Maple Leafs Hope Ho-Sang Can Overcome His History

An article published this week cited Toronto Maple Leafs’ captain John Tavares speaking about newcomer PTO Josh Ho-Sang. Tavares suggested that, when speaking about Ho-Sang’s tendency to hold onto the puck a bit too long, it was an aspect of Ho-Sang’s play that has come a long way. Specifically, he noted that Ho-Sang wasn’t “trying to do as much as he used to.” 

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Ho-Sang, Imoo, Rielly & Galchenyuk

Why is that comment important? Because, before signing in Toronto, Tavares and Ho-Sang were teammates with the New York Islanders. In fact, in an NBC Sports Exclusive video, both former Islanders’ coach Doug Weight and then Islanders’ captain Tavares talked about Ho-Sang as a young player. Indeed, Ho-Sang created some magic as an Islander.

Josh Ho-Sang Had Lots of Supporters

Early in his career Ho-Sang had many supporters. Those included his current training-camp and former teammate Tavares. Ho-Sang was an ambivalence of possibilities. No doubt he was skilled, but he was also confident – in fact, probably too confident. In the NBC video, Ho-Sang was attributed by a speaker as promising the team that drafted him that he’d be the best player in this entire draft within the first three years of career. Obviously, that promise was never fulfilled, which is why I’m writing about him now.

The question is why that didn’t happen. It sure wasn’t his skill. Former NHL star and then Islanders’ coach Weight suggested Ho-Sang had all the skills of an elite NHL offensive player. He was an explosive skater; he had great hands; his skills and on-ice vision were “a five out of five.” 

Related: 3 Takeaways From Maple Leafs’ Preseason Opener

Ho-Sang also had a number of positive attitudinal attributes – the kind that great offensive stars need. He wanted the puck. When he got it, he owned it. Tavares, his former Islanders’ captain, echoed Weight’s positive comments. He agreed that Ho-Sang was a great player, had great skills, and could become an exceptional hockey player. 

So far, both were wrong.

No Surprise that Tavares Centered Ho-Sang in Preseason Game One

Say what you want about head coach Sheldon Keefe’s coaching ability, he doesn’t miss opportunities to do the “little things” right during a game. For example, given Tavares’ playoff injury, it was perfect that the Maple Leafs’ captain was the first person to touch the puck for the entire 2021-22 season. Also, given their history, it’s no surprise Tavares was driving a line with Ho-Sang on his wing for that first preseason shift. 

Sheldon Keefe; John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe talks to captain John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Tavares and Ho-Sang experienced success together with the Islanders. Furthermore, you have to believe that, given the close relationships we’ve seen between general manager Kyle Dubas and his players, Dubas asked Tavares for his thoughts about Ho-Sang’s signing. You also have to believe the organization wouldn’t have signed Ho-Sang had Tavares not offered at least his thumbs-up for that signing.

It Isn’t Ho-Sang’s Skill That’s in Question

There’s no doubt that, as a PTO, Ho-Sang is an engaging possibility. The evidence is that he’s a highly-skilled and talented hockey player. However, he’s always had the tag of being difficult and headstrong. When the Islanders drafted him during the first round of the NHL Entry Draft, they took some heat for taking him. That he wasn’t drafted until 28th overall suggests that more than a few teams felt they didn’t want to take on the attendant baggage.

Josh Ho-Sang - Islanders
Josh Ho-Sang, formerly with the New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Recently, I’ve been doing some research on Ho-Sang. In a Don Cherry video, Cherry claimed Ho-Sang possessed more skill and was a better skater than Connor McDavid. Cherry believed, if Ho-Sang could get his act together, he’d be a great young player.

Stories about Ho-Sang are never about his lack of skill. They’re about how he simply didn’t come to the Islanders camp on time, about Islanders’ general manager Lou Lamoriello moving him down because of his bad attitude, about yelling at refs, or about shooting at a goalie’s head when his team was up by a 10-0 score.  

There are stories and even videos of Ho-Sang on the ice for the Islanders ignoring defensive responsibilities or, when Weight was head coach, refusing to come off the ice on line changes. That’s simply believing you’re the boss.

Has Ho-Sang Changed Since 2014?

In an ESPN article written in 2014, Ho-Sang was quoted as saying that his philosophy about coach-player relationships was: “I think it should be a level playing field. Where it’s like, I can talk to you. I can tell you I think you’re an idiot and that I think we should be running a different power play, we should be running a different penalty kill. And you can tell me as a player, ‘You’re an idiot. You can shut up. I’m the coach.’ I want a relationship like that.”

Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, Head Coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images)

In that same article, then Windsor Spitfires part-owner Warren Rychel and former NHL player said that Ho-Sang was “the most skilled player in North America. He’s the most skilled player to ever come through Windsor.” That includes Taylor Hall.

But Rychel added the caveat: “Skilled player, but not the most complete player.”

Where the Maple Leafs Stand Now?

What will happen with Ho-Sang and the Maple Leafs? To my eyes, he had a strong first game and demonstrated all the skills and speed that have been attributed to him. If it’s his attitude, can he change it? Will he follow his coach’s directions? 

So far, we’ve heard nothing but positive things about him. But will that last, or will Ho-Sang repeat his history? I’m also interested in Tavares’ part in this story? 

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Olympics, Foligno, Ho-Sang & More

There’s no doubt that Ho-Sang, talented or not, is up against the wall with the Maple Leafs. As a PTO, he’ll have to earn a spot, which might mean someone on the roster could be moved. How will the Maple Leafs know by early October when the team needs to be decided?

From the outside looking in, it all seems to be up in the air.

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