I don’t know how other Toronto Maple Leafs fans feel, but I think there’s news floating around that’s almost ready to land. Although I’m not a hockey insider and lack a pipeline to information other than what I read (sometimes between the lines), it seems that after the long wait for news about the completion or cancelation of the 2019-20 regular season, a decision might reveal itself over the next week.
In the absence of definitive news about the fate of the 2019-20 season, I want to help Maple Leafs fans stay up-to-date about news and rumours that are emerging. In this post, I’ll share news about the official cancellation of the AHL season, a short review of the second anniversary of Kyle Dubas’ promotion to general manager, offer thoughts about how the Maple Leafs defense might stack up after signing Mikko Lehtonten and discuss a possible Black Aces Taxi Squad from the Marlies.
Item One: Toronto Marlies and AHL Cancel Their Season
This is news from the American Hockey League (AHL), a league that started prior to the Second World War and played through the entire conflict. However, yesterday, the AHL ended its continuous run by announcing the cancellation of the remainder of the 2019-20 season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other than the fact that it hasn’t happened before, the news isn’t surprising. The 31-team farm league is a fan-driven, ticket-sales business and there’s no chance they could play games in empty buildings like the NHL seems to be planning if the season re-starts. There’s not enough television revenue to make that plan feasible.
As the AHL’s Board of Governors voted to cancel the remainder of the 2019-20 regular season and the 2020 Calder Cup Playoffs as a result of the public health crisis, Toronto Marlies management and their coaching staff will start preparing for the 2020-21 season.
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However, it’s anyone’s guess when the AHL might start next season. Will it be tied to the NHL’s resumption of the 2020-21 season? Or, if the NHL plays through the summer and begins in November (for example), could the AHL begin sooner to fill the gap?
Item Two: Kyle Dubas Celebrates His First Two Years as Maple Leafs GM
I admit I played with this title because it’s a bit like throwing a birthday party and no one comes. A playoff victory to celebrate one’s two-year anniversary would be something, but this, well, not so much.
Still, on May 11, Dubas reached that mark. It’s been two years since he was promoted to the job of Maple Leafs general manager. Things are moving in the right direction in terms of Dubas’ vision of where the team should go, but the final test remains to come. How will they do in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? That question might not be answered this season.
At the 2018 Maple Leafs’ news conference at the Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena) to announce his promotion, Dubas noted, “We enter into another part of our journey, which is to reach our ultimate goal of contending perennially to be fighting at this time for the Stanley Cup,” (from “Two years after Dubas’ promotion to GM, truest evaluation of Leafs will come in playoffs, Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun, 10/05/20).
Dubas and the team have only had one chance to fight for the Cup. Despite the emotional loss, the Maple Leafs gave the Stanley Cup finalist Boston Bruins a good run in the first round of the 2019 Playoffs. However, the team fell short under then-head coach Mike Babcock. They would have had another chance this season, ranked third in the Atlantic Division when the season was suspended on March 12, but we don’t know if there will be another chance this season.
How has Dubas done? I sometimes marvel at some of the creative ways he and his team of hockey geeks seem to solve the unsolvable – such as free up salary-cap space by moving Patrick Marleau (who was not signed by Dubas).
I also admire him for his loyalty to and concern for his players. He stuck with William Nylander after a horrible end to the 2018-19 season, and the young Swede’s play this season makes his contract seem almost team-friendly heading into the future.
Dubas also spent time in a New Jersey hospital alongside the young, injured, Russian Ilya Mikheyev because Dubas’ wife Shannon suggested it was important for the player and for the organization in the long run. Plus, he listens to his wife. That seems intelligent.
Still, I recognize that Dubas is a polarizing figure who’s in a tough job – especially for a young man who won’t be 35 until November. So, it’ll be interesting to see where he might take the team. Agree with his vision or not, partnered with his long-time friend and choice as head coach Sheldon Keefe, he’s turning the team into a fast, possession-hungry, puck-chasing group that simply wants to overwhelm the opponent offensively. That could be both fun and frustrating.
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As I’ve noted before, the Maple Leafs have the look of the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers of the mid-1980s, and that team won the Stanley Cup in 1984, 1985, 1987, and 1988. Just one Stanley Cup victory in Toronto would be a start.
The question after two seasons has not been answered, but can Keefe and Dubas take the team there? We will see sometime soon.
Item Three: How the Defense Stacks Up with Mikko Lehtonen
Mikko Lehtonen signed a one-year, entry-level contract with Toronto last week which has the potential to change the team’s defense. He’s a solid defenseman who, unless hockey pundits are wrong, should compete for and win a roster spot next season. He led all KHL defensemen with 17 goals and 49 points last season in Finland with the Helsinki Jokerit, and he’s now on his way to Canada (although not as we speak).
Having the 26-year-old on the roster changes it immediately. First, it opens space for a salary-cap-strapped team who now can decide to let both Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie move somewhere else. That said, there might be serious conversations with Barrie about a contract extension. I think head coach Keefe likes him and he’s a right-shot defenseman.
However, as my THW colleagues, Andrew Forbes and Peter Baracchini wrote in a post this week, Lehtonen can also play on and prefers the right side. If Timothy Liljegren can make the jump from the AHL to the NHL, as Marlies general manager Laurence Gilman suggested this week, the right side would be in the hands of Liljegren, the emerging Justin Holl, and Lehtonen. That could work.
Still, it’s not out of character for Dubas to have another trick up his sleeve. Perhaps the biggest trick might be pulling Barrie from the dead-and-gone list to a conversation about another year with the Maple Leafs on a team-friendly contract where he might showcase his talents for a bigger contract somewhere else. The COVID-19 salary-cap situation suggests all possibilities.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
I love the idea of the “Black Aces,” a group of players who travel with a Stanley Cup challenging team when their AHL affiliates have ended their season. The Marlies have been so good recently and the Maple Leafs have exited from the playoffs earlier than their AHL affiliate, so a few Maple Leafs have actually joined the Marlies for their Calder Cup run.
This season that will change and a group of Marlies will be available for a real “Taxi Squad.” The playoffs don’t count toward the salary cap, so it doesn’t matter what a player’s salary is. Should the NHL season continue, players who might be on their way to the Maple Leafs’ Black Aces include Nic Petan, Kenny Agostino, Liljegren, and goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo.
In fact, is there a chance we will see the young star (this season he’s been a supernova), Nick Robertson? That opportunity could be amazing, and because this is the season of crazy, who knows?