Maple Leafs’ News & Roster Moves: Marner, Matthews, Hyman & Liljegren

What can you say about the great Toronto Maple Leafs twosome of Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews? Probably last night’s starting Maple Leafs’ goalie Jack Campbell wrapped it up best when he lauded the duo not only for their skill but also for their team-oriented play.

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After the team’s 5-1 victory the Vancouver Canucks last night, Campbell noted: ‘It’s one thing to have some chemistry. It’s another to have the talent they have and to use it together for the (betterment) of the team. They both have the team in mind in all the plays they make.”

”Coming back in the defensive zone, making great plays, and then it leads to those highlight-reel plays you see on the TV every night.”

In this edition of Maple Leafs’ News & Roster Moves, I’ll share some of the latest exploits of these two great young players. Then I’ll report some of the team’s roster moves as it prepares to face the Montreal Canadiens on Monday.

Item One: Mitch Marner Scores Double-Figures in Last Six Games

Mitch Marner scored two assists – both on Matthews’ goals – in the win over the Canucks. He’s now on a six-game streak where he’s totalled four goals and six assists (for 10-points). Marner also has multiple-point games in three of his last five.

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

What’s most interesting about Marner is not only that he makes assists, but that he makes “perfect” assists. Sure, like other hockey players he gets a lucky second assist every once in a while; but, if you’re fan of the game, how many times have you seen Marner engage in this beautiful three-step process (a) making a great play, (b) scanning the ice for Matthews, and (c) delivering a perfect tape-to-tape pass to the NHL’s top goal scorer?

That’s a rhetorical question, because the answer is “lots.”

Case in point, in last night’s game the Canucks actually scored the game’s first goal and the game was tied 1-1 after period one. The Maple Leafs took the lead under four minutes into the second period when Marner forced Canucks’ defender Alex Edler into a poor play, stole the puck behind the Canucks’ net, and then spied Matthews making his way through a sea of bodies toward the goal, hesitated until the path cleared, and they hit the moving Matthews for a clear shot. The result was Matthews’ game-winning 38th goal of the season.

Marner noted about his friend and partner, “He’s (Matthews) done an amazing job in the offensive zone getting himself open. He can shoot the puck from really wherever in his stance. It’s been a lot of fun to play with him, and it’s been a lot of fun to see him do what he’s doing this year.”

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Matthews is a great goal-scorer, but he’s elevated by Marner’s play. The result is one of the best forward partnerships in recent years in the NHL. Looking back over Marner’s NHL career, he’s now scoring better than a point-a-game with 355 points in 351 games. Given the efficacy of their play together, there’s little chance that trend will reverse. Both Matthews’ and Marner’s per-game production is trending upward.

Item Two: Auston Matthews Mentioned in the Same Sentence as Mario Lemieux

Here’s how good Matthews is. He’s being mentioned in the same sentence with the great Mario Lemieux insofar as his scoring accolades are concerned. Counting the two goals he scored in Saturday’s 5-1 victory, Matthews is now the NHL leader on the season with a nine-goal lead over Connor McDavid. He also has scored 17 goals in his past 17 games.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

His goal-scoring average in his 47 games this season is 0.809 goals per game. If he finishes with that average, it would be the best in the past 20 NHL seasons. You’d have to go back to the 2000-01 season when Mario Lemieux averaged 0.814 for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The next best active NHL player is Alex Ovechkin, and his best average was 0.793 in 2007-08.

With Matthews, one has to feel that this season will only be the first of many Rocket Richard Trophies over his career. During his five NHL seasons, the 23-year-old has totalled 196 goals in 329 games. What’s the over-and-under on Matthews winning the next seven Richard Trophies in a row? For me, the answer seems simple: how long will he play with Marner?

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Is it too early to wonder what happens after the 2023-24 season when his contract expires? One of the best pure goal-scorers in NHL history a UFA in his prime? There’s a thought.

Item Three: Zach Hyman Has Started Skating

Yesterday, head coach Sheldon Keefe reported that Zach Hyman has started to skate. Obviously, for Hyman and Maple Leafs’ fans, it’s encouraging to see him back on the ice; however, the work is far from done. Hyman needs to practice before he’ll be able to engage in game action.

Hyman was injured on April 19; and, at that time, the prognosis was that he’d be out of the lineup for “at least” two weeks. Already, the 28-year-old Hyman has missed the team’s past five games with his sprained knee. He’s been on a great run this season, having scored 15 goals and 18 assists (for 33 points) in 43 games.

Toronto Maple Leafs Zach Hyman
Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Zach Hyman (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

What’s changed about Hyman’s status this season is that he’s now becoming seen as a part of the Maple Leafs’ core players. In fact, my THW colleague Andrew Forbes wrote a great post last week titled “Maple Leafs’ Core Four is Now Five With Hyman.”

Forbes nailed it: Hyman is one of the most important members of the Maple Leafs lineup. Surely, the team would be anxious to give Hyman a chance to see some game action prior to the playoffs.

 Item Four: Timothy Liljegren Sent to the Taxi Squad

Timothy Liljegren made his season’s debut on Thursday against Vancouver, but he was assigned to the taxi squad on Saturday and didn’t suit up for the game. Both Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin were back from their “maintenance” days.

Item Five: Michael Hutchinson Also Sent to the Taxi Squad

With Jack Campbell back in net, Michael Hutchinson was moved to the team’s taxi squad. Hutchinson backed up newcomer David Rittich on Thursday, which gave Campbell a complete day off.

 Item Six: Veini Vehvilainen Moved to the AHL’s Marlies

Veini Vehvilainen was moved to Toronto Marlies on Saturday. Although no one knows his future, this season Vehvilainen seems to be a part of the Maple Leafs’ goaltending depth. He’ll likely not play with the big club in the foreseeable future. His time might be coming, but it isn’t close yet.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

The Maple Leafs next play tomorrow night against the Montreal Canadiens on Monday night. The Canadiens are coming off a 3-2 overtime win last night against the quickly-improving young Ottawa Senators when Habs’ rookie Cole Caufield scored the game-winner. It was Caufield’s first NHL goal.

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The North Division standings seem to be settling. The Maple Leafs are likely to come in first, the Edmonton Oilers second, the Winnipeg Jets third, and the Canadiens fourth. It could be interesting to see how coach Keefe deploys his line-up on Monday. I’m guessing there might be some more days off for the regulars.

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