Maple Leafs News & Rumors: HHOF, Matthews, Liljegren & Carter

Yesterday was a feel-good hockey day for me. The Hockey Hall of Fame announced the players who would be enshrined in 2020 and Jarome Iginla was a walk. Iginla is the fourth black player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame (Willie O’Ree, Grant Fuhr, and Angela James are the others).

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Tavares, Nylander, Statistics & Elynuik

It will be a great day when Iginla’s great smile lights up the Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony tentatively planned for November. It was also nice to see three-time Canadian women’s Olympic team goalie Kim St. Pierre inducted.

Jarome Iginla
Former Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla announces his retirement from the NHL, after playing 20 seasons, at a news conference in Calgary on July 30, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

The rest of the Hall of Fame induction class included Marian Hossa, one of the best two-way players in NHL history, Kevin Lowe (who fleshes out the Edmonton Oilers’ glory days in the Hall), former player and current San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson, and long-time NHL general manager Ken Holland (as a builder).

Welcome to those players and leaders who were named.

In the remainder of this post, I want to help Toronto Maple Leafs fans stay more up-to-date with the news and rumors coming from the team.

Item One: Auston Matthews Four-year Draft Celebration

Four years ago yesterday (June 24), the Maple Leafs solidified a change of course when Auston Matthews became the team’s first overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Although Matthews has become a cog in the wheel, he wasn’t the starting point. That began a couple of years earlier when Brendan Shanahan was hired as president.

Related: Darryl Sittler – Toronto Maple Leafs Legend

During Shanahan’s first draft in 2014, the organization picked William Nylander with their first-round pick and Pierre Engvall with their last. In some ways, the two choices are a metaphor for the team’s new vision. In Nylander, you have a skilful player who’s earning a reputation as a hard-worker and more driven than he seems on the surface.

Nylander Matthews Maple Leafs CP
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews and William Nylander (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

In Engvall, you have a player whose skills are overshadowed by his drive. You can’t become the fitness expert Engvall’s become without hours of hard work. The determination was there and the skills followed. One thing head coach Sheldon Keefe brought with him from the Toronto Marlies to his first NHL game was Engvall. That says something.

The 2015 NHL Entry Draft produced Mitch Marner, Travis Dermott, Jeremy Bracco, and others. We know all we need to know about Marner’s skill and drive. Dermott has the same determination and is still working on his game. Although Bracco’s final story has not yet been written, he’s the most representative of the change in the Maple Leafs’ philosophy.

After years of tripping over their skate laces, management began to use high draft picks to rebuild the team’s core; and, they choose particular players. Although Matthews is big and skilled, other draft picks have intelligence and character – regardless of their size. Nick Robertson and Nick Abruzzese jump to mind.

We’re still unsure where the 2019-20 iteration of the Maple Leafs will end up after the postseason. However, we know that four years ago, Toronto got one of the best hockey players in the NHL when they chose Matthews. His 158 goals in four seasons, a Calder Trophy and four straight seasons of playoffs are just the beginning.

Item Two: Timothy Liljegren Making a Move to Maple Leafs Roster

Speaking of Maple Leafs draft choices, they might have found a winner by choosing Swedish defenseman Timothy Liljegren in the first round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. He was ranked far higher than 17th overall, but illness and fatigue (mononucleosis) caused him to miss a chunk of the season and diminished his draft value.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Forgotten Ones: Glen Wesley

Liljegren has risen slower than many anticipated and, until last season, he’d spent most of his time with the AHL Marlies. He’s now proven he’s too good for that league. During the 2019-20 season, he pulled it together with 30 points (25 of them assists) in 40 AHL games.

Marlies’ general manager Laurence Gilman noted that he simply doesn’t believe he will see him any longer. In May, he assessed Liljegren’s progress:

“I believe Timothy Liljegren is ready to become an NHL player, whatever level that’s going to be. I will be surprised if he doesn’t play in the top seven or eight with the Toronto Maple Leafs next year — but he’s gotta hold up his end of the bargain.”

Toronto Maple Leafs Timothy Liljegren
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Timothy Liljegren (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand)

Gilman further noted, “I’m very fond of Timothy Liljegren, both as a person and as a hockey player. I really felt his game took a tremendous step this season. He obviously has good puck skills, he transports the puck very well, he skates very well, he has a good shot… but the greatest impact was how he processed the game. How he thought it. His decision-making.”

Whether Liljegren makes it or not is, as Gilman notes, up to him. There’s space for him to slide into the lineup with the vacuum of right-shot defensemen on the Maple Leafs, as both Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci are expected to move to other teams during the offseason.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

Although this is not directly hockey, this morning Vince Carter announced his retirement from basketball after 22 NBA seasons. Toronto has always been a center of NHL hockey, but Carter helped put the Toronto Raptors and the city of Toronto on the NBA map as the Toronto Blue Jays did before them with two World Series wins in 1992 and 1993. Last season’s Raptors NBA championship was a logical chapter in that story.

YouTube player
Vince Carter as Toronto’s NBA Icon

Toronto has become a global center for sports. News of Carter’s retirement helped me consider the part sports plays in the lives of Canadians. Certainly the Maple Leafs are part of that cultural ethos.

Related: Remembering Borje Salming: “King” of Maple Leafs’ Defensemen

I look forward to the resumption of hockey this season – if it can happen safely – and hope the Maple Leafs can make a run towards the Stanley Cup.