The Toronto Maple Leafs have come off a run of strong play, winning three games in a row against tough teams – the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Florida Panthers, and the Vancouver Canucks. The team is doing it with what, on paper, is a compromised defense.
Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Cody Ceci are out with injuries and Tyson Barrie is the old guy on the block. Who would have thought this season that Barrie and seldom-used-until-recently Martin Marincin would be the top defensive pairing; or that Travis Dermott and Justin Holl would be the second defensive pairing; or that the two young Swedes Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin would play together regularly? Maybe Biff on Back to the Future?
As the team gets ready to play the San Jose Sharks on the road (minus Patrick Marleau, who was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for their playoff run), in this post I want to help keep Maple Leafs fans up-to-date on some of the news and rumors popping up about the team.
Item One: It’s Jack Campbell’s Turn in Net Against the Sharks
The team has been winning, but it hasn’t been because starting goalie Frederik Andersen has been totally on his game. In fact, he’s been shaky and only the Maple Leafs offense has prevented losses by outscoring opponents. Part of Andersen’s shakiness might be the patchwork defense in front of him; part might be he’s tired.
Whatever, it’s time Jack Campbell played a game. He’ll be guarding the twine on Tuesday against the Sharks. It will be his first start since Feb. 15, as Andersen made seven starts in a row.
Since he’s come to the Maple Leafs, Campbell has played well. He’s registered a 3-0-1 record with a goals-against average of 2.40 and a .919 save percentage. If things go as planned, and they seldom do in NHL hockey, “Soupy” (Campbell’s nickname) will seek to remain undefeated in regulation as a Maple Leafs goalie. The Sharks have one of the league’s lowest-scoring offenses.
Item Two: Is Morgan Rielly Coming Back Early?
The initial projection was that Morgan Rielly would be out eight weeks, which means he wouldn’t be back until later in March. What good news it would be if that projection were incorrect. The latest rumor is that the timeline has changed. Because Rielly’s broken foot has healed faster than expected, he could re-join the lineup by March 10. At least that’s what Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported.
This season, the 25-year-old Rielly has scored 27 points in 46 games and will again take over his usual role as the team’s top defenseman when he returns.
Item Three: Are the Maple Leafs After Two KHL Players?
The Hockey News Newsletter today noted 10 Russian players who might be looking to move to the NHL. As always, the Maple Leafs remain front and center on at least two of these players. After the team’s successful signing and all-round great experience with Ilya Mikheyev, the team always works its Russian connection.
In the newsletter, two players with Maple Leafs connections were noted.
Alexander Barabanov, Right-winger
The 26-year-old Alexander Barabanov didn’t have what you’d call a spectacular season with SKA St. Petersburg this season, but he scored 46 points last season and has been a “jack of all trades” for Russia in international play recently. He’s got game, and a number of teams have shown interest in bringing him to the NHL (among them the Maple Leafs and the Arizona Coyotes).
Barabanov is expected to move to the NHL next season. He’ll offer whatever team he plays with a speedy winger who’s reliable both on offense and defense.
Mikhail Grigorenko, Center
The 25-year-old Mikhail Grigorenko is reported to be seeking another chance in the NHL. He was drafted 12th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft but wasn’t able to establish his game in a five-year NHL career and returned home in 2017-18 to play with CSKA Moscow. In fact, without Grigorenko, the Hockey News reports that CSKA would have had a difficult time winning the KHL championship last season. He’s also been a stalwart on Russia’s international team.
He’s a more mature and complete player than during his first NHL stint. He’s a good playmaker, and in October the ever-diligent Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas is reported to have met with Grigorenko (KHL insider Igor Eronko reported).
With the recent success that Dubas has had with young, former KHLers (Ilya Mikheyev is the most recent example), it’s likely he’ll take a chance to pick up another Russian or two for next season’s team.
Item Four: David Ayres Gets His Own Hockey Card
You needed to have been stuck in a cave not to hear about the game where 42-year-old David Ayres (and Maple Leafs practice goalie) suited up as an emergency backup goalie (EBUG is the new acronym) with the Carolina Hurricanes to beat his Maple Leafs employer. For the first time in NHL history, an emergency backup goalie won an NHL game.
It was one of the best feel-good stories of the season – in part because Ayres seems like a genuinely good guy who overcame a tragic end to his hockey career with a necessary kidney transplant. His story captured fans’ hearts but also Upper Deck’s attention. For those who don’t know, Upper Deck is a sports card company.
In short, David Ayres is being featured on a new Upper Deck hockey card. As the hockey division of Upper Deck tweeted, “You asked for it and we made it happen.” Because of the serious demand for Ayres cards, fans can now go to Upperdeckepack.com to get the card.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
I’m watching two things with the team over the next few games. First, I’m anxious to see when Rielly will return. In his absence, I don’t think the team’s defense or coaching staff have been given enough credit for creating a situation where the team could succeed.
Second, I’m looking forward to seeing how high-scoring Auston Matthews will do. He had to have watched last night’s Edmonton Oilers game where Leon Draisaitl scored four goals to insert himself into the NHL goal-scoring race. Currently, the Boston Bruins’ David Pastrnak is first with 47 goals; Matthews and Alex Ovechkin are tied for second with 45 goals; and, Draisaitl has moved into fourth place with 43 goals. That will be a fun race to witness.