There was a flicker the other night, a sign the Toronto Maple Leafs might start getting some goals from those other guys, not the stars, in the lineup.
The question is, can this become at least a steady flame?
If the Leafs are to spread the workload around the lineup, since it’s borne now mostly by goaltender Frederik Andersen, some of the top two lines and defenceman Morgan Rielly, then secondary scoring has to become a regular thing instead of the odd spark that quickly dies in the slightest breeze.
In 15 games this season, the 10-5-0 Maple Leafs have scored 38 even-strength goals, eighth-best in the NHL. But they are a top-heavy team, as 26 of those goals were scored by players on the top two lines. The bottom six forwards have contributed a mere four goals and half of them – Andreas Johnsson, Frederik Gauthier and Josh Leivo – have no even-strength goals.
Part of this is a result of the troubles on the top two lines. The absence of William Nylander, because of a contract dispute, and the loss of Auston Matthews to a shoulder injury took some talent, such as centre Nazem Kadri, from the bottom two lines.
If Nylander signs by the Dec. 1 NHL deadline and Matthews comes back around the same time then Kadri will move back to his third-line spot probably along with Patrick Marleau, which will raise the talent level. That will likely displace two of the fourth-liners, Gauthier, Leivo or Tyler Ennis.
But for now the faint sign of life came from Connor Brown, who raised his even-strength goals to two, when he swiped the puck from Vegas Golden Knights defenceman Nick Holden and scored to give the Leafs a rare and important first goal of the game at home. The Leafs went on to win 3-1 thanks to Andersen, so the scoring blip still cannot be considered a trend, especially when it must be noted Brown’s first goal of the season back on Oct. 9 was a tip-in empty-netter.
But on a night when there wasn’t much activity on the top two lines aside from Mitch Marner, the play of the third line – centre Par Lindholm and wingers Brown and Johnsson – was encouraging. Brown was his usual hard-working self, relentlessly backchecking and playing a major role on the penalty-killing unit, which continued its excellent work of late by snuffing all three of the Golden Knights’ power plays.
“I thought that line was our best line at the start of the game,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. “I thought that line was real effective and, obviously, you need everybody involved in the offence so it's great to see Brownie score.”
The most encouraging sign on the third line came from Johnsson. After he joined the Leafs late last season and played well, plus became the playoff MVP in the AHL afterward, Johnsson was expected to challenge for a spot on at least the third line this season. But he never did and spent many games in the press box until Matthews was hurt.
However, in Tuesday’s game, Johnsson, 23, was one of the Leafs’ few noticeable forwards. He had a great chance to score his first goal of the season in the second period but was robbed on a great glove save by Golden Knights goaltender Marc-André Fleury.
“He’s been really good in practice. He’s coming along and played very good games in the last couple,” Lindholm said of Johnsson.
Brown’s goal was met with enthusiasm by his teammates. It is not just Babcock who has an outsized appreciation for the hometown boy’s work ethic.
“That guy is a workhorse,” Marner said. “He gets on the fore-check every single time. He [creates] a lot of turnovers. He’s always tracking back and making it hard on the other team.
“I was super happy for him when he got that goal. He’s had so many chances and they just haven’t bounced his way.”
Given the scant production by the bottom two lines, it is impossible to say if the trend continues Friday night at home against the New Jersey Devils and the long road trip that starts Saturday against the Boston Bruins. Brown himself is not making any predictions.
“I think you take it day by day,” he said after Tuesday’s game. “You try not to look at the whole picture. Tomorrow try to have a good practice, another good practice Thursday and then follow it with a good game.”
The Leafs, who actually took Wednesday off, made one player move. They sent forward Trevor Moore, who did not get into a game during his five days with the team, back to their Toronto Marlies farm team.