After three wins in a row, the Toronto Maple Leafs sit with 63 points in the Eastern Conference. It’s a tight race, and they’re tied with two other teams – the Philadelphia Flyers and the Carolina Hurricanes for the last playoff spot.
The team has played amazingly well recently, posting a record of 16-4-1 under the leadership of new head coach Sheldon Keefe. That just suggests how far back they were when Mike Babcock was fired. There’s a good chance they wouldn’t have made the playoffs. In fact, as good as their record has been, the team must keep getting points to make the postseason.
On Saturday, they played a tough Ottawa Senators team that’s playing better than their record. Fortunately, in overtime, the Maple Leafs survived a penalty called on Tyson Barrie. Then, Mitch Marner drew his own penalty and quickly scored his game-winning 14th goal of the season on a one-timer assisted by William Nylander.
As Marner noted, ”I don’t think anyone really thinks I’m going to shoot that. Luckily it went in.”
As the Maple Leafs wait to play a Florida Panthers team whose star Aleksander Barkov is out with a lower-body injury, in this post I want to keep Maple Leafs fans up-to-date with news and rumors about the team.
Item One: Hutchinson Wins His Fourth Straight Start
Michael Hutchinson looked particularly sharp against the Senators, allowing only one goal on 25 shots in his team’s 2-1 overtime win. That’s two strong starts in a row for the much-maligned Hutchinson. In his previous start, he tossed a 33-save shutout against the New York Islanders.
One reason for his recent success is that Keefe is giving him favorable starts and not always the second game of back-to-backs. Given that the Maple Leafs play their next set of back-to-back games on Feb. 7-8, we’ll see if Hutchinson’s play is a fluke or if he can pull off another strong game.
Item Two: Marner Has Scored in 20 of the Team’s Last 23 Games
Marner is one of the NHL’s top point producers. His streak of scoring at least a point in 20 of the Maple Leafs’ last 23 games is quite special. Although he’s only played 41 games this season, he’s scored 51 points. Last week against the Dallas Stars, he had two assists. Against the Senators, he scored the game-winner. He’s on a roll.
Item Three: Spezza Scores Against His Old Team
During his last two games, Jason Spezza played against his two former teams. Although he was held off the score sheet against the Dallas Stars on Wednesday, he scored a power-play goal on Saturday against his first NHL team, the Senators.
Spezza currently has eight goals this season, which interestingly equals the number of goals he scored in his last two seasons with the Stars. He also has 20 points in 40 games, which again is close to his point totals in both 2017-18 and 2018-19. He’s also mentoring the young Maple Leafs – good signing, Kyle Dubas.
Item Four: Will Muzzin Re-sign with the Maple Leafs?
As I’ve noted in an earlier post, Jake Muzzin’s fortunes have turned around since he came last season from the Los Angeles Kings. At first, then-coach Mike Babcock seemed to lack enthusiasm about Muzzin, but he’s proved to be a positive presence both on the ice and in the dressing room. Word is that the Maple Leafs hope to sign him. But, can they?
Related: NHL Power Rankings for February 2020
I can see why general manager Dubas would hope to sign Muzzin. First, he’s good. Second, he’s dependable. Third, he’s a mature presence. Fourth, the team knows him. Fifth, he’s said he wants to play in Toronto. In that light, if Dubas can find a way to sign him to a contract with some term – say four years – it would help settle the team’s defense for the foreseeable future. However, as always with the Maple Leafs, it’s a question of “how much will it cost?”
Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported during HNIC’s Saturday’s Headlines segment that contract negotiations with the Maple Leafs are trickier than expected. Perhaps that’s simply spin to keep people tuned in. Perhaps the Maple Leafs’ salary-cap bind limits the funds they can offer. Perhaps Muzzin’s play has moved him past Toronto’s ability to pay.
Whatever the situation, it’ll be interesting to see how both sides play it. That said, given that Muzzin’s expressed his desire to stay with the team and the team has expressed its interest in signing him, there’s little controversy. Personally, I can’t imagine a Marner-esque holdout. Still, it will be an interesting offseason again for the team.
Item Five: News on Kapanen’s Mystery Benching
When Kasperi Kapanen wasn’t in the Maple Leafs lineup for Saturday’s game, given widespread trade speculation, the hockey buzz abounded. Why else would he be out of the lineup? We’d have heard about an injury, right? But, if he were traded, when would we hear? Why is he in the press box fiddling with his phone?
After the game, the Maple Leafs confirmed his scratching had nothing to do with being hurt. Then, new questions came up. What did he do to make the team take him out of a playoff race?
We still have no answers, and might not even after Kapanen talks to the media on Monday. We certainly learned nothing from TSN’s Craig Button’s vague comments about “internal accountability,” a phrase he picked up from Keefe’s interview after the game.
From Keefe, we learned that Kapanen wasn’t hurt. We learned it’s a “one-time” thing. We also heard that Keefe wanted to sleep on the decision and that he had spoken with Kapanen that morning. All I can guess is that Kapanen’s in the organization’s doghouse and is being punished.
However, I also wonder is if this means Kapanen isn’t as close to being traded as we’ve heard. If he were, the last thing the Maple Leafs would want is to cast aspersions on his character when you hope to get a big return from a trade. Perhaps Keefe is a better man than I, but if I were working on a trade for Kapanen, I might have sucked it up, played him, and remained quiet. It personally makes me wonder if Kapanen’s receiving some tough love because the organization is keeping him past Feb. 24.
What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?
The Maple Leafs are in a playoff spot right now, but they need to keep winning. Sitting Kapanen when every game counts was a big decision. Something’s up, and I suppose the Maple Leafs fans can only hope it’s small potatoes.
I keep thinking of Auston Matthews’ offseason incident in Arizona. It can’t always be easy dealing with wealthy young men.
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