In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at what NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had to say in his annual state of the NHL press conference. I’ll then look at Maple Leafs prospect Nick Abruzzese to wonder about difficult decisions he might have to make.
Third, with rumors of a Frederik Andersen trade, I did some homework to see whatever happened to young KHL goalie Timur Bilyalov. Finally, I take a bit of a flyer to ask if there’s any possibility Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas might consider trading Nick Robertson.
Item One: Gary Bettman’s State of the NHL and a Canadian Division?
During Gary Bettman’s traditional Stanley Cup Final media conference, he reported a number of things, but because of the foggy context of the COVID-19 pandemic, he left a number of things unsaid. From the perspective of being a Maple Leafs fan and a fan of NHL Canadian-based teams, a number of items caught my interest.
First, in general, Bettman reported that he wouldn’t be surprised if the 2020-21 NHL season begins a bit later than originally thought – but no decisions have been made.
Second, given the different ways Canada and the United States have dealt with the pandemic, he wouldn’t comment about the logical potential of an all-Canadian division. But that to me seems a possibility worth pursuing. Bettman’s only comment was that, at this stage, a Canadian division was “nothing more than speculation.” Perhaps, given the upcoming US election that might change so many things – or perhaps not – it’s worth the NHL waiting before any ideas are forwarded.
Third, about whether fans would be able to attend games, Bettman answered: “It’s conceivable that we start with no fans, (then) move to socially distanced fans.” He ended by suggesting that the NHL’s 2020-21 season might end differently than it started.
Fourth, earlier in September, there had been talk about families moving inside current “bubbles.” Bill Daly noted the NHL’s attempts to help families move inside the bubble. The NHL had approached the Canadian government with a formal application, but he said, “I don’t have a high level of expectations that it will be approved.”
Item Two: What Happens to Harvard’s Nick Abruzzese Without NCAA Games?
Nick Abruzzese has become one of the Maple Leafs top prospects, but with NCAA hockey games unlikely to happen, what does he do? On one hand, getting a Harvard education is a great foundation for life, especially for life after hockey. On the other hand, hockey players want to play hockey and that seems unlikely for Abruzzese. And, at his age, pushing his development seems crucial.
Abruzzese has some decisions to make. Specifically, what will the 21-year-old do during the 2020-21 season?
During the 2019-20 season, Abruzzese played as a freshman (first-year player) with Harvard and scored 44 points (14 goals and 30 assists) in 31 games, which tied him for third overall in NCAA scoring and first in NCAA freshman scoring.
Like another great Maple Leafs prospect, Nick Robertson, Abruzzese is smaller – only 5-foot-9 and 161 pounds. Also like Robertson, he’s very good. His reputation is that he’s strong offensively with great on-ice vision and hockey IQ. Also like Robertson, he has an internal motor that doesn’t seem to quit.
Abruzzese likely will return to Havard to continue his education. However, because the NCAA won’t resume games for the foreseeable future, he’s stuck for playing hockey. He can’t play junior because he’s too old, and if he plays in the AHL – which he can because he’s 20 years old, he won’t be able to play at Harvard again. The AHL would enhance Abruzzese’s hockey career, but not his educational aspirations. It might be a tough call for the youngster.
Item Three: What’s Happened to KHL Goalie Timur Bilyalov?
In December 2019, Sportsnet’s Luke Fox wrote an article about the success of now 25-year-old Tumur Bilyalov – a diminutive but amazing young KHL goalie. At that time, Fox pointed out three interesting things about Bilyalov. First, he began the KHL season with a record of 10-1-2 in 16 games. Second, he set a KHL record by playing 316 minutes without giving up a goal. Third, his KHL contract with Ak Bars was over at the end of April 2020.
Obviously, the question Fox asked was if Bilyalov might become a good goalie with the Maple Leafs. He finished the KHL season and his play in net didn’t diminish. All season, he remained one of the league’s best goalies. He ended the KHL’s regular season with a save percentage of .943 and a goals against average of 1.43. He then proceeded to lead his Ak Bars Kazan team to an undefeated postseason until, similar to the NHL, the KHL cancelled the season.
Given rumors about a possible Frederik Andersen trade and because Bilyalov had seemed to drop off the radar, I did some quick research. Although Bilyalov had drawn the attention of NHL teams and it was reported that he hoped – like most young goalies – to one day play in the NHL, he had re-signed with Ak Bars Kazan on a one-year deal. He simply was unsure when the 2020-21 NHL season would begin and he wanted to play.
That same level of discomfort about the NHL’s future was also a reason several other international players chose to sign contracts in Europe for the 2020-21 season. Where this puts Bilyalov on the Maple Leafs plans, who knows?
However, because the organization’s two goalie prospects had difficult seasons, might Bilyalov re-emerge on general manager Dubas’ wish list? Joseph Woll struggled with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and Ian Scott needed surgery to correct a hip issue and missed the entire season.
Bilyalov was clear that he hadn’t ruled out an NHL contract in his future. If the Maple Leafs need a goalie when Bilyalov’s KHL contract expires, can you imagine the team’s interest?
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
I keep wondering – and asking Maple Leafs fans – if they think Dubas should consider trading prospect Nick Robertson for that right-shot defenseman the team covets desperately. Most long-time Maple Leafs fans I’ve talked with seem to balk at the thought, noting that it’s the kind of deal the organization has made in the past that ends up haunting them.
Still, given Robertson’s growing status and reputation, I wonder what Dubas is thinking.