Toronto Maple Leafs fans have to be squirming in their chairs. We’re about a week and a half away from hockey that counts. NHL teams everywhere are engaged in Phase 3 activities and preparing to bubble (which will likely become a new verb in this crazy COVID-19 context).
In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll share news about who’s in and who’s out of training camp. I’ll also speculate about the changing line combinations – and what it means for Nick Robertson and Codi Ceci’s place on the team.
Item One: Zach Hyman Returns to Practice
On Saturday, Hyman was deemed “unfit” to practice; however, there wasn’t much concern because he was reported to have been seen skating prior to practice. Hyman, whose injury was undisclosed, was back at full practice Tuesday.
Interestingly, as Kristen Shilton of TSN.ca tweeted, coach Sheldon Keefe seemed a bit confused and mildly frustrated by the NHL’s policy on disclosure and what he could reveal about “unfit” – not that he was complaining just that he wasn’t sure what he could or couldn’t say.
The best we can figure out by piecing the news together is that Hyman missed two practices on the weekend because he was stung from blocking a shot on Friday. However, it looks as if he’s already “fully recovered” (or as fully recovered as a professional hockey player can be given the constant dings their body absorbs).
The 28-year-old is expected, as always, to take his place on the Maple Leafs’ top line and second power-play unit once postseason play starts. Given his strong 2019-20 season, 21 goals and 37 points in 51 regular-season games, he’ll be key to his team’s success.
Item Two: Nick Robertson Water-Bugging Around Different Lines
Robertson has been the story of the training camp, and it seems as if Keefe isn’t quite sure what to do with him. He began in the top six, moved to the reserve group, took a place on the top line with Hyman missing, and now seems to have replaced Pierre Engvall on the third line.
That’s an interesting development. I’m a fan of Engvall’s and appreciate his effectiveness as a checking forward and penalty-killer. His fitness level and never-quit attitude would put him on any team I’d coach. Still, he only scored three points between the first week of January and when the regular season was suspended in March.
I have to believe Keefe values Engvall’s contribution. Keefe brought him along when he moved up from the Toronto Marlies to become the Maple Leafs’ head coach. Engvall proved his worth by making great strides in his development and Keefe seems to know something about his player’s’ abilities. I can’t see Engvall sitting, but perhaps he may not play as much as usual or will be used in spot situations where his defensive presence is needed.
Still, no one can keep a lid on this Robertson kid. Should he remain with Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen, that combination could become a wonderfully talented offensive third line. The young Peterborough Petes alumnus has been hungry to earn a spot on the roster since the first day of training camp, and his work ethic and skillset offers Keefe options both for this postseason and for the team’s future.
Given what we’ve seen in recent days, can anyone imagine Robertson not making the roster next season?
Item Three: Cody Ceci Hanging Onto Top-Pairing Spot
Yesterday, in a Jonas Siegel tweet, the Maple Leafs’ line combinations were revealed which reflect the Robertson move noted earlier but also suggest that – despite being consistently disparaged by hockey writers and fans – Cody Ceci remains beside Morgan Rielly on the team’s top defensive pairing.
If Ceci is as bad as people say, what’s Keefe thinking? What does he see that others don’t? I’m not big on analytics, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. As such, I trust coaches to know what they’re doing and hope they’re right. Next season is next season but, for now, there’s Ceci.
Speaking of next season, I believe Rasmus Sandin will be a big part of that mix. His confidence and skills grew during his second callup to the Maple Leafs in January. I’d like to see him in the lineup somewhere; however, I can wait on that as well. Until Sandin’s situation becomes clearer, I’m keeping my eyes on the Rielly and Ceci pairing. How they do will matter as the postseason plays out.
Item Four: Denis Malgin Deemed “Unfit” to Practice on Monday
Denis Malgin (undisclosed injury) wasn’t on the ice for Monday’s training camp session. He doesn’t seem to be in the mix as far as the postseason roster goes and will likely – even if he’s healthy – be in the press box during the play-in round. Malgin was acquired from the Florida Panthers during the season and should hold value as a penalty-killer and a depth scorer.
However, he didn’t score in the eight games he played with the team. He’s a restricted free agent after this season, and one has to wonder if the Maple Leafs will qualify him after his contract expires. It would cost them $750,000 to do so. Given general manager Kyle Dubas’ history, I’m thinking he’ll consider Malgin as cheap insurance.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
Tyson Barrie seems in limbo according to the defensive pairings. With real hockey on the horizon, it’ll be interesting to see how and where he’s employed during games. It would be nice to see him play well, both for the team’s sake and for his own.
Barrie came to the team with high expectations after consecutive 50-plus-point seasons, and 2019-20 probably wasn’t what he expected. He’s working on a new contract for next season – somewhere.
I thought he performed really well when Jake Muzzin, Rielly, and Ceci were out of the lineup at the same time. In my eyes, a strong postseason for him would be good karma. I wish him luck.