After the Pittsburgh Penguins finished off the Toronto Maple Leafs, 5-2, on Tuesday evening, head coach Mike Sullivan summed up the difference between his team and the Maple Leafs – in so many words. Although he was speaking about his star Sidney Crosby, his comments highlighted what Crosby possesses in spades that Toronto’s team doesn’t.
Specifically, Sullivan noted: ”I think this is his (Crosby’s) favorite time of year. He tends to play his best when the stakes get high. He has the ability to change the outcomes of games with his influence and I think tonight was a great example.”
In return, Crosby spoke about his team: “Everyone’s contributing and our work ethic and urgency have been there every night. We give ourselves a chance when we have that.”
From the Maple Leafs perspective, befuddled captain John Tavares noted: “Our urgency just doesn’t seem to be there consistently. I don’t know what else we need in front of us to motivate us. We’re obviously at a crucial point in our season. We’ve got to determine what we want to do.”
That highlights the difference between how two teams played.
In this post, as the Maple Leafs look toward a rematch with the Penguins, I’d like to help Maple Leafs fans stay up-to-date on the news and rumors from the organization.
Item One: Frederik Andersen Has Another Poor Game
It hasn’t been a good month for Frederik Andersen. Prior to the Penguins game, he lost his last two starts and surrendered eight goals on 55 shots for a .855 save percentage. Against the Penguins, he needed to be better. He wasn’t. He faced 24 shots and saved only 19 for a .792 save percentage.
Not that it was all his fault. Andersen had little help from teammates. Three Penguins goals were scored on the power play and the others were off an odd-man rush and poor defensive coverage. Andersen has given up 13 goals in his last three starts and, on the season, his goals-against average is 2.97 with a .906 save percentage.
Item Two: Auston Matthews Takes Over NHL Lead in Goals Scored
Also against the Penguins, Austin Matthews scored his 43rd goal of the season when he one-timed a pass from William Nylander for the Maple Leafs’ first goal. Good for him, but it was too little and far too late for the team. The Maple Leafs were already down 5-0 so the goal proved to be more-or-less empty stat-padding.
Still, Matthews has scored in three of his last four games and, during the calendar year of 2020 (20 games), he’s scored 16 goals and 24 points, and he is now ahead of David Pastrnak (42) for the NHL scoring lead. Alex Ovechkin ranks third with 40 and, by the way, his 698 goals are less than 200 shy of Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record of 894 career goals.
Item Three: Might the Maple Leafs Become Sellers at Trade Deadline?
I tend to believe general manager Kyle Dubas is an eternal optimist; however, there’s some buzz that the Maple Leafs might take the team in another direction as the trade deadline comes. At least James Mirtle of The Athletic suggested they might become sellers. He noted that many in the Maple Leafs camp believe the season has been disappointing and a different direction is needed.
Mirtle believes that tactic might have merit, suggesting that the team might not be competitive enough to win, especially if they face either the Boston Bruins and/or the Tampa Bay Lightning if they even make the playoffs.
Of the names Mirtle mentioned, three stand out as pending unrestricted free agents (UFAs) who should be moved at the deadline – defensemen Tyson Barrie and Codi Ceci and physical forward Kyle Clifford. He noted that it would be better to get something for these players than losing again in the first round.
However, in the end, Mirtle believes the situation isn’t as bad as critics suggest and thinks the Maple Leafs will stay the course and keep their upcoming UFAs, (from ‘Mirtle: Should the Maple Leafs actually be trade deadline sellers this year?’, James Mirtle, The Athletic, 02/18/2020).
In fact, he isn’t the first to consider this scenario. On Dec. 18, 2019, in his 31 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman pointed out how interesting the “rental market” was, noting that most successful hockey teams were already maxed at the upper limit of the salary cap. He believed that fact made player movement both likely and required to reward player success. He noted then the possibility of the Maple Leafs becoming sellers at the trade deadline, even if the team was successful.
In a post I wrote on Dec. 21, 2019, I explored Friedman’s idea and the possibility that, even if the Maple Leafs made the Stanley Cup playoffs, they should consider selling at the trade deadline. I respect Friedman’s ideas and wondered if he was throwing out an idea that defied traditional ways of thinking about hockey.
At that time, I mentioned two high-quality Maple Leafs defensemen on expiring contracts – Tyson Barrie and Jake Muzzin – and suggested the team move these high-value rentals to bring in a good return. Because Muzzin seems likely to be re-signed he’s out of the picture. However, Barrie remains and has recently been scrutinized analytically for his poor play.
Friedman pointed out that, because most potential rentals are on teams seeking the Stanley Cup, that would negate their availability. Those teams can afford to allow their pending UFAs to finish the season with their club and receive nothing in return if they sign elsewhere during free agency.
However, because Dubas must consider two issues annually (the short-term issue of winning this season and the long-term issue of building a competitive team every season), he must balance all considerations. Might he find a middle ground that would enable the Maple Leafs to receive a good return by trading a player on an expiring contract and still work toward the Stanley Cup?
So, here’s my thinking. Now that Muzzin is reportedly on his way to being re-signed, Barrie will be gone after the season. The team needs salary cap relief, which having young players on entry-level contracts would allow. Why not trade Barrie at the deadline and get high-quality prospects in return to build your future team? It would mean trusting his replacement to young Marlies or seasoned bottom-pairings veterans, but would it be worse than losing in the first round like the team did last season?
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
On Thursday, Pittsburgh travels to Toronto to play their second game of a home-and-home series. So far, I haven’t heard what coach Sheldon Keefe has decided about the goalie situation. Will he give Andersen a chance to regain his game or will he go with the hot hand of Jack Campbell?
I’m thinking Campbell will play, but so far I can’t read Keefe’s mind. The choice will be interesting and might signal the level of panic in the dressing room.
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