Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Marner, Giordano, Clifford & Rubins

It’s a sandwich weekend for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Having just posted a 5-4 overtime win over the Ottawa Senators, there’s no time to rest. The New York Islanders come into town tonight and, although the Islanders are out of the playoff picture, they’re still working hard to win. They are coming off a win in Montreal over the Canadiens and Carey Price, who was in the net for the first time this season.

Related: 7 Cool Things About Carey Price

Last night’s game was a dominant performance by the Maple Leafs, although you wouldn’t know it by looking only at the game’s score. The difference was that the Senators took advantage of Maple Leafs’ mistakes – particularly on the first and the last goals the Senators scored. 

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The first goal came on a clean two-on-nobody break by Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stutzle. The second goal was again scored by Stutzle who took advantage of a rare giveaway by newcomer Ilya Lyubushkin and had the lane toward goalie Erik Kallgren to himself. Speaking of newcomer defensemen, in the end, Mark Giordano scored with a couple of minutes left in overtime to win the game. 

In this edition of Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll look at some of the key players from the Blue and White to comment on the games they played last night.

Item One: Mitch Marner Taking Over for Auston Matthews’ Lack of Scoring 

Last night, Mitch Marner scored two goals to hit 33 on the season. The best thing about Marner’s goals was that they came at perfect times. His first goal clawed his team back into the game to tie it 3-3. His second goal brought his team back from another deficit to tie it again 4-4. You can’t say that Marner doesn’t come through in pressure situations.

Related: Top 15 NHL Power Forwards

The second goal was an example of Marner living down a critique from some readers that he plays a perimeter game and is soft. Perhaps in the past, but that’s certainly not true this season. Marner has amped up his physical game and is going to the dirty areas of the ice. His goal in the third period came on a smart play by Michael Bunting, who centered the puck in Marner’s direction. Marner was rushing the net and the pass went off his skate. 

Once again the Maple Leafs’ first line was dominant, even if Matthews didn’t get a goal – it’s been three straight now with zilch. Marner and Bunting seem to have captured the same chemistry that Matthews and Marner have had. That’s good for the team’s success. 

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On the season, Marner’s two goals pushed him to 33 goals and he’s added 60 assists (for 93 points) in only 66 games. That’s a 1.4 point-per-game average. Even with Marner’s large number of missed games this season, he still has a chance to hit 100 points during the regular season. As it stands, Marner’s a single point from his career-best point total of 94, which he set in 2018-19.

Item Two: Kyle Dubas Finally Gets It Right with Mark Giordano

As regular readers know, I’m a fan of Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas. I think he’s constructed a strong team under tough circumstances. His scouting system is second to none and he seems to find diamonds in the rough to make up for any draft choices or prospects he needs to trade away to upgrade going into the postseason. [I’ll speak about Kristians Rubins later in the post.]

However, his trade-deadline deals have been the area where I’d give him the poorest grades. This season, after what I think was a fiasco with Nick Foligno, I think he really got it right when he brought in three key pieces. Foligno is a good guy, but he turned out to be a bad trade choice.

Nick Foligno Morgan Rielly Mitchell Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Nick Foligno (when he played for the Maple Leafs) with Morgan Rielly and Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs
(Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)

One was the trade that brought in defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin from the Arizona Coyotes. The second was the trade that brought in Colin Blackwell and Mark Giordano from the Seattle Kraken. All three are contributors, and – unlike Foligno – I think there’s a chance all three might actually become more than rentals and part of the Maple Leafs’ future plans. 

Giordano has shown his veteran leadership on the ice by making everyone calm around him. Timothy Liljegren, for example, has played his best hockey of this career being partnered with Giordano. I read that Liljegren noted that Giordano talks a lot on the ice, which is probably an ongoing, in-game education for a young defenseman. I hope, as I noted, he’s more than a one-season “rental” and that the upcoming UFA signs on for another season. 

He’s been better than any other trade-deadline player Dubas has brought to the Maple Leafs during my tenure covering the team –at least since Jack Campbell, but Soup’s value wasn’t felt immediately.

Related: NHL Rumors: Ducks, Canucks, Blackhawks

During last night’s game, Giordano registered three points with two assists and the game-winning overtime goal in the 5-4 victory against the Senators. Like Marner, Giordano showed up right on time with helpers on goals by Kyle Clifford and Michael Bunting during the second period and his own goal to end the game. 

On the season, Giordano has scored eight goals and 23 assists (for 31 points) in the 56 games he’s played. 

Item Three: Kyle Clifford Seems to Enjoy His Role with the Team

The Maple Leafs seem to be transitioning this season from the older to the younger as Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe tinkers with the lineup to give youngsters a chance to play. Jason Spezza seems to sit as often as he plays. Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds seem to draw into a game when coach Keefe thinks the team needs an added measure of physicality. 

Kyle Clifford St. Louis Blues
Kyle Clifford, when he played for the St. Louis Blues
(Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As a result, Clifford has limited ice time. However, I have two thoughts about Clifford’s play. First, he’s good enough to add value to the team both on the physical end, defensively, and on the offensive side. Second, I think he’s enjoying himself with the team. There was a rumor that he was retiring after this season to go into coaching. However, he re-signed for another season.

Last night, Clifford scored by being in the right place to deflect in a puck in front of the net while he was screening Senators’ goalie Anton Forsberg early in the second period. It was Clifford’s first goal in the 21 games he’s played this season and his first in just under a year (he last scored on May 5, 2021). 

Give Clifford credit. He makes the most of his time on the ice and is a battler.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

The Maple Leafs have a quick turnaround to play the Islanders tonight. Will Matthews be able to score on his way to 60, or is he stuck on 58 as he helps his team win? He had another assist last night.

Related: Maple Leafs Call-up Grades: Alex Steeves vs. Kristian Rubins

I was hoping to see Kristians Rubins play last night, but he was moved back to the Toronto Marlies yesterday. He wasn’t with the big club for a long time, being called up as “emergency” depth only on Friday. His day will come, but it won’t be this season. 

Rubins was one of Dubas’ early finds. He was un-drafted; but, just a few months after Dubas became Maple Leafs’ general manager (in June 2018) he signed Rubins to an ECHL contract with the Newfoundland Growlers (in early August 2018). He’s played with the Marlies for parts of four seasons. His size and increasing skill make him a potential solid third-pairing defenseman.