I came across an interesting bit of history doing my research for this post. That is, as sportswriter Lance Hornby noted, “Since 1917, more than 1,000 men have worn the Blue and White in Toronto’s NHL history. They’re part of a team that millions of Canadians grew up listening to, watching on TV or even seeing live, perhaps dreaming they could play for them one day” (from “Once a Leaf: Chris Kotsopoulos, Lance Hornby, Ottawa Citizen, 05/07/20).
As I read it, I was struck by how fortunate I feel to be writing about these players almost every day. Today’s post won’t be any different.
In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I want to put perhaps a different spin on Tyson Barrie’s value to the team, prop up William Nylander as a young player who might not be finished improving, and share the charitable work of Maple Leafs captain John Tavares.
Item One: Why Sheldon Keefe Likes Tyson Barrie More than People Think
When the Maple Leafs entered the 2019-20 season, most hockey forecasters believed the team would be solid enough because of a group of elite forwards and a steady goalie in Frederik Andersen. Even with newly acquired Barrie and Cody Ceci, and the presence of Morgan Rielly, the defense was seen to be lacking quality. In truth, that assessment wasn’t far from wrong.
Forgetting any of the team’s inner turmoil when head coach Mike Babcock was replaced by Sheldon Keefe, perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to the defense happened. Jake Muzzin, Rielly, and Ceci were all injured at the same time. That left Barrie as the most veteran presence on a completely duct-taped rear guard. However, the Maple Leafs kept winning more games than they lost with a hodgepodge of defensemen.
When I assess what the team went through this season, I don’t think enough credit has been given to Barrie’s leadership on this beat-up defensive corps. Keefe probably had no choice but to trust his offensive-minded defenseman, even playing Barrie more than 25 minutes in 11 games. And, once Babcock was gone as coach and Keefe reshaped Barrie’s assignment, he performed quite well – at least to my eyes.
Related: St. Louis Blues’ 50-Goal Scorers
That increased ice time shows the confidence Keefe had in Barrie, who responded by scoring 32 points (5 goals, 27 assists) and was plus-4 in 47 games after Keefe became coach. He was the highest-scoring defenseman on the team.
Almost everyone believes Barrie will be gone after this season, and perhaps that’s accurate. However, I’m already on record as suggesting that there’s a chance he might just stay in Toronto next season on a team-friendly contract to wait for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic to settle down and get a lay of the land going forward.
No one is smart enough to see through the pandemic’s fog to predict the kinds of free-agent contracts players will sign. Because the world isn’t normal right now, it might be a good time to safely hole up and watch.
Why might Barrie stay with the team? First, I think he and Keefe like and respect each other. Second, why not play for a next contract by showcasing your talent with a team that’s likely to help you put up big offensive numbers. That team would be the Maple Leafs. Third, if you dream of playing for a Stanley Cup, look around or ask Jason Spezza. Certainly, the Maple Leafs are in that conversation.
Item Two: William Nylander Is Comeback Player of the Year
I am a total Zach Hyman fan, and I hope he wins the Bill Masterton Trophy. To my mind, he’s one of the most valuable Maple Leafs players and had an incredible season both by improving his overall play and by overcoming a debilitating injury.
That said, Nylander was an absolute revelation to me, and was the Maple Leafs’ comeback player of the season. It wasn’t just that he improved his game, it’s that he found what his game might become. Credit Keefe with help in that department.
If you’re a confident – even cocky – young player, which I think Nylander is, I can’t even imagine the self-doubt that might have arisen in the aftermath of his contract holdout and the horrible 2018-19 season after he signed. What’s a word on the other side of embarrassing?
This season, Nylander’s game evolved. When Keefe consistently gave him more power play time, the young Swede became an in-front-of-the-net power forward whose scoring prowess grew. Nylander scored 31 goals and would have passed his career high in points had the season played out. As it was, he began to show what he’s capable of in 68 games.
I don’t think we’ve seen the end of his growth either. Connor Brown did him a huge favor in Connor Carrick’s podcast when he 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.”
That kind of work ethic will only help to push Nylander’s skill forward.
Item Three: John Tavares Starts a Foundation
John Tavares is taking his job as both a parent and a Maple Leafs representative seriously. During June, he began the John Tavares Foundation with a goal of providing kids access to a healthy and active lifestyle and empowering “the next generation to reach their full potential. Because a world filled with possibilities starts with a space for them to imagine and create.”
For anyone interested, as I am, you can follow the work of this foundation on their Facebook page.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
With the news two days ago that the St. Louis Blues had shut down their Phase 2 operations for the weekend because of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the need for safer operations once again comes into the news.
Planning for Phase 3 will occur this week. July 10 is a key date. It will be interesting to see how those plans evolve and whether they actually can keep players safe.