What we've learned about the 2022-23 Maple Leafs so far
Twenty games does not a season make, but it does offer some trends. Here’s what we’ve learned about 2022-23 Leafs so far. Photo by Karl B DeBlaker/AP

TORONTO — They stumbled out of the gate and kicked up a storm cloud of speculation and scrutiny.

Then they quieted the howls with a no-nonsense November.

You can be forgiven if you feel like you’ve seen the first 20 games of this Maple Leafs season before. History doesn’t repeat, but in Toronto it has looked and sounded similar to the opening quarter of the schedule from a year ago.

Now, of course, there are differences.

New players. New challenges. Two fewer points in the standings — 27 vs. 25 — despite a couple more goals scored at 5-on-5. A more efficient power play. A less effective penalty kill.

“Each season is its own beast,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said before Monday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Islanders. “We’ve had a number of changes from where our team was last season and it’s taken a little bit of time.

“We’re still not where I think we can be, but it’s certainly starting to look a bit more like we’re capable of.”

Let it be said that they’ve at least started on a similar trajectory to the team that established a new franchise record for points last season. That can be seen in some of the key performance indicators.

5v5 goals3234
5v5 goals allowed3431
PP23.2% (8th)28.1% (6th)
PK88.7% (3rd)77.6% (19th)
Stats via Natural Stat Trick

Twenty games does not a season make, but it offers a meaningful enough sample to start evaluating where a team is at. With that in mind, here’s what we’ve learned about 2022-23 Leafs so far:

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The goaltending has been … good?

Or at least serviceable.

The Leafs are tied for 12th in team save percentage at .907 — a slight uptick on last season, which few saw coming given the heavy skepticism that surrounded management’s approach to a weak goalie market in the summer.

It’s even more remarkable when you consider that third-stringer Erik Kallgren has made twice as many starts as presumed No. 1 Matt Murray to this point. Kallgren and No. 2 man Ilya Samsonov have each started eight games, with Murray at four.

The Leafs believed they could get average goaltending without committing big money and big term to one of the available free agents. So far, they’ve been right.

Talk of John Tavares’s demise was premature

Entering the fifth year of a seven-year contract that made him one of the NHL’s best-paid forwards, there was some outside concern about how much value the captain could still deliver on that deal.

Tavares’ answer has been resounding.

He’s the team leader in goals (11) and he’s tied for the NHL lead with seven on the power play. Tavares is also on pace for what would be a career-best 90 points — reminiscent of the renaissance season Steven Stamkos had last year in Tampa.

Just as importantly, the 32-year-old was consistent during his team’s inconsistent start, and the hat trick he delivered in the Nov. 2 win over Philadelphia that followed a terrible road trip was arguably the most important individual performance of the season.

Auston Matthews is due to get hot

It is probably unreasonable to expect anything surpassing last year’s 60-goal, 106-point tour de force, but we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the Leafs top centre fill the net.

His nine goals through 20 games is well below his career average.

However, in a season where he and Mitch Marner have been placed on separate lines and the eye test has some questioning if Matthews is settling for too many outside shots, there’s one interesting underlying metric that suggests favourable regression is in order. Matthews is actually producing the highest rate of individual expected goals per hour of his career, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Don’t bank on his shooting percentage staying at 10.6% all year.

For what it’s worth, Matthews had 10 goals through 20 games last season before going parabolic.

Sheldon Keefe is steadying the ship

The Leafs head coach heard whistles for his job when the team returned from its road trip through California late last month.

They’ve gone 6-1-3 since.

That has included multiple strong performances against top opponents, even in games where they’ve been tagged with an overtime loss. It would be hard to argue the players have stopped responding to his lineup adjustments or messaging.

While the Leafs still have another level to get to offensively, they’ve done a pretty good job of limiting shots and chances during a stretch where their depth has been severely tested because of injuries.

“I think we’ve just insulated our team very well defensively,” Keefe said. “That’s given us a chance at success.”

It could be one of those seasons

They lost their No. 1 goaltender to an adductor injury in the opening days of the season.

Then the No. 2 goaltender hobbled off with a bad knee a short time later.

And when Morgan Rielly was knocked out of Monday’s game with a left knee issue, that put the Leafs down their three highest-paid and most important defencemen with T.J. Brodie (oblique) and Jake Muzzin (cervical spine) already sidelined.

All of this came after Timothy Liljegren and Pierre Engvall both missed training camp.

While injuries are an unavoidable part of the sport, some seasons are worse than others.

The Leafs will miss Rielly for at least 10 games following an accidental collision with Islanders forward Kyle Palmieri. Rielly is currently tied for 11th among NHL blue-liners with 16 points in 20 games.

“We’ve just got to keep playing,” Keefe said. “That’s the way it goes.”

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