Today’s edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors focuses mostly on good news surrounding the team. Here, I’ll review the winner of the NHL Fan Choice Award and talk about the positive outcome of Connor Brown, who was traded to the Ottawa Senators during the 2018-19 offseason.
As well, there are some insights about William Nylander, and finally, a quick but lingering question about what the team might do with Kasperi Kapanen.
Item One: NHL Fan Choice Award Winners Include David Ayres
This week the NHL announced its 2020 Fan Choice Award winners. Among them was David Ayres – the emergency backup goalie who made history when he stepped into an NHL game as an emergency backup goalie and earned a victory.
To add to the story, the team he beat was also the organization that employed him – the Maple Leafs, but when the Carolina Hurricanes lost both goalies to injury, Ayres entered the game for the Hurricanes and won.
Ayres, the Operations Manager at the Mattamy Athletic Centre (the old Maple Leaf Gardens), is also a practice goalie who works with and is a regular backup for the Toronto Marlies. Since the home team must have an extra goalie in the arena in case either of the backups can’t play, Ayres was in the building that night as the emergency goalie.
Although the Maple Leafs’ first two shots hit the twine behind him, Ayres hung in there. His Hurricanes teammates gave him a pep talk, encouraged him to enjoy his moment, then rallied in front of him and gave up only eight more shots in the game. Ayres stopped them all, and the Hurricanes scored a 6-3 win over the Maple Leafs.
I loved this story and, even as a Maple Leafs fan, I was rooting for him to turn the biggest dream of his life into reality. He had to feel pure joy. On an epic level, when the little guy beats the big guy, it’s special. When a practice goalie – one who had to give up his dream of becoming a professional goalie because he needed a kidney transplant – comes into a game and beats the team he works for, it’s too special to ignore, and the NHL didn’t.
The fans loved it so, call me a fan. Hopefully, even the Maple Leafs players who were part of the story will remember it with a smile, but it wasn’t so funny that Saturday evening.
Ayres is not the first emergency goalie to enter an NHL game, but he’s the first one to record a victory. It’s the feel-good story that I hope Maple Leafs fans will celebrate with him. Let the record book show that he is the oldest goalie in NHL history to win his first game. Although this one is not in the NHL record book, he’s the winner of the 2020 Best Feel-Good Moment in the annual NHL Fan Choice Awards.
Item Two: Connor Brown Finds a Happy Place with the Ottawa Senators
I have to thank Sportsnet’s Luke Fox for introducing me to former Maple Leafs and now New Jersey Devils defenseman Connor Carrick’s podcasts. They offer good, deep conversations between players about their life in the NHL. As an active player speaking to other active players, they are also revealing.
On June 1, Carrick interviewed former Maple Leafs player Connor Brown, who now plays for the Ottawa Senators. During his time with the Maple Leafs, Brown (who scored 45 goals and 128 points with the Erie Otters on a team with Connor McDavid in 2013-14) carved out a role as a hard-working defensive forward who could kill penalties. However, he was traded to the Senators last offseason as part of the team’s need to find salary-cap space to sign Mitch Marner.
The trade turned out well for Brown. He became a play-making team leader who scored 16 goals and 27 assists in 71 games with the Senators.
However, Brown has regrets about his time in Toronto. He says he wanted so much to have a place in the lineup that, “looking back on it, I think I might have almost overdone it.” He also told Carrick, “I wish I would have found my confidence and found my skill that I found this year … to make plays and to be more than just be that role player. I think I had more to offer.”
His assessment? “I was just trying my hardest to play that role that I felt like that team needed me to do.”
Senators head coach DJ Smith knew Brown from his time with the Maple Leafs and considered him a player who could occupy a top-six role, which is exactly what he did. With support from his coach and general manager Pierre Dorion, Brown gained confidence.
Although he didn’t want to leave his hometown team, Brown admits it worked out well for his career. Now he says, “With the guys and the culture that we have worked towards in Ottawa, it’s definitely the best thing for me in my career and my happiness.”
Finally, Brown added: “I really felt like it was a good time to make the move to Ottawa. It was good for my relationship, my happiness on the ice on and off the ice. It was really all positive.”
That’s great news for a good young player.
Item Three: About William Nylander’s Work Ethic
During Brown’s chat with Carrick, he mentioned something interesting about Nylander that might help fans understand the young Swede better. Brown revealed that Nylander was “probably the most laid-back guy I’ve ever met in my entire life. But have you ever seen a guy on the ice more than him in your life? Right? I mean, he’s on the ice 25 minutes before practice, stick-handling through pucks lined up.”
What makes Nylander a good player? He works at it. He’s not intense, but he’s also probably not one of the players Mitch Marner included on the list former coach Mike Babcock made him write about who “dogs” it in practice.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
Even today (June 15), there’s speculation about Kasperi Kapanen’s awkward position with the Maple Leafs, because the team needs cheap players to support their high-salaried stars. Certainly, figuring out Kapanen’s place either on or off the team is a big offseason question.
Fortunately, the Maple Leafs have options. Which way the team moves on Kapanen will be interesting to watch, but in the meantime, there’s hockey to play – at least we believe there is.