By Stan Smith

The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings both played the second half of a back-to-back weekend. The Red Wings came out on top 4-2. Because I am getting this out late, I will not go into too much detail about the game itself. I am sure most fans have read all that from other sources already.

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The Good

Pontus Holmberg

Pontus Holmberg opened the scoring in the game 32 seconds into the second period with a tip of a Morgan Rielly shot. It was Holmberg’s second goal and fourth point in his last five games. 

Holmberg had just one assist in his first ten games this season and got into the double digits of ice time just once in those ten games. In his last five games, he has averaged over twelve minutes of ice time and has two goals and two assists in those five games. He is a plus-5 in plus/minus.

Pontus Holmberg, Maple Leafs

He has played so well in his recent call-up that he got promoted by head coach Sheldon Keefe to the top line (more on that later).

I do not see Holmberg as a top-six player no matter what Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews say about him and his skill level. I do see a strong 200-foot third-line player in Holmberg who can contribute occasionally in the offence. 

Mitch Marner

Mitch Marner became the fastest player to score 600 points in franchise history when he potted his 18th goal of the season to put Toronto up 2-1 with 1:42 left in the second period. Marner reached the 600-point mark in 548 games. That’s 36 games faster than Darryl Sittler made it; and, he was the previous fastest to 600.  Marner probably won’t hold the record for very long, however. Matthews is sitting at 590 points with 521 games played. He has 26 games in which to score ten points to supplant Marner’s record. 

Ilya Samsonov

When you consider where Ilya Samsonov was following his previous NHL start, this was a pretty good game for Samsonov. He deserved a better fate than the loss. While three goals and a 0.870% is not a stellar performance, it was good enough to keep the Maple Leafs in the game and give them a chance at winning. 

At this point, Samsonov has to be considered the Maple Leafs backup at best. All you can ask of a backup goalie is to give a team a chance to win. The goals that he did give up were more on the players in front of him than on Samsonov himself. 

Note: The other option to start this game, Dennis Hildeby, played for the Marlies Sunday afternoon and got pulled after giving up three goals on eleven shots.  

Related: How Good Can Maple Leafs’ Joseph Woll Be in 2023-24?

The Bad

My first bad deals directly with what happened on the ice, and it was bad luck. With Toronto leading 2-1, the puck came back to Morgan Rielly at the point. Rielly attempted a one-timer at the net but his stick broke. The puck went right to Alex DeBrincat, who sent Daniel Sprong in on a breakaway on Samsonov. 

My second bad will be more of an editorial on Sheldon Keefe. I do not think that Keefe is a bad coach by any means. He has had success at every level including a Calder Cup with the AHL Marlies. He has the highest winning percentage of any Maple Leafs coach who has coached at least one full season in the history of the club. I’m not sold that the lack of playoff success is on him, or at least all on him.  

That does not mean I agree with everything he does or every move he makes. After the loss to Colorado, I expected to see some changes to the lines. There was only one line that was on the positive side of the underlying statistics in that game. It was the Tie Domi, Pontus Holmberg, and Calle Jarnkrok line. Neither of the top lines performed well in that game.  

I was surprised to see Keefe not only put all the lines in the blender. He also broke up that successful third line. Yes, the top two lines had a bad game, but they had performed very well for most of the season. The John Tavares, William Nylander, and Tyler Bertuzzi line had struggled for a few games recently.  

I expected to see Keefe switch Marner and Nylander back to where they started the season. Switching those two players while leaving the Domi/Holmberg/Jarnkrok line intact made the most sense.  

It looks like Keefe overplayed his hand in this game, especially when you consider he started a goalie that is as fragile as Samsonov is right now. 

The Ugly

What cost the Maple Leafs in this game is the same thing that has cost them countless games this season. Giveaways, and more specifically ugly giveaways behind the Toronto net. The first Detroit goal was a direct result of a Jake McCabe giveaway. The second was a result of a Timothy Liljegren turnover. Both happened behind Samsonov and were the result of the puck going from a Maple Leafs player’s stick to a Detroit player’s. 

I don’t know enough of Toronto’s systems to know if the fault is on the player turning over the puck or on another player who is not where they should be. It also could be a lack of preparedness of teammates. They might have not reacted quickly enough in the face of the turnover. Their reaction, or lack of reaction to it, simply could have been improved when it did happen.   

I found some information on the website that is not very flattering for the Maple Leafs. This season Toronto has averaged the fourth most turnovers per game. The top four are the Washington Capitals at 9.88, the Nashville Predators at 9.86, the Chicago Blackhawks at 9.79, and the Maple Leafs at 9.68.

Just to compare, the three teams with the least turnovers are the Boston Bruins 6.93, the Minnesota Wild 7.07, and the Carolina Hurricanes 7.21. 

This is an area the Maple Leafs need to clean up if they want to turn things around in the last half of the season. 

What’s Next?

The Maple Leafs head West tonight to play four games in six nights. They start with the Edmonton Oilers tonight. They then play the Calgary Flames on Thursday before back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday against the Vancouver Canucks and the Seattle Kraken. 

It will be interesting to see the line combinations and who the starting goalies are in those games. The California trip was a breath of fresh air for the Maple Leafs. We will have to see how this trip goes.  

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