Another week has passed and the Toronto Maple Leafs are still chugging along near the top of the NHL’s overall standings. After a slow start to the season, their bounce back in November has the team looking quite good going into the holiday season.
While most of the headlines around the team are ones worth talking about from a positive standpoint, there are still some storylines that qualify as negatives in this edition of The Hockey Writers’ three up, three down.
From injuries to World Junior Championship snubs, the Maple Leafs are still rocking headlines and it starts with the recent play of one of their newest members brought over in a trade just a few weeks ago.
Plus One: Conor Timmins’ Fitting in Well
Coming over to the Maple Leafs, Timmins had just seven points in 41 career regular season NHL games. Just six games into his Maple Leafs’ career, he has six assists in six games — nearly doubling his career output.
But Timmins has become much more valuable to this team in the early going with the Maple Leafs still missing some key components on their back end. He’s played significant time on the second powerplay unit and while he did look slightly tentative and shaky in the early going, he’s starting to find his footing with more playing time.
Related: Maple Leafs New Defenceman Conor Timmins – What Now?
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He’s averaging over 17 minutes per game with the Maple Leafs which is the 11th most ice-time of any skater on the team and he’s been credited with seven hits and four blocked shots in the early going. Add to that that his takeaways outweigh his giveaways and he’s doing what he’s been asked to without going above and beyond or trying to take on too much.
With Victor Mete, Jordie Benn and Morgan Rielly returning at some point in the near future — hopefully, for Leafs Nation — Timmins’ role will surely change. However, the Maple Leafs depth on the back end is proving to be a key to keeping them rolling down the stretch.
Minus One: Maple Leafs Unrepresented at the World Junior Championship
For the first time in 40 years the Maple Leafs will have zero — yes, zero — representation at the World Junior Championship. One of their few eligible prospects that could’ve made the team was Ty Voit who’s tearing up the Ontario Hockey League, but he was overlooked by the Americans.
As such, this isn’t a terrible note for the Maple Leafs and their fans as they can sit back and simply enjoy the tournament. But it does represent the age and depth of their pipeline. While it’s not necessarily concerning for the depth of their prospect pool, it is worth noting that it shows how many picks the Maple Leafs haven’t had in drafts over the past couple seasons.
Take note, they’ve had just eight picks over the last two NHL drafts — talented, yet just a handful of what they could’ve had without trading a number of their picks away.
Plus Two: Hunt Became the Hunted
Just before the holiday roster freeze for the NHL, the Maple Leafs made a small, but interesting trade that has some stating that they officially lost the Mason Marchment deal. Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs moved depth forward Denis Malgin to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for a tougher depth forward in Dryden Hunt.
While Malgin had two goals and four points in 23 games with the Maple Leafs this season and did create opportunities for the Maple Leafs’ bottom six, he kind of fit a similar mould to the other players the Maple Leafs had on their third and fourth lines.
As for Hunt, he has two goals in 28 games this season for the Avalanche and 42 points over 193 career games over parts of six seasons. But what he adds to the Maple Leafs is a little more toughness that can be taken in and out of the lineup as needed.
What he does bring to the lineup is a more physical game than Malgin which the Maple Leafs could use going into the homestretch of the season. It is, however, worth noting too that in 2015-16 as a 20-year-old in the WHL, Hunt was able to produce 58 goals and 116 points for the Moose Jaw Warriors. Take that for what you will.
Minus Two: Divisional Alignment Creating First-Round Worries
While the Maple Leafs are having another strong regular season, playoffs could be a tough one again for the perennial first-round exit. As it stands, the Maple Leafs could have another potential date with the relentless Tampa Bay Lightning if the playoffs were to start today — a matchup that surely wouldn’t be ideal for the blue and white.
The Atlantic Division is all but locked up at this point, but the top three seem to be the top three we could finish the season with. The likelihood of that means that to escape a first-round matchup against the Boston Bruins or the Lightning, the Maple Leafs would have to find a way to win the division, a feat that might seem farfetched considering how well the Bruins are playing this season.
With the playoff format not changing anytime soon, the Maple Leafs will have to exorcise some demons either way you look at it as both these teams will continually stand in their way if they are to succeed in the Eastern Conference in the coming years.
Plus Three: Two Losses in a Row Not So Bad
Wait, what? I know, two losses in a row can send Leafs Nation into a frenzy even after a streak of games in which they got a point that nearly broke a franchise record. Still, it’s not the worst thing in the world. In fact, I would argue it’s a good thing for the Maple Leafs to have at this point in the season.
It allows them to work out some kinks and grounds a team that was steamrolling through their string of games. Aside from the 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals on Dec. 17, their 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers wasn’t back breaking and — in fact — might’ve been one with a little stronger play from the Maple Leafs.
Still, their run has been impressive. The key for the Maple Leafs will be to stop the losing streak at two on Dec. 20 when they take on the Lightning. The fewer games they lose, the happier they will keep their fans and the better chance they have at chasing down the Bruins at some point this season.
Minus Three: Who Fits on Tavares’ Wing
After the acquisition of Hunt, the biggest question still remains for the Maple Leafs — who fits on the wing next to John Tavares? That might be what Dubas and Co., will have to figure out before the trade deadline.
While the move of Marner has sparked the offence for the Maple Leafs and revitalized their top two lines, the other side has been a carousel of names and Alex Kerfoot and Pierre Engvall don’t seem like likely candidates to fill that void.
Related: Maple Leafs Swap Skill For Grit in Malgin/Hunt Trade With Avs
Calle Järnkrok is set to return to the Maple Leafs lineup and he could fill in that spot for a while. But depending on how the chemistry is, that might not be the full-time fit for the second line wing spot. This is a question that has kind of plagued the Maple Leafs most of this season and while Nick Robertson looked okay at times there this season, he wasn’t getting consistent reps to really mesh well with his line mates.
All of this though will be erased from memory over the next week as Christmas and the holiday season hits and the Maple Leafs continue to win — or lose — heading into the new calendar year. Stay tuned for the next three up and three down as these headlines will surely change with more games under their belt.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.