Because the regular season has been suspended, I’m trying to do three things in the News & Rumors posts I’m writing these days about the Toronto Maple Leafs. First, I’m including a glimpse back at the season to look at a player who had an impact on the team. Second, I’m offering a glimpse at what current Maple Leafs players are doing with their time off. Finally, I’m collecting the news emerging from the organization.
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In today’s post, I’ll take a look back at Zach Hyman’s season, I’ll check to see what Mitch Marner’s up to, and then I’ll try to help Maple Leafs fans look at some of the rumors and news emerging this week. Specifically, I’ll note a young Russian who actually didn’t accept general manager Kyle Dubas’ invitation to join the team. And, such rejection from Russia doesn’t seem to be happening much these days.
Item One: Zach Hyman’s Better Than We Thought
If one player on the Maple Leafs roster is deserving of an award named the “He’s Better Than We Thought Award” it would be defensive forward Zach Hyman. This time, although it’s rare, I have to tip my hat to former head coach Mike Babcock who, on Oct. 7 after his Maple Leafs lost 3-2 to the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, addressed the media. His first comment was simple: “Hyman’s good, eh”?
That comment was made prior to Hyman returning from his knee surgery. When he did return, nothing in his play offered Maple Leafs fans any hesitation in echoing Babcock’s assessment. Under new head coach Sheldon Keefe’s deployment, Hyman played a majority of the season partnered on a line with high-scoring Auston Matthews. That line was often a target of opposing coaches, who threw out their own team’s top offensive units against them as a matchup.
In such matches of Toronto firepower against opposition firepower, the Maple Leafs more than held their own. And, although Matthews has also grown as a defensive player, that’s mostly on Hyman. He’s a gifted grinder, who’s style, tenacity, and skill helped him achieve a solid plus-13 rating. The only players above him on the team are Matthews himself at plus-19 and young defenseman Travis Dermott at plus-14.
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By the way, Hyman also has scored 21 goals and 16 assists in 51 games, tying his NHL career-high in goals last season and coming within four points of a new career-high in points also set last season with 41. He reached those totals in 20 fewer games. He’s good.
Item Two: Mitch Marner’s Suspension Plans? Improving His Hand-Eye Coordination
During time off from hockey caused by the NHL’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mitch Marner’s been focusing on his hand-eye coordination. That means he’s been in his backyard golfing during his self-quarantine.
Marner noted on Tuesday this week, “I have a golf net in the backyard, so I hit golf balls into that. Hitting a golf ball with one of my irons and playing around with the dog like that. Hoping my hands will come back when I grab a hockey stick again … hopefully will grab one around the house and start to stickhandle.”
The 22-year-old forward also admitted he’s grown accustomed to sleeping more during his time off. He certainly didn’t sleep on the ice this season, scoring 16 goals and 67 points in 59 games. His play has been so outstanding that, in a recent post, I named him as the fourth-best winger in the Maple Leafs long and storied history – and that’s after only four seasons with the team.
Item Three: Might the Maple Leafs Be Interested in Alex Galchenyuk?
As part of my own research, I read lots of writing from other Maple Leafs commentators. This past week, I read an interesting thought piece from Editor in Leaf’s James Tanner who noted Alex Galchenyuk as a possible pick up by Dubas and the Maple Leafs.
Related: Marner Sets up First 2 Goals, Maple Leafs Beat Stars 5-3
The post rightly noted that Galchenyuk was seen as a rising star, but never quite reached the hype that was initially attached to him. He had a single really good season with the Montreal Canadiens in 2015-16 when he scored 30 goals and 26 assists. Then, he had some OK seasons until last season, which was a stinker when he scored only eight goals and 16 assists in 59 games split between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Minnesota Wild.
Coming into the 2020-21 season, that production puts him almost nowhere. After being traded from the Canadiens to the Arizona Coyotes to the Penguins and then to the Wild, he’ll be an unrestricted 26-year-old free-agent in July.
If Dubas thinks the still-young Galchenyuk has top-six talent, he might be an interesting pick up by the Maple Leafs. He’s also a center who could play on a strong third line if the price were right. Certainly, if a youngster’s trying to kick start a flagging career, you couldn’t get more exposure than playing in the Toronto market.
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It would be another low-risk, high-potential move for the team’s wily general manager.
Item Four: What, a Young Russian Got Away?
KHL insider Igor Eronko reported that young Russian player Konstantin Okulov spurned offers from both the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens and will sign a one-year contract with CSKA Moscow in the KHL. It isn’t often Dubas loses a young Russian player, but this time he did.
However, as Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston noted, that loss might be temporary. Specifically, because there’s so much uncertainty around COVID-19, some European free agents who would sign with NHL teams this offseason really don’t know the status of the NHL. So, rather than sitting through a long layoff away from home if the NHL season doesn’t start until November, some – Okulov included – might stay where it’s more comfortable personally and wait another season.
In other words, Johnston suggests Okulov might re-examine his NHL decision next season.
What’s New with the Maple Leafs?
It’s so hard to know what’s going on in Dubas’ mind. In addition, fans await a final word on the state of the NHL’s regular season. A number of decisions will likely be made soon, and THW will try to stay on top of them.