As the traditional measuring stick for NHL general managers approaches, there is something unusual afoot in the land of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Even though the team has had its bumpy spots this season, there are no tire fires to keep the fans and media raging. This is not the normal state of affairs for Leafs Nation, as ex-Leafs GM and current Calgary Flames president Brian Burke reminded us earlier this week when he gave a graphic description of how Flames youngster Sam Bennett, who remains a disappointment in his third NHL season, would have been eviscerated had he the misfortune to be employed by the Leafs.
Even with the Leafs' budding superstar, Auston Matthews, still on the mend from what is suspected to be a back injury, the Leafs remain on solid ground as they prepare to hit the 20-game mark of the season after a four-day break. Twenty games, or the U.S. Thanksgiving Day depending on the GM, is traditionally where those running NHL teams like to assess what they have and decide if urgent corrective action in the form of a trade is necessary.
It is also important for a team to be in playoff position by the 20-game mark, as history shows most of those in such a spot will remain there for the rest of the season. One year ago, even though the Leafs were still in the first real season of their rebuild, there were a few things to stir up the usual suspects even though they had taken a vow of patience.
Matthews, after blasting out of the gate in the first few games of his NHL career last season, hit a scoring slump in late October in which he went 13 games without a goal. Also, by the 20-game mark in 2016-17, the Leafs had an 8-8-4 record and were sixth in the Atlantic Division. They were three points out of the second wild-card playoff spot then, but did sneak in on the last weekend of the regular season.
Their defensive game was still a shambles, as the Leafs allowed 67 goals in 20 games, 27th in the league in that category, although they scored 62, tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for sixth.
This was a vast improvement on the previous season when the unstated intention was to finish as low as possible in order to have the best chance to draft Matthews. And this season is a big step up from the surprising surge of a year ago.
The Leafs will play their 20th game on Thursday at Air Canada Centre against the New Jersey Devils, playing much better than in 2016. Before Tuesday's games, the Leafs were a solid second in the Atlantic Division with a 12-7 record and 24 points. Their 72 goals-for was tops in the NHL and their 63 goals-against was 29th. However, in their past four games, all wins, the Leafs shored up their defence to allow just eight goals.
Another key difference from last year comes in overtime games. A year ago, the Leafs had four overtime or shootout losses, a symptom of their tendency to cough up leads in the third period, something that dogged them almost the entire season. The Leafs cut that number to zero this season and have three overtime wins plus a shootout win, proof that leads are now safe and it is the opposition leads that can be tenuous.
There is also encouraging news on the Matthews front. He skated on his own on Monday and the plan was to do the same Tuesday while the rest of the team had the day off. Matthews is expected to join his teammates at practice on Wednesday and if everything checks out he should return to the lineup Thursday. In his absence, the Leafs won all three of their games.
When the Leafs reconvene Wednesday, there will be one new face in the lineup. Forward Nikita Soshnikov was recalled from the Toronto Marlies farm team on Tuesday with centre Frédérik Gauthier headed the other way. This was to prevent Soshnikov from exercising an option in his contract to return to the Kontinental Hockey League if he were not on the Leafs' roster by Nov. 14.
Soshnikov, 24, spent 56 games with the Leafs last season, earning nine points, until a concussion ended his season on March 20. This year, Soshnikov had 12 points in 14 games with the Marlies.
The game against the Devils represents more than just hitting the 20-game mark. Even though the Leafs are already 4-0 in their latest five-game segment – the way head coach Mike Babcock likes to break down the season with the goal being six points in each segment – there is much incentive to beat the Devils. They made the Leafs look mistake-prone in a 6-3 win at Air Canada Centre on Oct. 11 and revenging that would send a message to everyone.