We’re nearing the end of the season and questions are beginning to flow around the hockey world. Each team has their respective fanbases looking for answers – who will they acquire at the deadline? How far can this team get come playoff time? Or if playoffs are out of the question, what’s next?
With that, it’s time to reach deep into The Hockey Writers’ mailbag and get to some of the pressing questions surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs. While some of them might be far more pressing than others, I’ll do my best to answer anything that comes my way as we move toward the back end of the 2018-19 season.
With that in mind, here’s what you – the readers – had on your mind.
“What is the latest with Long Island’s own Jeremy Bracco?” (TheNLKing via Twitter)
Jeremy Bracco is certainly making a name for himself with the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies. He’s in just his second season with the Marlies and leading the team in both assists (31) and points (43) while playing 43 games for the club.
Consider him a poor man’s Mitch Marner. He’s extremely slight in frame – still – with a high ceiling when it comes to his skill level. While there were questions on how his play would transition to the professional level, he has raked in 75 points in 93 games over two seasons with the Marlies.
He still has a long way to go when it comes to his play in the defensive zone, but it is improving. That is one thing that differs his play from that of the clearly talented Marner who’s on route to a career-year with the big club. That, and the fact that he plays more of a perimeter game in the offensive zone, seems to continue to see Bracco remain in the AHL to this point.
That said, he’s not far off and the kid could see his NHL debut sometime in the near future.
Mike Babcock even chimed in in a piece by Sportsnet’s Luke Fox saying, “He’s just gotta learn to be a good pro. That means learning how to work, learning how to train, and learning how to eat. He’s got a skill-set, without any question. Now you’ve got to become a professional athlete. It takes some kids some time.”
If it were up to me, I’d be giving this kid a taste of the big leagues as early as next season. That’s if he continues to prove himself for the rest of the year.
“How does it feel to have the Habs soooo close to you? Coming for you bud – or should I say buds?” (justinzadorsky via Twitter)
Seems fitting that there’s a question about the Canadiens in a Maple Leafs’ mailbag. That said, I’ll be the first to admit that Montreal surprised me this season – to this point – with just how successful they’ve been.
They have 28 wins in 51 games. While the Maple Leafs have two games in hand, the Canadiens sit just two points back of their bitter rivals and are 6-4-0 in their last 10. While the Maple Leafs have struggled over their last 10, the team is coming off a win prior to the all-star break over the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals and an overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings.
There are some telling factors that do separate these two clubs still, which could play out further as the season skips ahead to the final third of the schedule. Goal totals and goal differential is one factor to look at for sure. While the Maple Leafs have tallied 176 goals this season – an average of 3.52 goals per game – the Canadiens have just 154. That’s a difference of just over 0.5 goals per game.
On top of that, the Canadiens have given up just under three goals per game at 2.92 for a goal differential of plus-five, while the Maple Leafs have surrendered 2.86 goals per game, but have the innate ability to outscore their opponents on any given night.
The Habs have had some great production from Max Domi (44 points in 51 games), Tomas Tatar (38 points in 51 games) and Jonathan Drouin (37 points in 51 games) this season which has been the difference in what was expected from this team going into the season.
Forget for a second the question of how does it feel for the Habs to be so close to the Maple Leafs this late in the season, the question should be is it sustainable for this Montreal club? Can these three players – along with Carey Price, of course – maintain this level of play for another 31 games?
I’d have to say the Maple Leafs will continue to trend upwards – assuming they start to see some production from their depth players and William Nylander, while the Habs could see a slight dip in their success. That said, I’ve been proven wrong by Montreal once already this season and I wouldn’t say no to seeing a possible first-round matchup between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens if things play out the right way.
“What are the odds the Maple Leafs flip Jake Gardiner for a right-handed d-man?” (fansideseats via Twitter)
Right now, the odds are about 50-50 that the Maple Leafs will move Jake Gardiner by the deadline. The team – with the addition of Jake Muzzin – are overloaded with left-handed defensemen. On top of that, Muzzin’s contract will make it harder for the Maple Leafs to re-sign Gardiner at the end of the year with bigger priorities on their plate like Matthews and Marner.
That said, what kind of value does Gardiner carry as a pending unrestricted free agent?
Whichever team came to the table in hopes of acquiring Gardiner would have to be looking for a rental for a playoff run or be pretty sure that they would be a favourable destination for the defenceman when it came time for him to re-sign following the season. The fact is, the Maple Leafs have to find the right fit for themselves as well.
Looking for possible right-handed blueliners, it’s pretty evident that the Carolina Hurricanes might be their best option as a trade partner. The ‘Canes have both Brett Pesce and Dougie Hamilton – both of whom could help the Maple Leafs using different aspects of their game.
That said, Pesce is signed through 2023-24 with a $4.025 million cap hit, while Hamilton is locked up until the end of the 2020-21 season with a cap hit of $5.75 million. To acquire either of them, the Maple Leafs would have to sweeten the deal with a combination of a prospect and a pick possibly and be ready to manoeuvre around the cap when during the offseason when they need to sign their two big guns – Matthews and Marner.
While both Pesce and Hamilton would be integral pieces for the Maple Leafs to add for a legitimate playoff push, the reality of holding onto them with their pending free agents this summer and what it might take to even get their hands on these two might be one of the few reasons why Gardiner could stay a Maple Leaf following the NHL’s Trade Deadline.
“What should the Leafs forward line up look once everyone is healthy?” (TheLeafsIMO via Twitter)
I think the lines are pretty close to what you’re going to get now when everyone is healthy. The only piece that is missing at this point is Tyler Ennis, who remains on the team’s injury reserve. That said, when he does get healthy he’d be more of a platoon player with the way that Frédérik Gauthier has played filling in for him in the Maple Leafs’ lineup.
With that in mind, here’s a little breakdown of what I would like to see going forward.
Have Tavares play down the middle with Hyman and Marner on his wings. Early on, Hyman was able to create space for Tavares, while Marner’s ability to control the puck in the offensive end is like no other on the team. Like that line, Matthews and Kapanen had some early-season success and I would be interested to see if they can really fire that back up heading into the final stretch of the season – that’s why I would put Matthews back on a line with Marleau and Kapanen.
I really struggle on where I want Nylander in the lineup at this point. He hasn’t proven to me that he’s a top-six forward this season, but is he a guy you want to pay that kind of money to only to push him down to the fourth line? I don’t think so. That’s why I would put him on a line with Kadri and Brown. See if you can create some chemistry and get Kadri going at the same time as Nylander and suddenly you’ve solved your issue on depth scoring.
Finally, let’s call them the outcast line for now – the pieces that just don’t fit anywhere else for the time being. Lindholm. Johnsson. And Gauthier. Not a terrible fourth line and one that can certainly bring some energy when it’s needed.
Do you have any question regarding the Maple Leafs? Reach out to me on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes or email them to email@example.com.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.