As the regular season has been suspended, in each of the News & Rumors posts I’m writing these days I’ve included a glimpse back at the Toronto Maple Leafs season and have outlined what I believe has made the season memorable. At the same time, I’ve been collecting the news emerging from the organization.
In today’s post, I’ll look back at what I believe are two of the most memorable games of the season, report a number of signings, as well as check up on news from the Maple Leafs players.
Item One: Two Memorable Games from 2019-20
In my mind, two games stood out as the most memorable of the 2019-20 season from a Maple Leafs perspective. One was the game played one day after new head coach Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock. In that Nov. 21 game, the Maple Leafs beat the Arizona Coyotes 3-1 on the road.
It was probably the best game the team played all season and looked as if the players were making a statement. Defenseman Tyson Barrie, who had been nowhere to be seen during the first part of the season, scored his first goal in 24 games. Then, a shorthanded goal by Keefe’s Toronto Marlies tag-along Pierre Engvall made it a 2-0 game. Finally, Auston Matthews gave the team a 3-0 advantage in the third period.
The rest was history. Maple Leafs captain John Tavares presented Keefe with the game puck in the dressing room after the game.
However, the Maple Leafs’ most interesting game of the season was a game the team didn’t even win, Still, it was a game for the ages and one day might become a Netflix Original movie. In fact, the game might have been the most captivating game of the last few seasons in the NHL.
On Feb. 22, the Carolina Hurricanes came to town. By the middle of the second period, both Hurricanes goalies James Reimer and Petr Mrazek had been injured and the team had no goalie. At 11:19 of the second period, in skated the Maple Leafs 42-year-old practice goalie and emergency backup David Ayres.
The Hurricanes were leading 4-1 at the time; most fans believed that lead would disappear under a barrage of shots by the Maple Leafs players – just like practice. But it was not to be, and the Hurricanes’ defense tightened up in front of Ayres, who also made 8 saves on the 10 shots he faced to win his NHL debut.
It was the storyline of a feel-good movie and Ayres, who had once hoped to become a professional goalie until a kidney transplant forced him out of the game, became a celebrity. He even showed up on “The Today Show” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
The final score was 6-3 in favor of the Hurricanes, but was also one of those games where both teams could be happy with the final score.
Item Two: The Toronto Marlies Sign Gordie Green and Bobby McMann to AHL Contracts
This week the Maple Leafs added more free agent collegiate-level players to its organization by signing Gordie Green (from Miami University in Ohio) and Bobby McMann (from Colgate University) to two-year AHL contracts with the Toronto Marlies.
What’s so interesting to me about both Green and McMann is that they’ve been captains of their respective university teams over several seasons. They bring leadership to the organization.
Related: ‘Mr. Hockey’ Gordie Howe
Green just finished his fourth year with Miami University (Ohio) as the team’s captain. He’s a right winger who fits into Kyle Dubas’ picture of a smart, smaller, talented, and (in Green’s case) gutsy player. The 23-year-old American winger scored 14 goals and 36 points in 34 games during his final season with Miami University. His NCAA career totals were 48 goals and 115 points in 145 games.
McMann was also the fourth-year captain of Colgate University (a small college in New York State) team. This 23-year-old, Canadian-born center led his team in scoring with 10 goals and 20 points in 34 games. His best season was in 2018 when he scored 14 goals and 30 points in 40 games.
Item Three: Morgan Rielly Is Thankful He Played Again During the 2019-20 Season
Morgan Rielly missed eight weeks with a broken foot, but he was able to return for a game before the season was eventually suspended. Rielly noted, “It was certainly a long process of trying to heal, trying to keep yourself in shape during the injury of a broken foot.”
He added, “Eight weeks goes by, you’re trying to work hard to just get back. And then to come back and play one game, it’s certainly not ideal. But in that same breath, I think that if I hadn’t come back and played that one game and still hadn’t played that one game since Jan. 12, I think it would have made it worse.”
The 2019-20 season was frustrating for Rielly. Last season he set NHL career highs in goals (20), assists (52), and points (72). This season the 26-year-old scored only 27 points (three goals, 24 assists) in 47 games.
What’s Rielly been up to during the suspension? He’s been keeping in shape riding a bike and working out in his home gym. During his self-quarantine, he’s trying to learn to cook, which he says means barbecuing steaks, chicken, and making pasta. However, he won’t cook fish because he believes if he undercooks it, “then we have a whole new problem on our hands.”
Rielly also revealed something interesting about Maple Leafs’ general manager Dubas. Another thing he’s been doing in his self-quarantine has been reading a book given to him by Dubas. It’s related to mental health.
Rielly suggested, and this probably should not a surprise, that “If you’ve played for Kyle long enough, he’s probably given you a book.”
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
It keeps surprising me how many players Dubas signs and the nature of those players. Specifically, he enacts his vision of how a team should play with the players he signs.
This season’s success with Nick Robertson and the Peterborough Petes is only one example. Both the players I noted in this post who signed with the Marlies are of a similar ilk. They’re smaller players that other teams seem to pass, but they are also highly skilled, intelligent, exhibit leadership skills, and are tenacious.
Can that vision eventually turn into Stanley Cup success? It increasingly looks as if that question might become the storyline of another season.