The Toronto Maple Leafs will look to follow up a solid effort on the weekend in a victory over Vancouver against the Nashville Predators at Scotiabank Arena.
The Predators are in a tight race for top spot in the Central Division, trailing the Winnipeg Jets by one point and are 1-1 in the middle game of a five-game road trip.
Pekka Rinne (15-10-2, 2.31 GAA, .919 save %) will get the start in goal for Nashville and forward Filip Forsberg is expected to make his return after missing five weeks with an upper body injury.
The Leafs snapped a two-game losing skid with a 5-0 win over the Canucks on Saturday and will be going with the same lineup, including goaltender Michael Hutchinson, who made 28 saves for his first victory and shutout in Blue and White and will make his third straight start against Nashville.
(Leafs GM Kyle Dubas) did a good job in getting (Hutchinson) and that gives us more depth in our (goaltending) situation.” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said after Monday’s morning skate.
Kasimir Kaskisuo was recalled from the Toronto Marlies on an emergency basis and Babcock had no update on the status of injured goalies Frederik Andersen and Garret Sparks.
Zach Hyman took to the ice on Monday and is getting closer to returning from an ankle sprain, but has not been given the go ahead from the Leafs medical staff.
The Maple Leafs have to consider the first half of the season as successful, with the league’s second-best record (27-12-2) and stars Mitch Marner, John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly having career years, but after weathering the absence of William Nylander and the loss of Matthews to a shoulder injury, the goaltending depth and the health of starter Frederik Andersen have to be a concern as the club enters the second half.
Here is a report card on the progress of the Leafs after the first half of the season:
Frederik Andersen: A
The Leafs starting goalie has been one of the main reasons for their success in the first half and an early Vezina candidate, with 20-9-1 record (second only to Marc-Andre Fleury in wins), 2.50 GAA and .923 save percentage. Andersen sat near the top of the NHL in most goaltending stats until he was sidelined with groin issues in late December. The heavy usage may have contributed to his injury and it may result in Mike Babcock having to lighten of his workload in the second half.
Garret Sparks: C
Sparks has displayed the inconsistency expected from a young goalie getting sporadic work backing up Andersen. The 25-year-old made only nine starts in the first half and his 6-2-1 record is reflective of good offensive support (nearly 4 goals per game) and is currently out of action with a concussion.
The Leafs may need to rely more on their backup in the second half and the addition of veteran Michael Hutchinson could have an impact on Sparks if he does not play more consistently.
Morgan Rielly: A+
Rielly has emerged as a legitimate top pairing blueliner this season, leading NHL defensemen with 13 goals. The 24-year-old is on the ice in most important situations, leads the Leafs in time-on-ice (22:26) and quarterbacks their top power play unit.
With Toronto’s defense not an area of strength, the Norris Trophy candidate will likely shoulder a greater burden as the playoffs approach.
Ron Hainsey: C
Hainsey is considered by some as a good compliment to Rielly, who allows the younger blueliner to get involved more offensively, but he has noticeably slower and less defensively efficient than last season. The 37-year-old is in the top-five in the league in plus/minus (+23), has 13 points (3 goals, 10 assists) and is on the club’s top penalty-killing pairing with Nikita Zaitsev, but would be much better suited to a bottom pairing role if the Leafs can add some defensive help before the NHL Trade Deadline.
Nikita Zaitsev: B-
Zaitsev continues to be a magnet for criticism, because he has not lived up to the long-term contract he signed two years ago and because does not contribute much offensively, in spite being third in ice time behind Rielly and Jake Gardiner amongst Leafs defensemen. The 27-year-old has three assists in 41 games, but is on the club’s top shorthanded pairing and 7th in the NHL with 88 blocked shots.
Travis Dermott: B-
Dermott has tailed off slightly after a good first quarter of the season. The 21-year-old has 12 points (2 goals, 10 assists) in his sophomore campaign as a bottom pairing defensemen, but has made some youthful mistakes in his own end. The Leafs appear to be grooming the young blueliner for a larger role in the future, as he has the skating ability and offensive chops, but whether that increased responsibility occurs this season or next will depend on how he plays in the second half.
Jake Gardiner: B
Gardiner notched a career-high 52 points last season and is on pace to score more than 40 points for the third straight season. He is second to Rielly in average time-on-ice(21:42), leads the club in ice time at even strength and quarterbacks the second power play.
The 28-year-old has been effective at using long stretch passes that utilize the Leafs speed up front, but when the opposition shuts down the middle of the ice, Gardiner still makes giveaways that should have been eliminated from the game of an eight-year NHL veteran.
Igor Ozhiganov: B-
The 26-year-old former KHLer has not made a ton of mistakes in his rookie season, but he is averaging a team-low 14:44 on the bottom-pairing alongside Dermott. Ozhiganov went scoreless in his first 19 games, but has begun to contribute more offensively in the second quarter of the season.
The big Russian has six points (2 goals, 4 assists) in 34 games, but has not really been a physical factor so far.
Martin Marincin: D
The veteran defenseman has played just eight games, mostly in relief of Ozhiganov and a suspended Dermott. The lanky Slovak will mix in a good game or two, but always returns to his main claim to fame, which is turning over the puck with regularity. The Leafs are one injury short of having Marincin as a regular in their top six, which should be a warning to Kyle Dubas.
*******If you are interested in sponsorship or advertising your business in the Greater Toronto / Southern Ontario area on this column, please send a message for more information by clicking on the “Contact” button at the top of the page.*******