New Jersey Devils 3 at Toronto Maple Leafs 2 (OT) – 2022-11-17 recap

Forget the California road trip. This is the game that makes it clear the Leafs have some work to do if they want to be talked about among the league’s best teams.

Throughout the Maple Leafs’ slow start, I did my best to keep a level head about the team, and write about them as honestly as I could. I was seeing a team that was out-chancing its opposition most nights, but having difficulty breaking through offensively. For this entire year, we’ve seen one of the NHL’s best even strength scorers reduced to a pair of goals when the teams have an equal number of players per side, something that absolutely cannot continue for a full season.

Yet there were some concerning numbers. The Leafs weren’t great at really pressing when they were behind, and the offence is not at all close enough to where the team needs to be. They weren’t the team we’ve seen in previous years, spending large portions of the game in the opposition’s zone when the game was tied or they were behind, creating lots of good looks to pull ahead or pull even. They’ve lost that zip, even as John Tavares has had his resurgence this season, and he’s looked good with both William Nylander and Mitchell Marner. They’re spending more time in the defensive zone, having trouble breaking the puck out and generating off the rush like they could over the last two seasons. The attack has gotten stale.

This game against the Devils made it clear where the Leafs are in the conversation among elite teams in the league’s Eastern Conference: on the outside. The idea that the team can regain their form and hit 115 points has closed. The Devils put on the kind of clinic the Leafs tended to do during their best years: get a lead on a play by one of their top players, and hold it by out-skating the opposition and making it difficult for them to mount a comeback. We saw the Leafs do it to Pittsburgh earlier in the week, but this comes into focus when the Devils are able to do it that effectively and look so good doing it.

It was a close game, of course, and the Leafs could easily have won. But that’s mainly due to a gap in goaltending, or at least bounces around the net. Matt Murray was fantastic, Vitek Vanecek had 5 saves to make off scoring chances at 5v5 and 5v4. The Devils stymied the Toronto attack at the defensive blueline and forced them to play a lot in their end. The difference in zone time between the teams was stark, and the Leafs just weren’t able to evade the buzzing Devils forecheck as the game wore on.

The way this was played makes it clear that the Devils are among the top teams in the Conference, and the Leafs are on the outside. They aren’t far away, but are five forwards short: neither the Matthews nor Tavares line are dominant since they lack a third winger (including this game, Leafs RWs have 140 scoring chance contributions and 146 forced turnovers in the OZ, compared to just 125 contributions and 117 forced turnovers for Leafs LWs), and the team is still a forward line short, with the new-look Kampf line probably playing far more minutes than they should.

One thing I’m going to be talking about as the months move ahead is “retool in midstream”. The Lightning and Avalanche, last season, made several in-season additions at forward that made them a lot better down the stretch and into the playoffs. The Leafs are going to have to take a similar approach to get even close to the level that the Devils are playing at right now.

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