Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Atlantic Division, Manson Trade & Marner

In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at the Atlantic Division and speculate about the Maple Leafs’ place in the division moving forward. I’ll then comment on the rumors that Josh Manson might be sought by the team as a trade-deadline acquisition.

Related: Maple Leafs THW Readers’ Insights: Klingberg, Hyman, Bunting & Soupy

Finally, I’ll look at Mitch Marner’s return to the team after his injury and how his increased propensity for shooting the puck actually makes a difference to the success of the team’s entire first line.

Item One: Except for a Drastic Change, We Know the Four Atlantic Division Playoff Teams

When the Toronto Maple Leafs return to the ice after the All-Star break, they’ll be five points back of the Tampa Bay Lightning and eight points back of the Florida Panthers as they all chase the Atlantic Division title. In fact, the Maple Leafs’ placement in the standings might be better than it seems because they have games in hand over both teams. The Lightning has played four more games than the Maple Leafs, and the Panthers have played five.

Aleksander Barkov Florida Panthers
Aleksander Barkov is one of the Florida Panthers’ top players this season
(Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The problem is that those postponed games will be made up in close proximity to each other. In other words, the team plays a lot of games in a short time period, which could be good or bad depending upon the kind of run the team gets on. Still, when the ice chips melt the Maple Leafs could be a lot closer to the top when they finally catch up in games played. 

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Right now, unless things change drastically, it looks like a race toward first place between three – maybe four – teams. Unless the Boston Bruins’ game simply falls apart, they’re likely to make the playoffs as well. The top four teams in the Atlantic Division will make the postseason, and those teams are likely to be Boston, Florida, Tampa Bay, and Toronto.

Item Two: Has Defenseman Josh Manson Ruled Out Toronto in a Trade?

If you’ve read my writing on this topic before, you probably know that I believe the Maple Leafs should not make a big trade deadline deal. That’s not saying I don’t think the team would be better rostered for the postseason if it had another Zach Bogosian type, but I don’t think they should trade away a high-end prospect or a high draft choice for a rental. 

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I think I might be in the minority on that belief. And, I admit I’ve been wrong before about such things. One name that keeps popping up when Maple Leafs’ fans as well as my THW colleagues search other teams’ rosters to covet players for the Maple Leafs’ backend is Anaheim Ducks’ defenseman Josh Manson.

Good player, Manson, although like T.J. Brodie he doesn’t score much. But would he be the addition that puts the team over the top? And, does he even want to join the Maple Leafs?

Josh Manson Anaheim Ducks
Josh Manson, Anaheim Ducks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

As Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported, Manson might lot want to head North to Toronto. Furthermore, he does have a say in his destination. He has a 12-team, no-trade option in his contract; and, the Maple Leafs are in the category of “won’t go there.”

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Given that the Ducks remain in the playoff hunt and that stalwart Ryan Getzlaf remains on the team and probably has a short best-before date for postseason success, does the Ducks’ new general manager Pat Verbeek decide to run the table with the players he has? If I were a new general manager, I’d want to show well in my first postseason. I might start a rebuild next season. In addition, there’s no hint that the Ducks even want to trade Manson.

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A lot could change if the Ducks fall out of playoff contention. More could change if Verbeek talks with Manson and comes to believe he’ll seek free agency. There were rumors from hockey insiders that the Maple Leafs might be interested in Manson. However, there’s also a sense that Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas wasn’t going to seek a rental.

This could be interesting. 

Item Three: Could Mitch Marner Hit 30 Goals This Season; and, So What?

It matters that Mitch Marner is shooting more. Since he’s returned from both his injury and the COVID-19 protocol, he’s scoring more. That’s because he’s also shooting more. Marner’s shot rate has increased from fewer than seven shots per 60 minutes of five-on-five hockey to over nine shots per 60 minutes of five-on-five hockey. Those increased shot attempts matter, and change both the Maple Leafs’ offensive look and the way opponents must defend the team.

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

When Marner shoots more often, the other team’s goalie and defenders can’t scan the ice to look for passing targets – especially Auston Matthews. Maple Leafs’ fans know that was a team weakness last season during the playoffs. Now Marner must also be on their radar as a serious shooter.

If the opposition chooses to overplay Matthews, Marner gets more open shooting lanes. And we know that on this first line Micheal Bunting will be creating chaos in front of the goalie. Chaos is good for the Maple Leafs’ first line because all three players have quick hands and good hand-eye coordination. (from “Leaf Michael Bunting adds a bit of Brad Marchand to his game. It’s a skill,” Kevin McGran, Toronto Star, 22/11/21).

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The decision to defend Marner more vigorously creates more chances for Matthews and more chaos for Bunting. If Marner becomes a shooting threat, it benefits the entire first line.

Marner’s most productive season was in 2018-19. He scored 26 goals and added 68 assists (for 94 points) in 82 games. Although he’s missed his fair share of games, he still might hit 30 goals this season. If so, it would be his first 30 goal season. That would be good for the Maple Leafs.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

The topic of whether to add a defenseman at the trade deadline is an interesting one that fans will be watching. The fun of watching this team is that there always seems to be a surprise, especially as far as trades and signings go.

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I have no idea what the Maple Leafs’ brain trust is thinking as it heads into the second half of the season. Furthermore, I don’t even know if I hope it will be boring or exciting. What I do think is that, when the regular season started, many Maple Leafs’ fans didn’t think this team could make the playoffs. Now it’s almost certain they will.

That’s good news except for the Maple Leafs’ followers who can’t wait for Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas, and Sheldon Keefe to be fired. That’s not likely to happen for at least another year.

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