Auston Matthews’ march toward breaking the Maple Leafs’ record for most goals in a season — his record, mind you — has taken some of the some of the spotlight off a crucial factor.
The Leafs have returned to playing with solidified structure in recent games, bringing to mind their stronger defensive play that was a theme in 2022-23.
“That’s another game without giving up a five-on-five goal,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said following Toronto’s 2-1 overtime win in Anaheim against the Ducks on Wednesday. “That’s three in a row now. It has been a good response from our group in the last week.”
Indeed. In winning their first two games of the California trip, the Leafs are putting more space between themselves and the string of five losses in six games that came before and after Christmas.
There has been an increased attention to detail on the part of the Leafs and, while the Kings gave them some trouble in the third period in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Toronto generally has been playing tighter hockey.
For his part, when Matthews scored his 30th goal of 2023-24 in overtime in Anaheim, he became just the 10th player in National Hockey League history to record at least eight consecutive 30-goal seasons from the start of their career. He’s on pace for 69 goals, which would shatter his team mark of 60 set two years ago.
“He has found another level in the last month or so,” Keefe said. “He has been great.”
With a new contract expected for William Nylander any time, attention in Leafs Nation eventually will turn to the future of Mitch Marner. The latter will head into the 2024-25 season on the last year of a contract that comes with an average annual value of $10.9 million US.
If Nylander signs for something in the range of $11 million a season, the next Marner contract probably would fall between the final Nylander number and the AAV on Matthews’ new four-year contract, which goes into effect next season at $13.25 million per.
Leafs general manager Brad Treliving and Darren Ferris, Marner’s agent, can start talking extension on July 1.
Something else to consider: There will be savings on the Leafs’ part when it comes to negotiating a new deal for captain John Tavares, provided he remains with the club once his seven-year contract expires in 2025 (and there has been nothing to suggest he will be leaving).
Tavares, who will turn 34 next September, certainly couldn’t expect another contract with an AAV of $11 million, no matter the length.
THE JONES FACTOR
How far up the creek without a paddle would the Leafs be had Martin Jones been average in the wake of Joseph Woll’s injury and Ilya Samsonov’s season-long slump?
It’s not a thought the team wants to ponder. Jones has been excellent, posting a 6-3-0 record with a .930 save percentage and two shutouts. While we respect his experience as an NHL veteran, Jones has provided more stability than the Leafs probably were expecting.
With the way the schedule sets up, Dennis Hildeby might not be on the cusp of his first NHL start. Yes, the Leafs’ next two games are against the San Jose Sharks, who happen to occupy the league basement and had lost nine in a row going into their game on Thursday against the Winnipeg Jets.
With a two days between games before the Leafs visit the Sharks on Saturday to finish their California trek, Jones will get plenty of rest. And then there will be another couple of days to recuperate before the Leafs and Sharks meet in Toronto on Tuesday.
From there, the Leafs’ schedule gets a little busier. The team has a rare back-to-back set next weekend at home against Colorado and Detroit, and Jones’ travel would be limited to walking to his car in the underground parking garage at Scotiabank Arena and driving home before returning the next day. In other words, no travel.
The Leafs have 11 games before the all-star break and it’s not expected Woll will return before then. There’s no telling, either, when Samsonov will be back (assuming he does return to the Leafs).
A rested Jones, for now, is the Leafs’ best bet for success in net.
“He has come in and been a really solid piece for us,” Matthews said. “Credit to our process as well. We have done a better job in front of him. But when he has had to (been dependable), he has made some big saves.”
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LEAFS NOTES: While Hildeby hangs with Leafs, Petruzzelli gets in goal
The Leafs’ 57 shots on goal in Anaheim were four shy of tying the franchise record of 61, set in 1976 against Detroit and tied in 2009 against the New York Islanders. It was the most shots on goal recorded by the Leafs since Nov. 10, 2019, when they had 57 in a 5-4 loss in Chicago against the Blackhawks … Matthews’ 13 shots on goal against the Ducks were two short of his career high. He had 15 shots on goal in a game versus Carolina last March … Toronto’s 104 shot attempts in Anaheim, at all strengths, were two more than their previous high this season, 102 in a 6-5 overtime loss against Columbus on Dec. 14. The fewest attempts by the Leafs in a game this season came on Oct. 24 on the road against the Washington Capitals, when they had 39.