“Two points. That’s about it.”
That was all Sheldon Keefe was taking away from the Maple Leafs’ wild, season-opening win.
Without further adieu, our first impressions of the 2023-24 Leafs:
1. Auston Matthews is going to have a monster year
Matthews finished the opener with three goals, including two that tied the game and another that brought the Leafs within one. Unusually for Matthews, the game’s greatest five-on-five scorer, none of his three goals came at even strength. One came on the power play and two came during the Leafs’ late-game six-on-five push.
MATTY HATTY!! 🧢
MATTY HATTY!! 🧢
MATTY HATTY!! 🧢 pic.twitter.com/GddeaeypNr
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) October 12, 2023
Matthews ripped off eight shots on 11 attempts in 24.5 minutes. The Leafs crushed the Habs with 78 percent of the expected goals when he was on the ice.
That’s 26 goals in 32 games against Montreal for Matthews — and 12 career goals on opening night.
That version of Matthews will push for 60 goals. That Matthews will push for another Rocket and Hart Trophy.
Health will be the big thing, of course.
Matthews was banged up for most of last season and it’s oh so easy to forget now that Matthews was also still recovering from offseason wrist surgery at the outset of the 2021-22 season — when he eventually scored 60 and took home all those awards.
What does a fully healthy (or mostly healthy) Matthews season look like? It could be the biggest one yet.
2. William Nylander is going to have a monster year (and increase the pressure on management to get an extension done)
For two thirds of the game, Nylander looked like the best player on the ice. He was dangerous every time he was out there, especially when he zipped through the middle of the ice with speed.
Nylander scored a power-play goal and set up Matthews’ game-tying marker late in regulation.
Most of all, he was fully engaged. If he’s that engaged and determined to be dominant for more nights than not, Nylander will shatter the career bests of 40 goals and 87 points of last season, maybe by a lot.
John Klingberg’s presence on the No. 1 power-play unit may benefit Nylander more than anyone else. It’s just easier for Klingberg, a right shot, to tee Nylander up, on the left flank, for one-timers than for Morgan Rielly, a left shot.
WILL NY THE SCORING GUY 😎 pic.twitter.com/gFayIH7jO6
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) October 12, 2023
Will a hot start for Nylander spur Brad Treliving’s front office into action? Will they meet Nylander’s ask and get a deal done before that ask goes even a little higher? (For what it’s worth, Johnny Gaudreau put up (by far) a career-high 115 points during his contract year with the Flames.)
Sparks didn’t exactly fly in the preseason, for whatever that’s worth. And early on in the opener, Tyler Bertuzzi continued to look out of place next to Matthews and Mitch Marner. Passes didn’t connect. Pucks were missed. And then, gradually, Bertuzzi seemed to settle in. There was a Marner-to-Bertuzzi connection early in the third followed by a Matthews-to-Bertuzzi-Matthews hook up.
Bertuzzi seemed to find his way.
It can’t be easy trying to fit in around Matthews and Marner, two players of elite, elite skill who’ve honed their chemistry over years together. Maybe all Bertuzzi will need to get comfortable there is time.
Having said that…
4. A Domi-Tavares-Nylander trio might not be workable
The Leafs have been down this road again and again and again: John Tavares and Nylander together on the second line with a (mostly) ill-fitting third wheel, in this case, Max Domi. The trio figured to pose a threat on offence and be a liability on defence.
On opening night, the unit was hit for two goals, both by Alex Newhook.
The Leafs have been outscored in each of the past two seasons when Nylander and Tavares have been on the ice together.
Adding Domi to the unit isn’t going to help things defensively. The problem? Moving him elsewhere, down to the third line, say, will cause similar issues there. It was a Domi giveaway (following a Tavares giveaway) that spurred Montreal’s fourth goal.
Domi played only 11 minutes and change in his Leafs debut, including only 48 seconds of power-play work (a place he’s thrived in past stops, but where opportunity with the Leafs will be limited).
5. The John Klingberg experience will be … an experience
Keefe raved about his near-25-minute debut, which topped all Leaf defenders.
“He played with lots of authority with the puck,” Keefe said. “Shot the puck when it was his turn to shoot it and did it with confidence.”
Klingberg finished with a pair of primary assists, dishing to Nylander and to Noah Gregor, who nabbed the Leafs first goal. For someone who played in only one full preseason game, Klingberg looked reasonably comfortable atop PP1. And his ability to jump-start the offence stood out on a defence that used to have only Morgan Rielly for that.
Klingberg’s defensive shortcomings were also on display, most notably his defending of the odd-man rush that gave the Habs an early 2-0 lead.
Expected goals were only 31 percent for the Leafs when he was on the ice. His partner Jake McCabe posted a team-worst mark of only 18 percent. That’s the Leafs’ No. 2 pair to start the season.
Klingberg will put up points. The question remains: Will the trade-off at the other end be worth it for the Leafs?
6. David Kämpf might be the inevitable (if temporary) third-line solution
Fraser Minten looked the part of a 19-year-old rookie playing his first NHL game. At times, the pace looked like it was too much for him. The size and strength of the dudes he was facing too. Shots were 6-2 in Montreal’s favour at five-on-five when he was on the ice. Minten’s third line, with Matthew Knies and Calle Järnkrok on the wings, struggled to get much done and went through the spin cycle at one point in the third period.
The Leafs will be taking this game-by-game with Minten. They have only nine games in which he appears before they have to decide whether to send him back to Kamloops or activate his entry-level contract.
They won’t make their mind up after one game obviously, but after three, four, and five, they’re going to have a much better idea. In short, Minten won’t have long to show he’s ready.
Gut feeling: Kämpf ends up back in the middle of the third line in short order.
Kämpf is under-qualified to centre a third line because of his offensive limitations, but probably overqualified, slightly, to play on a fourth line. The Leafs played most of the first half last season with Kämpf as the 3C and might have no better choice for a while this season.
A day before the opener, Brad Treliving suggested the Leafs were OK with reverting to Nylander at centre if another opportunity presented itself. I have a hard time seeing that with how quickly Keefe pulled the plug at training camp.
7. The new personnel deployment on the penalty kill might not last
There’s no Marner for now on the No. 1 unit. The Leafs moved him into a secondary role on the PK so he could spend those shifts with Matthews, a PK newcomer this season. The thinking makes sense. If you’re going to use Matthews short-handed, why not let him get out there with his on-ice pal, Marner?
It still feels like a slight waste of Marner’s penalty-killing abilities though. To start a penalty kill, that is, and leave him on the bench while Järnkrok or Gregor hop out there instead.
The Leafs have also decided to use 40-year-old Mark Giordano on the top PK unit initially. He takes the place of the departed Justin Holl alongside TJ Brodie. Giordano and Brodie have obviously played loads together and Giordano excelled on the penalty kill last season. In fact, by Evolving Hockey’s metrics, he was the Leafs’ top penalty killer on the back end, albeit as a mostly second-unit option.
It’s just a lot to ask a dude at his age to run around against top power-play units all season, let alone the postseason.
We’ll have to see where this goes.
Stats and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, and Hockey Reference
(Top photo of William Nylander: Michael Chisholm / NHLI via Getty Images)