Given the suspension of play for the 2019-20 regular season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the news and rumors from NHL teams come from player movements or hockey commentators and fans either looking ahead or looking backward. That’s the focus of this Toronto Maple Leafs news and rumors report.
In this post, I’ll share speculation that Pontus Aberg might sign in the KHL, TSN’s ranking of All-Maple Leafs players from the past, and thoughts about an under-valued defenseman the Maple Leafs might be interested in as a way to reshape their defense.
Item One: Will Pontus Aberg Sign in the KHL?
Aberg was great in the AHL, but his game never translated to NHL ice. So, after a season spent with the Toronto Marlies, it looks like he is headed to Russia. In a report from Sweden (thanks Google translator), the Maple Leafs forward has been offered a KHL contract that he’ll likely accept. However, with so much up-in-the-air due to COVID-19, he probably won’t sign immediately.
However, the 26-year-old Aberg will remain with the Maple Leafs organization until the 2019-20 resolves itself. He was one of a group of NHL veterans Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas signed to one-year contracts. He was put on waivers after training camp, then had a strong season with the Marlies, scoring 20 goals and 44 points in 55 games.
During his NHL career, he scored 44 points in 132 games. The Swedish forward has shown flashes of skill; however, except for a strong 2017 playoff run with the Nashville Predators, he hasn’t found his groove. This season, although he partnered with the high-scoring Auston Matthews for a few Maple Leafs games, he never hit the scoresheet.
Perhaps he’ll find consistency in the KHL, but we won’t know until the NHL regular season is finished – one way or another.
Item Two: What Maple Leafs Players Made TSN’s All-Maple Leafs List
As part of TSN Hockey’s All-Time 7 Project, naming all-time teams for each Canadian NHL franchise, on May 4, TSN named its annual version of the All-Time Toronto Maple Leafs Team.
What was interesting about the 21 players, head coach, and general manager listed was the difficulty they had picking the team’s best centers. To the dismay of many Maple Leafs fans, two iconic centers – Darryl Sittler and Doug Gilmour – didn’t make the cut. It’s partly due to the criteria TSN set for the project, but it was controversial.
TSN All-Time Team Eligibility Criteria
To name the best players from each Canadian team, TSN’s eligibility criteria included:
(a) two goalies, six defensemen, 12 forwards, and one foundational player;
(b) members had to have played at least 225 games with the team;
(c) at least one member of the all-time team had to be from the current 2019-20;
(d) players were slotted into positions according to where they had played with the team;
(e) one line must be comprised of defensive standouts (a checking line);
(f) one defensive pair had to be comprised of “suffocating” defenders (a shutdown pair);
(g) lines and pairs were put together because they fit together, not because they were necessarily the first, second, or third best at their positions;
(h) foundational players were defined as players who were part of the “fabric or the DNA” of a franchise; and,
(i) last cuts by position were exactly as advertised, those players who just missed selection to the all-time team.
TSN’s All-Time Maple Leafs included the following, and for the sake of brevity, I have listed players by position with the years they played for the team in parentheses:
Goalies: Turk Broda (1936-52) and Johnny Bower (1958-69)
Left Defensemen: Borje Salming (1973-89), King Clancy (1930-36), and Allan Stanley (1958-68)
Right Defensemen: Tim Horton (1952-70), Red Horner (1928-40), and Bob Baun (1957-67)
Left Wingers: Busher Jackson (1929-39), Frank Mahovlick (1957-68), Wendel Clark (1985-94), and Bob Pulford (1956-70)
Centers: Syl Apps (1936-48), Mats Sundin (1994-08), Auston Matthews (2016-20), and Dave Keon (1960-75)
Right Wingers: Charlie Conacher (1929-38), Rick Vaive (1980-87), Lanny McDonald (1973-79), and George Armstrong (1952-71). And, as Foundational Player Ted Kennedy (1943-55)
Head Coach: Punch Imlach
General Manager: Conn Smythe
Goalie: Curtis Joseph (1998-02)
Left Defense: Tomas Kaberle (1998-11)
Right Defense: Jimmy Thomson (1945-57)
Left Winger: Sid Smith (1947-57)
Center: Darryl Sittler (1970-82)
Right Wing: Ron Ellis (1964-81)
As noted, Sittler (last cut) and Doug Gilmour were absent from the list, which seems unimaginable. However, it also speaks to the depth of centers the organization has iced over the years.
Item Three: Could Matt Benning End Up with the Maple Leafs?
Before the 2019-20 season started, there were rumours of a Matt Benning trade. He’s a right-handed defenseman, which is something the Maple Leafs covet. Now, with the regular season winding down when Benning becomes a restricted free agent (RFA), what are the chances he’ll move to the Maple Leafs this summer?
Benning is expendable in part because the Edmonton Oilers have plenty of a scarce and prized commodity – right-handed defensemen. That said, during the 2019-20 season, he couldn’t find regular ice time, losing out to Adam Larsson and emerging young star Ethan Bear.
Benning’s mid-season concussion didn’t help his cause, and the injury gave other Oilers defensemen more ice time. Also, few predicted Bear’s rapid emergence as a key Oilers defenseman. That pleasant surprise moved Bear into a prominent role, which decreased Benning’s value.
Related: Revisiting the Brent Burns Trade
Finally, Oilers general manager Ken Holland surprised many by trading for veteran defenseman Mike Green at the deadline. Unless the Detroit Red Wings were giving Green away or Holland appreciates Green from his time as the Red Wings’ GM, Benning has to figure he’s on his way out.
This week, Nick Desouza of TheLeafsNation noted that the Benning-to-Toronto rumors might resurface again this offseason. He believes Benning’s a solid player who does the little things right. He’s a sound positional player who doesn’t take risks jumping into the play too quickly. He moves the puck well, which would allow him to take some of the load off Morgan Rielly.
Benning’s a possibility because he also might come cheaply. He’s signed to a value-friendly contract at $1.9 million. Given his status with the Oilers and a salary cap situation that’s up-in-the-air, he shouldn’t expect a raise. That might mean he could sign a short-term, team-friendly contract. Again, that’s something Dubas is seeking.
Perhaps there’s something to this Benning rumour. First, it doesn’t seem that the Oilers are interested in keeping him. Second, he’s a right-shot defenseman, and the Maple Leafs need one.
In the end, it might depend on what decisions the Oilers make about their defense. Veteran defenseman Chris Russel has a modified no-movement clause. Bear is going nowhere, and Evan Bouchard is rising up the organizational depth chart. He’s not a lock to make the 2020-21 Oilers roster, but it won’t be long. All these factors point to the possibility of a trade.
Item Four: Frederik Andersen’s Status
Frederik Andersen’s status is up in the air. There are rumors floating around that he will be signed to a new contract; or, the team will use him as a trade chip.
He’s signed for $5 million through the 2020-21 season, and that’s either a hefty salary or it’s a lot of cap space – depending on where you’re coming from. It will be interesting to see how Dubas plays this one.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
The Maple Leafs have a number of decisions that need to be made when the season is concluded, but that’s a ways away – or, at least we think. Someday soon, there needs to be a decision about the resumption of the season or a conclusion. Until that time, all fans can do is wait.