The Leafs are one of the best teams in the NHL so far. Here’s why

There will have been so much time between the Maple Leafs games that a full NHL training camp could have been held.

Instead, the team went on a week-long West Coast road trip that included only one match, so 14 players and seven employees incurred COVID-19 and endured a 10-day stretch where no one could skate because the facilities had to be shut down through Christmas .

“It’s been a challenge,” general manager Kyle Dubas said this week.

How the Leafs arrive for Saturday’s game against Ottawa will be someone’s guess. Only a season as unusual as this could yield a stretch of inactivity in the meat of the program.

It will be a serious challenge to recreate the factors that drove Toronto to a 0.700 point percentage through 30 games – third best league in the world.

Here is a look back at some of the trends that helped give a 20-8-2 start:

Morgan Rielly

The timing of an eight-year extension was more surprising than the fact that the Leafs committed to their longest-serving player for $ 60 million (US).

It happened on October 29, in the middle of an uneven early stretch for the team, and in hindsight, it seems to have let the top defender loose. Rielly has 22 points in 22 games since signing his new contract and has produced strong underlying shots.

In fact, the 27-year-old can be said to be playing the best hockey of his career.

There is not an area of ​​the game that Rielly does not touch. He has resumed killing penalties this season, producing shots on goal at the fastest pace of his career. He has also played more five-on-five minutes than any member of the team, but has been on the ice for fewer goals against than six teammates.

His strong start carries even more weight because the typically strong second pairing of Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl has gotten plenty of water so far.

Value bets

Dubas was forced to make tough decisions on the list last summer, letting the steadfast winger Zach Hyman walk away to Edmonton on a free transfer on an annual contract of $ 5.5 million while filling the remaining gaps from the bid bucket.

Nick Ritchie, David Kämpf, Ondrej Kaše and Michael Bunting were added for a little more than Hyman’s total cap hit.

There he found measurable value.

Bunting is producing at a pace of 52 points and has looked increasingly comfortable in Hyman’s old place next to Auston Matthews on the top line. Kämpf and Kaše produce elite possession numbers despite being fed a stable diet with challenging defensive zone starters – giving head coach Sheldon Keefe the kind of effective shutdown unit he has been looking for since taking the job.

Although Ritchie has yet to find out, the cheap additions have been above the replacement level as a group, and they have helped the Leafs cope with the loss of an important figure in Hyman.

Power play

No one likes to talk about the power game before it costs you the season. That was a big part of the Leafs’ downfall in 2021, when a strength confusingly turned into a weakness that could not be cured in time for another loss in the first round.

With new assistant coach Spencer Carbery running the unit this season, Toronto is converting more than 30 percent of its options – just after Edmonton during the holiday season.

The Leafs have seen Matthews, John Tavares and William Nylander score with better powerplay than last season. Matthews was red-hot before the break, scoring 13 goals in 10 games, five of which came with the man advantage.

It has restored a weapon that should be a difference for a team with Toronto’s offensive talent.

Spezza and Simmonds

The veterans continue to deliver beyond their ice age and grade.

Incredibly, Jason Spezza (0.94) and Wayne Simmonds (0.84) are number four and five on the team in five-on-five goals scored per game. 60 minutes of ice time, which helps give the Leafs a fourth-line lead on virtually every team. they play.

Understandably, they will not receive much celebration for that production in a lineup featuring Matthews, Tavares, Nylander and Mitch Marner, but small edges around the margins should put the team in a better position to make a long-term playoff.

Spezza and Simmonds also represent depth pieces that can be moved up the ranks in the short term if injuries occur and provide added value beyond goals and assists. They are not carried, most importantly, and have earned their place in the top-12 forward group with more than just reputation or contractual status.

They have also found ways to be productive in limited use.

Great value all around.

Goalkeeper work

This is a Jack Campbell appreciation section, of course.

Campbell is in the early Vezina Trophy conversation after helping the Leafs cope with Petr Mrázek’s long-term injury absence, while stopping a higher number of shots than peers who were not tasked with playing every night. He is at the top of the league with 17 saved goals above average, according to hockey-reference.com.

That’s also a big statement from Campbell given his relatively modest NHL track record and the fact that he’s playing for a contract this season.

Throughout, he has remained laser-focused. There has been no doubt in his performance. With Mrázek back in full health – at least before he and Campbell landed in COVID-19 protocols last week – the hope will be to distribute the starters more evenly in the new year.

Any extra rest would be helpful.

But there is no doubt who the team’s No. 1 goalkeeper is or who would start a must-win match if played tomorrow.

Campbell has taken another step forward the past few months and he has given the Leafs the chance to follow suit when the season resumes.

Chris Johnston is a Toronto-based journalist with a new gaming company. His work will be seen on the website and app of the new gaming company, and also in the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterchris

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