Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Andersen, Vesey, Nylander, Tavares & More

If you want to know how different the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 6-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers was on Wednesday night, you just have to look at the three stars of the game. First star: Jimmy Vesey; second star, Zach Hyman; and, third star, Jason Spezza.

This was – more or less – a victory created by the Maple Leafs’ bottom-six depth players. Mitch Marner had a single assist and Auston Matthews was shut out on the score sheet. Still, the team provided more than enough offense on this night to earn their third-straight victory over what – until three games ago – was the second-place team in the North Division.

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In fact, it was a dominating three-game series for the Maple Leafs and a frustrating series for the Oilers. The Maple Leafs outscored the Oilers by a margin of 13-1 over those three games. They won 4-0 on Saturday night, 3-0 on Monday night, and as reported 6-1 on Wednesday.

In the wake of the team’s overwhelming strong defensive play, NHL scoring leader Connor McDavid didn’t score a single point in three straight games. It was the third time in his career he’d been held off the score sheet in three straight games.

Ron Hainsey; Connor McDavid
Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid against the Toronto Maple Leafs(THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

In this edition of Maple Leafs News and Rumors, I’ll comment upon the game’s action and suggest what it might mean going forward.

Item One: Frederik Andersen Looked in Good Form on Wednesday Evening

Frederik Andersen, who had been out with a lower-body injury, stopped 26 of 27 shots. He had been nursing that injury for four games, but his replacements had shone. In fact, his goalie partners’ two previous wins had been shutouts. Although Andersen could not deliver the third zero in a row against the Oilers, he almost made it until the Oilers’ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored with 6:14 left in the second period. 

Over the past few seasons, it seems as if Andersen has been carried to victory by the Maple Leafs’ powerful offense. These days it seems he doesn’t have to stand on his head two or three times each game because the Maple Leafs defense is stepping up so strongly. Last night’s game was really a combination of good defense and timely scoring. 

Frederik Andersen Toronto Maple Leafs
Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If you’re a watcher of statistics, you might want to watch to see if Andersen’s current goals-against-average of 2.59 and save percentage of .909 will improve as he plays further into the season. His current record is also – right now – 12-3-2 (the backup goalies have a 6-1 record). Look for that to improve as well.

Item Two: William Nylander’s On a Post-Benching Scoring Streak

Perhaps about once a season, it’s the coach’s job to bench William Nylander. After his December 2019 benching against the Detroit Red Wings, the young Swede responded with a scoring spree. Since he was benched against the Montreal Canadiens, he’s once again gone on a scoring binge. He added another goal in the team’s 6-1 win on Wednesday.

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What a patient and confident move Nylander’s goal was. Nylander waited out a desperate Oilers’ defenseman who had slid in front of him, then he toe-dragged past the sliding body and beat Smith over his blocker. That goal came after the Oilers had cut the lead to three goals, and sort of made the remainder of the game moot.

The goal was Nylander’s fifth in his past four games. He now has scored 10 goals and 10 assists in 24 games this season. Also interestingly, given the odd way the season’s schedule has been constructed, all these goals have been scored against the Calgary Flames and the Oilers. 

Item Three: Ilya Mikheyev Scores His Third Goal of the Season

It was more wishful thinking on my part than wisdom when yesterday I predicted Ilya Mikheyev would score a goal during last night’s game. He often flies under the radar because he hasn’t been that present on the score sheet. Still, I think he’s playing effectively well – one of the Maple Leafs’ unsung heroes, I believe.

Ilya Mikheyev Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Last night, the 26-year-old second-year Russian was rewarded when he backhanded a rebound past Smith to extend Toronto’s second-period advantage to 4-0. It was the third goal of the season for Mikheyev. He’s been skating on a highly-successful Maple Leafs’ third line with Zach Hyman and Pierre Engvall.

Item Four: Zach Hyman Registers a Goal in Three Straight Games

Once again Zach Hyman scored a goal – this one on the power-play – and caused havoc around the opposing goalie’s crease all night long. He even drew a penalty on a frustrated Smith later in the game when he was laying on the ice in the crease. 

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Hyman’s goal extended his goal-scoring streak to three straight games and his point-scoring streak to four games. Reminiscent of Wayne Simmonds’ directions to shoot at him on the power play because that might cause a rebound, the goal bounced off Hyman’s body before he tapped the rebound past the goalie. Hyman added an assist on Mikheyev’s second-period goal and is now up to seven goals and eight assists (for 15 points) in 22 games.

Hyman is playing well and in some ways seems more effective carrying the team’s third line than mucking for pucks for others on the team’s top-six units.

John Tavares Adds Goal and Assist to Balanced Maple Leafs’ Scoring

It seemed that every time I watched John Tavares last night he was winning a faceoff. All game long, he consistently gave his team good on-ice position because he controlled the faceoff circle. In total, he won 13 of 16 (81.3 percent) of his draws. He also added a power-play goal and an assist in the team’s dominating win.

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Tavares was in the right place at the right time when he scored on a great touch pass from veteran Joe Thornton, who was doing his best Wayne Simmonds’ impersonation in front of the opposing goalie. That power-play goal jumped the score to 3-0 early in the second period and sort of threw water on any comeback the Oilers might have thought about mounting.

It was only Tavares’ second goal in his past 13 games and stopped a five-game drought. Tavares also assisted on Nylander’s goal. The 30-year-old Tavares is scoring almost a point-a-game this season with seven goals and 14 assists (for 21 points) in 24 games.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

As I noted to start this post, it was a different game for the Maple Leafs in that the scoring was led by its depth players. Auston Matthews looked as if he felt well on the ice, but he didn’t score. After his two-game absence, he just kept firing the goal on the net.

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Fortunately, he showed no effects of his nagging wrist injury; however, he skated under 19 minutes. Lowering his minutes might become a more regular plan. With the depth of the Maple Leafs carrying a good balance of the play, it might mean that Matthews’ and Marners’ time on the ice might drop. When the team is winning and all the lines are effective, why not balance the time on the ice?

The only downside of that philosophy, which I think Keefe will adopt more if the team’s success continues, is that Matthews’ quest for 50 goals in the season might take a hit. That cost, to me, seems minor when compared to the benefits of such player deployment over the longer term of the season.

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