The Toronto Maple Leafs are fighting for a playoff spot in the East, and to my eyes, they’re doing very well. The team has been on fire since Sheldon Keefe took over as the new head coach. In fact, they’ve been almost unstoppable.
As a fan, you can feel the confidence growing among the players: they think they’re going to win every game. I’m wondering if that ill-fated back-to-back on Dec. 3 and Dec. 4 when, in Philadelphia, the team seemed to give up on goalie Frederik Andersen and allowed five goals in the third period to lose 6-1. As fans recall, on the flight back to Toronto, Andersen asked to play the next game – which Keefe allowed. The team lost 3-1 to Nazem Kadri’s Colorado Avalanche.
After the Avalanche game, the team’s record was 13-13-4. Today the team sits with a record of 23-14-5, which is a 10-1-1 run. Better yet, the team doesn’t quit. In fact, even when they are down they have the jam to come back and usually win.
The team just returned from a short mid-west road trip where they beat the Minnesota Wild 4-1 and the Winnipeg Jets 6-3. As they prepare for a three-game homestand, I’d like to explore some of the news and rumors emanating from the organization.
Item One: Andersen Must Be Getting Tired, But He’s Not Showing It
Andersen was strong in both road victories. Against the Wild, he allowed a single goal in 27 shots. Against the Jets two nights later, he was busier but no less successful stopping 45 of 38 shots.
Andersen is 6-0-1 since Dec. 12 and he’s been one of the NHL’s busiest goalies. During the 2019-20 season, only Carey Price has started more games and only Connor Hellebuyck has faced more shots. I have no idea what coach Keefe’s plan is about Andersen’s playing time, but it seems that sooner or later Michael Hutchinson must play more than one of each back-to-back series.
Can Andersen remain successful without rest? That’s one of the lingering questions the team faces, even during its string of success.
Item Two: Kapanen Is Playing With More Intensity
During the Dec. 21 game against the Detroit Red Wings, Keefe didn’t like either Kasperi Kapanen’s or William Nylander’s intensity and benched them both. Obviously, Kapanen has taken a lesson from that benching.
Kapanen scored a goal and an assist in the 6-3 win over the Jets. Since being benched, he’s ramped up his intensity level and the results are obvious. He has four goals in his last four games and he’s back to firing shots from everywhere. He had a 20-goal season in 2018-29 and is on pace for another 20-goal season in 2019-20.
Item Three: Nylander Can’t Be Stopped
William Nylander is on a five-game point streak, scoring 11 points in those games. Better yet, he looks supremely confident. He scored two sniper-like goals (and an assist) in the 6-3 win over the Jets. In five games he’s had six goals and five assists and has, at least for now, found great on-ice chemistry on John Tavares’ line.
Item Four: Dan Milstein Spreads the News of Kyle Dubas’ Kindness
After Ilya Mikheyev’s unfortunate injury and consequent successful wrist surgery to reattach tendons and repair an artery that was severed, general manager Kyle Dubas hung out with Mikheyev for three days in the hospital. That act of kindness wasn’t lost on Dan Milstein, Mikheyev’s agent.
Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported that Milstein told him in an interview that “Kyle went above and beyond his duty” in how he treated the young Russian rookie.
Not only did Dubas keep Mikheyev company in the hospital but he bought him clothes and other personal effects. Mikheyev and Dubas apparently spent hours watching sports, including Russia’s 6-0 win over Canada at the world junior tournament, the Maple Leafs’ 5-4 overtime loss to the New York Rangers, and plenty of soccer.
The impact of Dubas’ friendship towards Mikheyev is spreading quickly by Milstein to the other young Russian players he’s representing. Milstein’s made certain his clients know about the humanity the Maple Leafs showed to Mikheyev, telling them: “You should know how Toronto took care of this particular accident.”
That’s good news for the Maple Leafs and gives the team a great chance both to re-sign Mikheyev and to become a destination of choice for other KHL free agents looking to play in the NHL.
Item Five: Where’s Space for Jeremy Bracco?
Jeremy Bracco is a skilled player who was second in AHL scoring in 2018-19. Given the rash of injuries on the Maple Leafs roster, one would think a prospect like Bracco might have a chance to show what he could do in the NHL – at least a look-see. But, because he’s a right winger, he’s in the last row of a parade of other right wingers like Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Kasperi Kapanen. Sadly, his path to the NHL seems blocked.
It’s obviously a roadblock Bracco can see and he knows he’s expendable. In fact, a number of hockey insiders have reported that Bracco’s asked the Maple Leafs to explore trading him. Word is out that both Dmytro Timashov and Ben Harpur have also asked for Dubas to try to trade them.
Item Six: Maple Leafs Ranking for the Decade
In a Jan. 2 post, The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell used a pretty elegant formula to rank the success (or lack of success) for all NHL teams during the decade from 2010-19. Where did the Maple Leafs rank? The answer is not very high.
The Hockey News formula ranked the team 27th, with only four teams ranked below them. Those teams were the Carolina Hurricanes, the Florida Panthers, the Edmonton Oilers, and the Buffalo Sabres.
Toronto, which Campbell called “The Center of the Hockey Universe,” has endured some pretty pathetic decades and, according to this ranking, the 2010s were high on the team’s all-time misery list. However, the ranking suggests there’s sunshine.
During the last years of the decade, a turnaround began and the Maple Leafs enter the 2020s with “some of the most dazzling offensive players in the game and play an up-tempo game,” Campbell suggests. Of course, he cautions that fans need to see if the team can win a playoff series. There’s always that, I suppose.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
The Maple Leafs have played 42 games and now sit in the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference with 51 points. Right now, they’re in the playoffs – but no one should call it “firmly” in. Although anything can happen with the season halfway through, if the team continues its hot streak it should firm up its playoff position.
But can they keep winning at this rate? That remains to be seen, but the team’s clicking. If there’s any trouble spot, the goalie situation makes me blink as I look at the team’s potential for garnering a solid playoff spot. Is something up on the trade front?