Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Lehtonen, Korshkov, Simmonds & More

In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll ask whether the makeup of the Maple Leafs team that will play during the 2020-21 season is exactly the kind of team that general manager Kyle Dubas has been trying to build for several years. Second, I’ll look at another young player the Maple Leafs have loaned to a European club.

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Third, I’ll look at how two other players are recent signees with the Maple Leafs are doing with KHL clubs this season. Finally, I’ll speculate about the possibility that Wayne Simmonds could become a fan favorite with the Maple Leafs faithful.

Item One: Is This Finally the Team Dubas Wanted?

Given what’s happened during this offseason, Maple Leafs fans have to look at the team general manager Dubas has constructed in Toronto and now wonder if this – for the first time – is the kind of team he had envisioned could be built.

As I have watched Dubas over the seasons I’ve covered the Maple Leafs, I’ve become a fan. I know that other long-time Maple Leafs fans don’t share that assessment. Indeed, many seem to be waiting and hoping Dubas will be fired. In fact, I heard from one reader that he believed someone had taken over running the team from Dubas and the young number-cruncher would soon be gone. The organization was just trying to save face for him by keeping him around.

Tracing that thought backward, I’m guessing the reader believes Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan has taken over the operations of the club and is behind the trading for Joe Thornton, Zach Bogosian, Wayne Simmonds, and others who bring grit to the team. Perhaps that’s accurate, and I admit I can’t know for certain.

Zach Bogosian Tampa Bay Lightning
Zach Bogosian, formerly of the Tampa Bay Lightning (Photo by Scott Audette /NHLI via Getty Images)

However, I’ve bought into Dubas’ philosophy about how a team should play. I’ve also come to appreciate how he’s able (probably with help of a team of other geeks – a term of endearment for me) to wiggle out of what seem to be almost impossible salary-cap traps and continue to prosper. I get it that the team hasn’t won a round of postseason play in a long time, but the team is now competitive and winning season after season.

My guess is that Dubas assessed long ago the NHL situation and came to believe that, given the salary cap, (a) elite offensive players were expensive and would take the bulk of the salaries and (b) grit was important but could be signed for much less money.

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I think he was surprised last season’s defense was such a mess, but I also recall that this season’s signee T.J. Brodie was his choice last season instead of Tyson Barrie, until Nazem Kadri nixed the trade with the Calgary Flames. And, who knew about Cody Ceci.

I also think his ability to sign Jason Spezza for the NHL league minimum expanded his thinking about how to flesh out the roster at the bargain end of the salary cap. I think this offseason’s moves are a direct result of Spezza’s success last season.

What I don’t know – and probably will never figure out – is how much having Mike Babcock as the coach mediated how Dubas built the team after the 2018-19 season. Fans can ascertain from his actions that Babcock thought signing Spezza was a mistake. Would he have felt the same about Wayne Simmonds, who’s a different kettle of fish altogether? Hard to say.

But given Dubas’ history as a general manager, before he came to the Maple Leafs, I don’t believe he wants a team made up only of players like Nic Petan and Denis Malgin, although he likes them. In this team coming up, there’s more than speed and undersized skill.

Toronto Maple Leafs Nic Petan Buffalo Sabres Zach Bogosian
Toronto Maple Leafs Nic Petan and then Buffalo Sabres Zach Bogosian (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

From what I’ve read, his history as a general manager with both the Toronto Marlies and the Soo Greyhounds is that he built teams that played tough, gritty, hard-to-play-against hockey. That’s the kind of team he has heading into the 2020-21 season.

One thing I’m finding recently is that readers are quite enthused about the team Dubas has built. I admit, too, that this is the most excited I’ve been about a team in the three years I’ve been writing about the Maple Leafs. The team seems to have some drive, some skill, some grit, some young players who I’ll enjoy watching, and a wonderful combination of potential line match ups – both with forwards and on defense. It will make it fun to speculate the kind of lineup head coach Sheldon Keefe will ice on any particular night.

It’s going to be a fun season to be a Maple Leafs fan, I believe. And, even if this team doesn’t win it all, I give Dubas credit for the level of excitement he’s built around this particular team. I hope it can work. I’m sure I’ll hear from others who don’t share my belief. In some ways, that’s what makes writing about the Maple Leafs fun.

Item Two: The Maple Leafs Loan Mac Hollowell to Finland

For lack of other opportunities, 22-year-old defenseman Mac Hollowell will begin his 2020-21 season in Finland’s second-best hockey league with TUTO Hockey of Finland’s Mestis. Last season, Hollowell played with both the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers. He tallied 12 points in 34 games with the Marlies and 13 points in 19 games with the Growlers. 

There’s a chance Hollowell might spend the entire season in Finland rather than return to the Marlies. As a personal note, why not let him stay in Finland? In my own career, I had the great opportunity to work all over the world. In my mind, there’s no better way to travel than to be part of a group over a period of time in another country – especially if you’re 22 years of age.

Item Three: How are Maple Leafs Players With the KHL Doing?

The Maple Leafs currently have two players on loan to teams in the KHL. One is defenseman Mikko Lehtonen, who’s starring with Jokerit, and the other is Egor Korshkov, who’s playing with Lokomotiv. In fact, both recent Maple Leafs signees are playing some of their best career hockey.

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Lehtonen is ranked first in the KHL in points for a defenseman and has scored eight goals and eight assists in 14 games. The 24-year-old Korshkov, who’s a 6-foot-4 and 214-pound left-winger, has been scoring as well. He has six goals and seven assists in 19 games and looks like a potential addition to the Maple Leafs as a power forward one day.

Mikko Lehtonen
Mikko Lehtonen (Oleg Bkhambri (Voltmetro) / CC BY-SA –

Both could be impact players with the team. Lehtonen is likely counted on for this season, but Korshkov is probably in the Maple Leafs plans down the road. I can’t imagine that he’ll break into the team’s roster this season.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

As I noted earlier in this post, one difference I see between the 2020-21 team and teams of the past is the sense of positive buzz around this team I haven’t seen before. Maybe it’s as simple as, during the offseason, the team wasn’t caught in two difficult and negative negotiations – two years ago with the young William Nylander and last year with Mitch Marner. That might have put a damper on generating enthusiasm. It’s different this offseason.

Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander
Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

One player I believe will generate excitement with Maple Leafs fans is Simmonds. He seems to have the things fans have been waiting for – maybe for many seasons. He’s a grinder, he has grit, and he plays with tenacity. Imagine what it would be like if he got back some of his scoring touch.

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I think fans have been waiting for a truly intimidating guy – something Kadri was in his heart but not in his body. Simmonds might be that player. I could even see him developing a bit of a cult following in Toronto. If that somehow happened, it would be truly exciting. One could only hope.