In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’m going to take a bit of a different approach than I usually do after a game. Instead of focusing on the game stars – and last night goalie Jack Campbell saved the Maple Leafs’ bacon, I’m going to look at some of the contributions of other players who might not have gotten into the limelight during the game.
Specifically, I’ll take a look at Justin Holl, Wayne Simmonds, and Ilya Mikheyev’s contribution to the team. I’ll also look back at the last time the Maple Leafs played in Phoenix to remember head coach Sheldon Keefe’s first game with the Maple Leafs as well as both Pierre Engvall’s and Auston Matthews’ contribution to the game that night.
Item One: Is Justin Holl’s Game Coming Around?
To say that Justin Holl has had a tough season is an understatement. After being protected in the expansion draft, he and his defensive partner Jake Muzzin have had a tough season between them. Many believed Muzzin might have lost a step; some wondered if his injury during last season’s postseason might still be affecting his play.
Of course, over the past few seasons, it’s well-established that Muzzin is the player who carries this defensive pairing; so, how he goes, Holl goes as well. Holl’s been a healthy scratch and has become the subject of trade rumors. It seems that many Maple Leafs’ fans have given up on him and would like him moved out of town.
During last night’s 4-3 shootout victory over the Golden Knights, Holl registered an assist on Ilya Mikheyev’s second-period goal. It was only the 29-year-old Holl’s third point of the season; however, he’s got those points during his last nine games. Obviously, that’s not much to write home about; however, it is an improvement in his play.
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Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe thought Holl was contributing because he threw him on the ice more than any other Maple Leafs’ player. Holl logged 25:28 minutes of ice time, while Morgan Rielly logged “only” 24:36. On the season, Holl has 55 hits (which is third to Nick Ritchie’s 77 hits and Muzzin’s 70 hits). Holl leads the team with 48 blocked shots (T.J. Brodie is second with 45 blocks, and Muzzin is third with 44 blocks). In addition, Holl has a plus-3 rating on the season.
Item Two: Wayne Simmonds Is Consistently Playing Well this Season
Who really knew, when Wayne Simmonds signed with the Maple Leafs last season, what they’d get from the 33-year-old power forward. Over his 14-year NHL career, he’s experienced success scoring as well as gained the reputation of a tough customer who’s difficult to play against.
Last season, Simmonds started strong, but sustained a wrist injury that put him out for almost two months and set his season back. This season, he’s become a flexible option for coach Keefe, and he’s made a number of outstanding plays. During the Colorado Avalanche game for example, he parked in front of the net and gifted Nick Ritchie with a cross-crease pass for an easy tap-in.
Simmonds might have lost a step; but, from what I can see, he still has good hands and a high hockey IQ. He’s revitalized his game this season and is adding secondary scoring. Last night he registered an assist on Ilya Mikheyev’s fourth goal of the season during the second period. Although he’s playing fewer than nine minutes a game, he’s contributing in the time he’s on the ice.
Item Three: Ilya Mikheyev Is a Third-Line, Point-a-Game Player
Mikheyev now has five points in five games, and any questions about his bad hands seem to have been shelved after his great return from his thumb injury. Mikheyev scored yet again in last night’s win over Vegas. His goal stretched the team’s lead to 3-1 and came at a perfect time. The Golden Knights had put on a push that threatened to overwhelm the Maple Leafs, but two quick Maple Leafs’ goals – almost out of nowhere – helped put the team in the lead.
Mikheyev played a game prior to the Christmas break where he didn’t score; but, in the four games since that break, he scored five points (four goals and an assist). He’s playing on the third line for now but has been part of the team’s second power-play unit. He’s playing so well that suddenly Maple Leafs’ fans are suggesting the team won’t be able to afford him when he becomes a UFA after this season ends.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
Tonight the Maple Leafs play a back-to-back against the Arizona Coyotes. It will be a homecoming for Scottsdale native Auston Matthews, who enjoyed watching the Coyotes play when he was growing up. Lucky for the Maple Leafs he picked hockey as his sport of choice.
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The game will also be a return to his former team for Michael Bunting. As well, it will be the first game back to Arizona for coach Keefe, who on November 21, 2019, coached his first NHL game there. His team won by a score of 3-1 when Matthews scored in the third period.
However, the hero of that game was Pierre Engvall who scored the game-winning, unassisted, short-handed goal. Since Keefe’s debut as the Maple Leafs’ coach, his team has a record of 85-37-15. And, to my eye, Keefe is getting better as a coach each season.
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The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act).
If you wonder why he doesn’t use his real name, it’s because his son – who’s also Jim Parsons – wrote for The Hockey Writers first and asked Jim Sr. to use another name so readers wouldn’t confuse their work.
Because Jim Sr. had worked in China, he adopted the Mandarin word for teacher (老師). The first character lǎo (老) means “old,” and the second character shī (師) means “teacher.” The literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” That became his pen name. Today, other than writing for The Hockey Writers, he teaches graduate students research design at several Canadian universities.
He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf