The Toronto Maple Leafs play the Pittsburgh Penguins at home tonight. They’ll be seeking win number six in a row. The Penguins just came off a 6-0 rout of the Montreal Canadiens. Furthermore, a couple of weeks ago they simply took it to the Maple Leafs and handed the NHL’s leading goalie Jack Campbell his worst game of the season.
As the teams prepare for their game, in this post I’d like to take stock of the team and look at three questions that I think are important when considering this team.
Question One: Are the Maple Leafs Finally Playing Playoff-Winning Hockey?
This version of the Maple Leafs seems different in a number of ways than the other three seasons I’ve covered. The team is not trying to force its offense down the throats of the opposition simply by overwhelming them with offensive firepower. This team is – in a word – stingy. It’s not scoring a ton of goals, but it’s also not giving up many goals either.
I can’t imagine many Maple Leafs’ fans actually thought that this team could be better than last season’s team. Zach Hyman and Frederik Andersen were gone. There was little money to find replacements, so Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas signed a number of inexpensive players during the offseason – Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kase, David Kampf, and Nick Ritchie to name four. In short, there was a lot of hand-wringing and doom-scrolling looking for ways to criticize this team.
The Maple Leafs didn’t help themselves by sputtering to a poor start coming out of the gate. But, surprise! Has the team ever turned itself around? For the first time since Pat Quinn was the coach – one reader noted – there’s a belief that this team’s concentration on defensive hockey might actually help them win in the playoffs. They’re playing tight hockey, not giving up many good offensive chances to other teams.
The question – and it can’t be answered now – is can a team that plays the kind of hockey the Maple Leafs are playing actually win during the playoffs? Obviously, the jury’s out. Still, there’s something different about how this team plays that bodes well for such a possibility. We’ll see in a few months.
Question Two: How Much More Time Does Nick Ritchie Have to Prove Himself?
The person most anxious to see Nick Ritchie score is probably Nick Ritchie. When he was signed, probably no one expected him to set the world on fire; however, going this long into the season without a goal is a huge surprise. It’s also untenable that the team would keep putting him in a top-six position if he can’t contribute more offensively.
Confidence that Ritchie can play with the top-six units is waning. The question is how much more time will the Maple Leafs wait to see if Ritchie can cut it? He isn’t the replacement to Zach Hyman the organization likely wanted or expected him to be. Ritchie’s been given lots of opportunities to show what he’s capable of, but so far he hasn’t.
At some point, unless his on-ice record changes, he’ll run out of rope. When the Maple Leafs traded for Kyle Clifford, that had to have been a sign. When Ilya Mikheyev comes back from his broken thumb, that’s another sign. How long is Ritchie’s time in the top six?
Will Michael Bunting stay on the fourth line forever with Ritchie not delivering?
Question Three: Can David Kampf Score 15 Goals This Season?
What Maple Leafs’ fans have learned thus far is that newcomer David Kampf is a whiz on defense. He’s especially good when he’s playing with his childhood best friend from the Czech Republic and current line partner Ondrej Kase. But the biggest surprise has been Kampf’s ability to score. That was unexpected.
Kampf had two points in Tuesday’s win over the Nashville Predators. He scored a nifty goal on a nice feed by his third-line partner Kase. Kampf also drew an assist on Mitch Marner’s empty-net goal at the end of the game.
Even if he plays a lot, can Kampf score 15 goals on the season? While that might not seem like a lot of scoring, it would be almost twice as many goals as he’s ever scored in a season.
In five NHL seasons (counting 2021-22), Kampf has scored 20 goals and has 43 assists. He’s never scored more than eight in a season and he’s never had more than 19 points. This season, not even a fourth of the way through, he’s scored three goals. He’s on pace for 13 goals and about 23 points.
If you can call Kampf’s five points a scoring surge, that’s exactly what he’s done in comparison to the 2020-21 season. He was scoreless against the New York Rangers, but in four games prior to Thursday night, he scored two goals and four points.
Although the 26-year-old Kampf is one of those players whose defense makes him an incredibly important player for the team, wouldn’t it be nice to see him have a breakout season – as much as a defense-first player can do?
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