Galchenyuk is going to get a chance eventually. Whether he could bring some much-needed offense to that third line is a question the Leafs will want to find out the answer to. I’d play him across from Engvall or Mikheyev to help him defensively, and I wonder if he would pair nicely with Kerfoot.
While I do think Jimmy Vesey is playing a little bit better as of late, he only has four points through 22 games and both of his goals were gifts from Nylander. In a season where Boyd, Petan, Engvall, and Barabanov have rotated in and out of the lineup, I’m not sure what’s keeping Vesey from joining that rotation as well. I certainly don’t know why he was ever on the first power-play unit for even a second. I like having the defensively-responsible Engvall-Kerfoot-Mikheyev line against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, but I would probably give Galchenyuk a chance on that line eventually. We’ll see how he does with the Marlies first.
On defense, I’d like to try Dermott with Brodie at some point, but it’s tough to make changes right now given how well the team is playing. They’re both strong stick-on-puck defenders who are difficult to gain the zone against. I also want to get a look at it for future reference, in case they consider moving a defenseman this offseason or in case someone goes down hurt in the playoffs. Knowing they will need to decide whether or not they protect Dermott in the expansion draft, I’d like to give him a chance with a veteran defenseman like Brodie. I’m not in a huge rush to do this, though, as Toronto’s defense looks great right now, but I would like to see it at some point.
If Matthews is back on Monday night, I’d try something like this:
You can flip Marner and Nylander if you’d like.
I’d stack the top power-play unit and let that Kerfoot line take some minutes against McDavid or Draisaitl. Vesey should probably be on the outside looking in at this point. I love the Engvall-Mikheyev duo — they are both tall, fast, and it seems like their wingspans combine to cover the full width of the ice. Opposing forwards don’t have much room to operate when they’re out there.
A Marlies Update
The Toronto Marlies are 4-4 after their season-opening road trip, but they probably deserve a better record. I don’t think their roster is quite as strong as it’s been in previous seasons, but it seems like the NHL taxi squad is hurting AHL rosters for just about every team. It’s nice to see prospects like Nick Robertson and Timothy Liljegren play in a winning atmosphere. Hopefully, the team can play well and win their division.
Liljegren has been their best player thus far — by a fairly wide margin. He’s always been a strong transition defender, but his offensive game has grown by leaps and bounds since his rookie season and he’s playing with a ton of confidence right now. He’s taking more chances and effectively rushing the puck up the ice. The Marlies look like a completely different team when he’s out there.
The better Liljegren is offensively, the less pressure there’s going to be on his defensive game at the next level. He actually reminds me a little bit of a shorter (and more offensive) version of Justin Holl, as he can keep up with just about anyone in the neutral zone and continues to get stronger and stronger.
My only minor complaint: On Wednesday night, he was bad on the power play, where he took far too many non-threatening point shots. However, I think that was more of a one-off situation and the Leafs should be very encouraged by his start thus far overall. Moved to the taxi squad yesterday, the 21-year-old prospect has probably been called up because they want to give him a chance to play.
Perhaps good timing for his season debut would be Thursday’s game against the Canucks, which would allow Zach Bogosian some rest during the second half of a back-to-back. If a right-shooting defenseman gets hurt, it makes sense to me to have Liljegren play rather than move Dermott or Mikko Lehtonen to the right side.
Not playing all that well as of late, Nick Robertson only has the one goal through eight games thus far. He does have six assists, although a few of those were quite flukey. He’s averaging close to three shots per game and his shooting percentage is bound to improve, but I don’t think he’s barging down the door for an NHL job at the moment. He’s playing in their top-six and on both special teams, so he’s getting plenty of minutes to help with his development. He is one of their better offensive forwards — and he’s certainly been quite impressive for a teenager — but I don’t think there is a huge rush to call him up right now.
Joey Anderson has definitely been one of the team’s best forwards. He’s legitimately good in the middle of the 1-3-1 powerplay set-up. Like Robertson, he plays on both special teams units and brings a great work ethic to the table. He certainly looks like someone who could make the Leafs next year, although I think he’ll be a bottom-six forward.
The other big standout to me is defenseman Mac Hollowell. While he’s pointless through eight games, he’s a good puck mover who verges on an elite skater. He hasn’t looked out of place in a top-four role and he’s still only 22. At 5’9″, he has a lot to prove to make the NHL level, but I’ve been happy with his performances thus far.
- As a team, the Leafs look so much better defensively this season. It’s a much improved blue line: T.J. Brodie is an excellent stick-on-stick defender, while the Muzzin-Holl pairing has picked up where they left off last season. Tyson Barrie has 18 points in 23 games with the Oilers, but I don’t miss him for a second. The Leafs are fifth (best) in goals against per minute at 5-on-5 this year after finishing 27th in the category last season. They couldn’t get a win from their backup goalie prior to the Jack Campbell trade. With Andersen injured, Michael Hutchinson came close to picking up a shutout on Wednesday night and Campbell kept a clean sheet on Saturday night.
- The Canadian division is relatively weak, but let’s not get carried away here. A 16-4-2 record is impressive in any division. It’s not like the Leafs can demand to face Tampa Bay or Boston. The Central has the Red Wings, the Blackhawks, a Predators team that has taken a major step backward, and a Stars team that has injury problems. The West has all three California teams plus the Arizona Coyotes. The Leafs are in a division with plenty of offensive firepower. They are legitimately better defensively.
- The Leafs got Jack Campbell (and Kyle Clifford) for Trevor Moore and two third-round picks. I like Moore, but the Leafs have had no problem finding good depth forwards and Campbell’s $1.65 million cap hit is a bargain. His teammates clearly love playing in front of him, and he’s only allowed four goals in three starts this season. That trade is looking like a complete steal.
- The Predators are currently playing Mikael Granlund at center. I’ve been watching him closely — his versatility could be a great fit for the Leafs, as they could use him in the middle on the third line to upgrade on Kerfoot, or use his playmaking ability next to John Tavares. I’d be trying to acquire an even bigger name first, but Granlund is near the top of my wish list right now.
Blue Jays’ bats struggle vs. Rays’ latest development success story – Sportsnet.ca
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow long ago made the Tampa Bay Rays’ return for Chris Archer in their 2018 trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates absurdly one-sided, yet here’s Shane Baz ready to be another problem for Toronto Blue Jays and the American League.
The 22-year-old right-hander, sitting on an overpowering 96.9 m.p.h. with his fastball and generating 11 misses on 21 swings at his slider, made a dazzling debut Monday in a 6-4 victory. Teoscar Hernandez, in the second, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., in the fifth, took him deep but that was all the Blue Jays could manage against the latest power arm churned out by the Rays’ seemingly unending assembly line.
In keeping the game under control for five innings, Baz outduelled Robbie Ray, whose fastball was down a tick from the dominant heater he deployed last week when he struck out 13 Rays over seven innings of one-run ball.
This time, Rays hitters chewed him up in each of his 4.2 innings, finally breaking through in the decisive fifth, when Yandy Diaz followed a pair of hits with a three-run homer that erased a 2-0 Blue Jays lead.
“They made me battle,” said Ray. “I had to be on the whole night. They worked some deep counts, laid off some really good pitches. The one pitch (to Diaz), I made my pitch, fastball in off the plate, the guy sucked his hands in, nothing you can really do about it.”
Two batters later, Julian Merryweather escaped the inning, but the Rays scratched out runs against Tayler Saucedo in the sixth, Nate Pearson in the seventh and Ryan Borucki in the eighth that came in handy in the ninth, when Marcus Semien hit a two-run shot.
The Blue Jays (84-66) eventually loaded the bases but Dietrich Enns caught Breyvic Valera looking to close things out, the loss dropping them 1.5 games back of idle Boston for the first wild card. The New York Yankees (83-67), who beat Texas 4-3, moved a half-game behind them for the second spot.
Baz’s arrival is the latest dividend paid by the Rays’ clever trading, which was also on display in the eighth when J.P. Feyereisen worked around an error to put up a zero. The terrific set-up man was acquired with Drew Rasmussen in a May deal that sent to Milwaukee shortstop Willy Adames and righty Trevor Richards, later flipped to the Blue Jays for Rowdy Tellez.
Rasmussen, stretched out in a pinch last month only to throw 27 innings of 1.33-ERA ball in six starts, goes Tuesday against Alek Manoah, highlighting again how well the Rays develop and maximize their arms. Baz allowed just the two homers and struck out five and could be a late-season weapon added to their playoff mix.
“First time we see him, good arm,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “That’s what I saw from him, another good arm for the Rays comes up from the minor-leagues.”
They’re very much the standard, in that regard, but the Blue Jays can certainly point to Ray’s turnaround this year as one of their success stories, even after a rare tougher night.
Though he could have created some separation between himself and Gerrit Cole in the Cy Young Award race, Ray still has a slight edge over the Yankees ace in several pitching categories.
Each still has a couple of starts to swing not only that race, but also the competition for a post-season berth. The teams meet next week in Toronto.
“You’ve got to give Diaz credit,” Montoyo said of Ray’s one fateful pitch. “They did a good job grinding out the at-bats but Robbie Ray is still Robbie Ray, Cy Young candidate, and Diaz did a good job. Other than that, Robbie kept us in the game. He did throw a lot of pitches, but Robbie Ray has done that before.”
Ray, like Baz, was also a trade acquisition, one picked up as a low-cost rental at the deadline last summer. The 29-year-old lefty, a former all-star, was a mess at the time, but showed flashes of a turnaround, prompting the Blue Jays to re-sign him to an $8-million, one-year deal.
“The thing that stood out most was his competitiveness and his drive and seeing it up close was very attractive to us,” said GM Ross Atkins. “It just increased our belief that he would get back to the form he had before, or close to it.”
So, too, did the time they spent together last summer, giving them an opportunity to find “reason to believe that he’ll get back to that form.”
“When you have the time with the player, the likelihood of them being successful is higher,” added Atkins. “That’s the takeaway for me, as opposed to someone that you haven’t spent time with and you’re doing it all from 30,000 feet.”
Similar but different, the Blue Jays can use their time with Jose Berrios, who is eligible for free agency after the 2022 season, to build a relationship that perhaps tips the scales when the time comes.
Those are just a couple of the ways the Blue Jays can counter the seemingly constant supply of pitching the Rays produce.
Jones scores four TDs as Packers bounce back to beat Lions – TSN
GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Aaron Jones caught three of Aaron Rodgers’ four touchdown passes and rushed for a fourth score, and the Green Bay Packers had a welcome return to normal after an embarrassing opening-week loss, beating the Detroit Lions 35-17 on Monday night.
Green Bay (1-1) won its ninth straight home opener. The Packers, who got thumped 38-3 by the New Orleans Saints in Week 1, looked more like the team that went 13-3 in each of coach Matt LaFleur’s first two seasons.
Rodgers went 22 of 27 for 255 yards and surpassed John Elway for 10th all-time in passing yards with 51,633. Rodgers has followed up each of the Packers’ last five regular-season losses by throwing four touchdown passes and no interceptions in his next game.
Jones became the first Packers running back to catch three touchdown passes in a game since Andy Uram against the Chicago Cardinals in 1942. He had 17 carries for 67 yards and six catches for 48 yards.
Detroit’s Jared Goff completed 13 of his first 14 passes but struggled the rest of the way as the Lions (0-2) blew a 17-14 halftime lead. Goff finished 26 of 36 for 246 yards. He connected on touchdown passes to Quintez Cephus and T.J. Hockenson but also threw an interception and lost a fumble.
Green Bay scored touchdowns on its first three second-half possessions to seize control.
The Packers faced third-and-12 on their opening series of the second half when Rodgers threw a 50-yard completion to Davante Adams, who ended the night with eight catches for 121 yards.
Lions rookie cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu injured his thigh on the play, further weakening a secondary that already lost cornerback Jeff Okudah to a ruptured Achilles tendon in Detroit’s season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Green Bay dominated the rest of the way.
Rodgers capped that drive with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Robert Tonyan. Detroit’s next series ended when Goff threw an incompletion on fourth-and-1 from the Green Bay 25.
Rodgers threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Jones to extend the Packers’ lead to 28-17.
Green Bay’s Krys Barnes recovered Goff’s fumble at the Detroit 23 on the Lions’ next snap. Jones scored on a 1-yard run and that was that.
Lions: WR Tyrell Williams missed the game with a concussion. … Melifonwu did not return after the thigh injury.
Packers: TE Josiah Deguara was out with a concussion.
ST. BROWN VS. ST. BROWN
The Packers activated wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown from the practice squad, giving him the chance to play against his younger brother. The Lions selected receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown out of Southern California in the fourth round of this year’s draft. Amon-Ra had the better stat line with three receptions for 18 yards, while Equanimeous had one catch for no gain.
PACKERS’ LINE CHANGE
Green Bay’s Lucas Patrick, who started at left guard against New Orleans, was active after getting out of concussion protocol. But he wasn’t on the field for the opening series.
Jon Runyan Jr. was at left guard instead in the 2020 sixth-round pick’s first career start. Runyan’s father was an All-Pro tackle who went on to represent New Jersey in Congress from 2011-15.
The Packers wore a helmet decal to honor Ted Thompson, who worked as the team’s general manager from 2005-17 and died Jan. 20 at the age of 68. The Packers also honored Thompson during a halftime ceremony.
Lions: Host Baltimore (1-1) on Sunday. The Ravens are coming off a Sunday night victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Packers: At San Francisco (2-0) on Sunday night. This will be the fourth time in the last three seasons the Packers have played at San Francisco. They won 34-17 last season. Two years ago, the Packers lost 37-8 to the 49ers in the regular season and 37-20 in the NFC championship game.
Josh Donaldson swapping jerseys with Vlad Guerrero a Blue Jays moment that won’t be forgotten – Toronto Star
It was a moment Blue Jays fans won’t soon forget, and one they will hope eventually represents a passing of the torch from one American League most valuable player to another.
Josh Donaldson, Toronto’s 2015 MVP now with the Minnesota Twins, signing and exchanging jerseys with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who is vying for his first MVP nod this season, following a three-game series between the two teams.
The pair set up the jersey exchange on Saturday and it caused quite a stir of emotion a day later, the end of an already emotional weekend with Donaldson’s return and the Jays back in a wild-card spot.
There they were — the man who last led the Jays’ World Series hopes and the man fans hope can take Toronto one step further by clinching the top prize.
“He just told me after, ‘Stay focused and keep working hard until the end,’” Guerrero Jr. said post-game of his interaction with Donaldson.
Donaldson, 35, is no stranger to hearing fans at Rogers Centre shout “MVP, MVP” during an at-bat. This time around he received a standing ovation during his first plate appearance of the series but the kinds of cheers he once received were now directed at the 22-year-old Guerrero.
The veteran was all for it. When asked on Saturday if he thought Guerrero deserved to join him and 1987 winner George Bell as Blue Jays MVPs, Donaldson’s answer was clear.
“It should happen,” Donaldson said. “He’s put up (an) astronomical season from the offensive side and he’s contributing on the defensive side. The guy’s got a 1.000 OPS at 22 years old, being a huge contributor.”
Guerrero’s stiffest competition in the race for AL MVP is Los Angeles Angels two-way player Shohei Ohtani, who many believe is a lock for the award as his team’s staff ace and most productive hitter — he is doing something that has never before been seen in Major League Baseball. But Guerrero, who is vying for the Triple Crown as the league leader in home runs, batting average and runs batted in, is mounting a late season challenge for the award as Ohtani navigates some late season troubles.
The Angels star’s numbers at the plate have dipped in the second half of the season and there has been talk of him being shut down from pitching in the final portion of the season because of arm soreness. And then there’s the age-old question: can a player be the most valuable if his team is not headed to the playoffs? Guerrero and the Jays could very well be; Ohtani and the Angels are not in post-season contention.
To Donaldson, there are holes in the argument for Ohtani: he didn’t start every fifth day, the recent injury could cause him to miss most of September on the mound and, as a designated hitter, he doesn’t impact both sides of the game. Guerrero, on the other hand, strikes fear in opposing lineups unlike any other player this season, Donaldson said.
And if the Jays make the playoffs, Donaldson said, that should tip the scales in Guerrero’s favour.
“If you take Vlad out of that lineup, this isn’t the same team,” Donaldson said. “Not that this isn’t a good lineup, because it is. But what Vlad’s doing is … he’s that security blanket for the rest of that lineup (with) what he’s producing. He takes pressure off of everybody else.”
Hearing that kind of praise from Donaldson, who spent the weekend at the ballpark happily reuniting with familiar faces he knew from his four years in Toronto and touting Guerrero’s MVP worthiness to anyone who would listen, left Guerrero nearly speechless but maybe not surprised. Guerrero, who was signed by the Jays the same year Donaldson won the MVP in 2015, said Donaldson has long been supportive of his career.
“Coming from Josh, it’s unbelievable what he said. Especially coming from someone that already won the MVP,” Guerrero said. “Since I was in the minors when he was here, he was always giving me advice, especially in spring training. When I was playing third, helping me out, taking ground balls with him. He’s always been great to me and I really appreciate his comments.”
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