Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Kokkonen, Marner, Matthews, Bunts & Knies

The Toronto Maple Leafs meet the Buffalo Sabres on home ice tomorrow night. Two days later, they play Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals before they head out on the road for a Saturday Hockey Night in Canada meeting with the Ottawa Senators. 

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As the team prepares to soothe their damaged egos against the Sabres, who have beaten them in two straight games, in this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll try to help Maple Leafs’ fans keep up-to-date with some of the news from the team. 

Related: Maple Leafs’ Bunting Should Be a Calder Trophy Candidate

I’ll also comment on some of the questions that are rising as the end of the season approaches. There are only 10 games remaining.

Item One: Maple Leafs Sign Defenseman Mikko Kokkonen to Entry-Level Contract

The Maple Leafs announced last week that they had signed 21-year-old defenseman Mikko Kokkonen to a three-year entry-level contract. That contract would take effect starting in the 2022-23 season. Kokkonen played in 58 games in the Finland’s Liiga for the Lahti Pelicans. Last season, he scored 15 points (on one goal and 14 assists).

In 216 games during his six-year Liiga career, Kokkonen has scored 54 points (eight goals and 46 assists). He helped Team Finland win a bronze medal at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championships. It was Finland’s fourth medal at the World Juniors over the past eight years (three gold and one bronze). 

As BossSause noted in the conversation section of a previous post, Kokkenen is a solid 5-foot- 11 and 200 pounds. He’s been playing against men recently and has done a good job representing Finland internationally. He’s should be a player of some interest for Maple Leafs’ fans.

In the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, the Maple Leafs selected Kokkonen during the third round (84th overall). Some fans know him already because, during the 2020-21 season, he played 11 AHL games with the Toronto Marlies (scoring one goal and adding six assists). Kokkonen’s contract calls for him to earn $846,666 each year over his two seasons.

Item Two: Michael Bunting Is Still Putting Up Points, But Not Goals

Over his last 16 games, Michael Bunting has registered 12 assists; however, he hasn’t scored a single goal. In fact, it’s now been more than a month (since March 7) to find a game in which Bunting put one across the goal line. In that game, his goal was the game-winner against the Columbus Blue Jackets in a 5-4 win. (from “Bunting’s lack of goals in recent stretch weighing on the Maple Leafs winger,” Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun, 10/04/2022).

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Bunting still plays his greasy game and continues to draw penalties. For example, against the Montreal Canadiens during the team’s 3-2 win, he goaded defenseman Chris Wideman into a 14-minute penalty on one play. However, his lack of goals is weighing on the first-line winger.

In a recent interview, Bunting admitted that “Anyone that says they’re not thinking about it (when they’re not scoring) is lying.” Bunting added that “I want to contribute offensively in that way, too. I want to score goals.” 

Michael Bunting Toronto Maple Leafs
Michael Bunting, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It’s tough to feel sorry for the rookie forward, however. It has to be a dream come true to spend your ice time on probably the most dynamic first line in the NHL. Partnering with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner is a pretty nice journey for a rookie. Bunting has scored 20 goals and added 27 assists (for 57 points) in 72 games.

Item Three: Can Mathews and Marner Together Lead This Team?

I’ve probably said this before, given my sense of optimism for the Maple Leafs, but this season seems different. It’s really quite special to watch Marner and Matthews play together – and Bunting, too, for that matter. Both Marner and Matthews seem to be both different and better players than they were in the past.

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One person’s insight that I totally trust on that matter is veteran defenseman Mark Giordano. Since Giordano has been with the team, he’s been quite vocal about how much Matthews (in particular) has impressed him with his play. Giordano has noted that Matthews does things, particularly on the defensive side of the ice, that he’s found hard to believe. Matthews’ 200-foot game has impressed him. 

Marner’s always been strong defensively. But, he’s also started to score more than before. He’s now up to 89 points in only 62 games. That’s tied for sixth in the NHL. 

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner and Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Both Marner and Matthews are skilled and seem to have matured into team leaders. Now the question arises, as the Maple Leafs prepare for the postseason, can the duo lead their team on a long Stanley Cup journey? The skill and desire are present, but is the ability?

Recently coach Keefe noted that, in the market this team plays in, he’s aware that only the postseason matters. The jury is no longer out on the skill of these two players. But it remains out on their success. Both were negated in last season’s playoffs. This season, they’re more mature, determined, and experienced. Will they be more successful?

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs? 

It’s always interesting to see who the Maple Leafs sign as prospects and bring in as players. General manager Kyle Dubas seems to have a sense of how to build a team given salary-cap issues the organization faces. The newcomers he’s brought into the team this season are a vast improvement over past seasons. How can fans not be impressed with Ilya Lyubushkin, Colin Blackwell, and Giordano?

Related: 3 Reasons the Maple Leafs Will Make a Long Postseason Run

I’m wondering if the team will soon announce the signing of another Phoenix, Arizona, native Matthew Knies. He was drafted in the second round (57th) overall of last season’s NHL Entry Draft and his season at the University of Minnesota is over. 

Knies has size at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. He’s also a scorer, putting up 33 points in 33 NCAA games (on 15 goals and 18 assists). The Maple Leafs have been a strong team this season, but there’s always restocking happening.