Last week the NHL and NHL Players’ Association NHLPA tentatively agreed to extend the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) for another four years, which means it will run through the 2025-26 season. Not much was made of that extension at the time, but it’s a big deal and offers labor certainty for the foreseeable future. As part of that extension, a number of agreements were updated. One of those includes the NHL’s allowing its players to compete in the next two Olympic Games.
In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll look at Zach Hyman’s chances of making Team Canada for the 2022 Olympics, speculate where Mikko Lehtonen might play on the team’s defense, look at Alexander Barabanov’s unique recruitment, and wonder where Auston Matthews might be hiding.
Item One: Will Zach Hyman Make Team Canada for the 2022 Olympics?
As noted earlier in this post, a recent provision in the extended CBA allows NHL players to compete at the next two Winter Olympic Games, including the 2022 Olympics in China and the 2026 Olympics in Italy. Previously, NHL players had played in five straight Olympics before skipping the 2018 Games in South Korea. However, the NHL and its players must first resolve a number of outstanding issues – things such as health insurance, travel costs, and marketing rights – with the International Ice Hockey Federation and the International Olympic Committee.
Obviously, there are risks to players (such as injuries); however, historically Olympic hockey has produced absolutely great stories. Some include the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” in Lake Placid; Peter Forsberg’s leading Sweden to Gold in Lillehammer (1994); Dominik Hasek (and Jaromir Jagr) leading the Czech Republic to Gold in Nagano (1998); and, Sidney Crosby’s Golden Goal in Vancouver (2010).
There’s no doubt that future Olympics will bring further joys and sorrows to Team Canada. The ruling will also allow many Maple Leafs players to represent their countries for the first time at the 2022 Olympics. In a recent post, I explored who might suit up for Team Canada in 2022, and I included the usual suspects – John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and Morgan Rielly. However, I didn’t mention Zach Hyman.
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Is there a chance Hyman might be named to Team Canada for the next Olympic Games? There is – “if.” And that “if” might have to do with whether former Olympic head coach Mike Babcock is in the mix. If Babcock is named Team Canada head coach, I think Hyman is a lock for a roster position. Given how Babcock has spoken about Hyman to the media, he obviously believes he’s one of the best players in the NHL.
With all the offensively gifted mega-stars Canada can ice, Hyman might have a unique and important role. He plays gritty and tough without taking unneeded penalties – and international hockey is more diligently officiated than the NHL. As a result, on a team filled with speed and skill, Hyman adds value by feeding the stars, digging pucks from the corners, and killing penalties.
In fact, Hyman’s one of very few top-six, blue-collar NHL players. He’s a unique addition who would make the team better.
Item Two: Will Mikko Lehtonen Make the Maple Leafs’ Top-Four on Defense?
When the Maple Leafs signed former KHL defenseman Mikko Lehtonen to a one-year, entry-level contract in May, the team added both versatility and depth to a defensive group that needed it. Now, the team must decide where to play him. Will the 26-year-old, left-shot defenseman play on the right side or the left?
Wherever he plays, I don’t doubt Lehtonen will immediately become one of the Maple Leafs’ top-six defensemen – maybe even top-four. Only a few weeks after signing with the team, he was named the KHL’s Defenseman of the Year after scoring 49 points (17 goals, 32 assists) in 60 games last season with the KHL’s Jokerit Helsinki.
Interestingly, one of the mutual attractions for both Lehtonen and the Maple Leafs is the style of play the team plays. Because he’s such a good skater and puck-handler, Lehtonen seems perfect for head coach Sheldon Keefe’s up-tempo, puck-control style.
Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas noted this fact when Lehtonen first signed. “For us, I think we want to really work towards his strengths and what he does best and fit that into our program.”
Lehtonen noted himself, “I think the Leafs are a really good organization. I think my game will fit pretty well with Toronto because they want to skate well, and I think that is my strength.”
Dubas agreed “with Mikko 100 percent why it’s a fit for us and him: It’s the way that he plays and the way that we want to play. His ability to be a two-way defenseman.”
Item Three: Alexander Barabanov Recruited Using Old-School Values and Modern Technology
When Alexander Barabanov signed with the Maple Leafs in April after being wooed over 20 other NHL teams, his recruitment was impacted by COVID-19 – at least a bit. Fortunately, relationships had been built between the Maple Leafs organization and the young Russian after Dubas, former head coach Babcock, and the ever-present senior director of player evaluation Jim Paliafito had gotten to know him well.
However, in the days immediately before Barabanov signed with Toronto, he had video meetings with the Maple Leafs and Arizona Coyotes before making a final decision.
Before Barabanov signed, Dubas confidently noted that COVID-19 hadn’t really changed the organization’s recruiting philosophy – they rely on Paliafito’s hard work. As Dubas noted, “We move into virtual format or FaceTime or Zoom meeting or what have you.” But, “because of the job that Jim (Paliafito) does we’ve already got relationships there, so it’s not trying to meet somebody over the phone or meet somebody over a virtual setting.”
As a result, the relationship was there, but modern technology helped seal the deal.
What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?
Almost everyday I Google Auston Matthews’ name to see if there’s news about him. It’s almost like he’s fallen off the face of the earth because nothing has shown up about him in weeks. I have to assume no news is good news, but as a Maple Leafs fan, I’d sure like to know.
Is he fully recovered? Where is he? But, unless I’m missing it, nothing. It seems absolutely necessary if the Maple Leafs are to have a run at the Stanley Cup that Matthews is part of it.
I will continue to look.