In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I want to comment on a number of different issues that have emerged since the too-soon Maple Leafs’ elimination from the Stanley Cup chase.
Item One: Why the Maple Leafs Should Re-sign Alex Galchenyuk
To get right to the point, I believe the Maple Leafs should sign Alex Galchenyuk again for next season because I believe he will get better than he did this season.
This season, Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas took a chance on two players who had experienced previous NHL success hoping they might be able to resurrect their careers within the Maple Leafs’ organization. One was Jimmy Vesey and the other was Alex Galchenyuk. Both players started their NHL careers with some notoriety but had recently fallen on difficult times.
Obviously, Dubas was going for a home run – a surprise – whatever you want to call it. He was hoping he might find an answer to his team’s needs on the NHL scrap heap, bring them in for only a little money, then spin their straw into gold as the old story goes.
Vesey started slowly but didn’t look out of place. However, Dubas needed to move some players, stuck Vesey on waivers, and the Vancouver Canucks picked them up. Vesey went on to average just over 13 minutes of ice time with the Canucks in part as a replacement for the injured Elias Pettersson.
Galchenyuk turned out better and became a more promising story. After Galchenyuk was picked up, he was moved to the Toronto Marlies for what was called “skills” training. The reports on to what Galchenyuk brought were promising. He was reported to be a good soldier: he worked hard, studied the system, and didn’t show none of the haughtiness some former stars seemed to possess. He fit in.
When he was moved to the Maple Leafs’ roster, he didn’t look out of place. He played well both on the offensive and defensive side to the strong reviews of teammates and coaching staff. In fact, his strong showing became one of the success stories of the Maple Leafs’ overall disappointing season.
During postseason media interviews, general manager Dubas noted that Galchenyuk was a great story. “He came in as a player who had never played in the American League as a top-three overall pick. He came in, put in a ton of work with the development staff, just absolutely worked his butt off every day, and contributed to our group.”
Dubas also made the point that Galchenyuk wasn’t with the team very long. Interestingly enough, Galchenyuk didn’t explode on the offensive scene with the team. In 26 games, he impressed but really only scored four goals and four assists (for eight points). Those numbers are in line with Galchenyuk’s scoring over his past few seasons when he didn’t play up to his standards.
That a highly-skilled player like Galchenyuk didn’t light up the score sheet shouldn’t be much of a surprise. In fact, if the Maple Leafs sign him for the season, give him time to learn the system, and continue to play him with skilled players on the team’s top two lines, fans should expect an offensive upside for the 27-year-old.
My call is that Galchenyuk didn’t so much lose his skills but failed to keep them sharp because he hadn’t had a chance to practice them in game action. Hard-working defensive players, who rely more on drive than skill, don’t lose their edge if they don’t play. Not the same with high-skill players. They need practice and game action.
Galchenyuk simply didn’t get it. He didn’t play very much during his last two seasons. Last season with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Minnesota Wild, he averaged only 12 minutes per game. This season with the Ottawa Senators even less time on the ice.
When he hit the Maple Leafs’ lineup, he hadn’t had many practices or games with the team. Given practice and games, Galchenyuk could be a bargain-basement surprise. Found money.
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Galchenyuk will probably never drive his own line; however, he could become a useful compliment to either of the top two Maple Leafs lines. If he does re-sign with the team, I’m expecting increased minutes, increased confidence, and increased scoring.
Item Two: Could William Nylander Move to Center Next Season?
Losing John Tavares was a huge blow to the Maple Leafs’ playoff success. As a center, Tavares remains very productive; however, as his skating speed slows, then what? Is it possible to repeat the Tampa Bay Lightning’s example and – as they did with their former franchise player Steven Stamkos – move Tavares to the wing rather than leave him at center?
The Lightning found success when they moved Stamkos to the wing from his normal center position. Why couldn’t this work with the Maple Leafs? In fact, the Maple Leafs’ replacement second-line center might already be on the roster. He might already be on the second line.
That player would be William Nylander. When he was first drafted by the Maple Leafs during the 2014 NHL Entry Draft (eighth overall), Nylander played center. At that time, it was expected he’d replace the Maple Leafs’ center at the time Tyler Bozak. Might it be time to resurrect the idea that Nylander could and should be an NHL center?
During his second season with the Marlies, Nylander was a center. However, because the positional demands of being a center are greater than playing on the wing and because Nylander found quick success feeding Auston Matthews from his wing position, that’s where he stayed.
Have times, need, and Nylander changed enough to give the young Swede a chance to play what was thought to be his original position? Can he handle the defensive responsibilities? Might it make sense to keep Tavares and Nylander together on the second line and just have them switch positions or even switch it up?
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
There will likely be few announcements from the Maple Leafs as every NHL team awaits the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. Who will the Maple Leafs’ lose in the draft? Might the organization seek to solve salary-cap issues by exposing Alex Kerfoot? My they lose a defenseman?
We will know in about five weeks?