The NHL’s season has been suspended in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is news emerging from NHL teams and the NHL in general. Specifically, there are so many rumblings that it suggests the NHL hierarchy is working hard to plan some sort of on-ice action soon. Who knows where that might land, but there’s enough smoke to suggest there’s kindling on the fire.
There’s also news specific to the Toronto Maple Leafs and its roster. Some speculation revolves around the team’s need to improve its defense and who is likely to be traded to or for.
As well, I have included an amazing video about what Mitch Marner’s doing at his home to keep his hands and stick handling in shape for a possible return. In this News & Rumors report, I’ll help Maple Leafs fans stay more up-to-date with what’s going on with the team.
Item One: Mitch Marner Practices His Stick Handling with His Dog
In the two years I’ve covered the Maple Leafs for The Hockey Writers, I’ve never posted anything because it’s cute – until now. I found this tweet by Mitch Marner in his driveway playing keep-away with his new lab. It’s quite something, and Marner’s stick work is amazing.
Item Two: Brian Burke Weighs in on Jason Spezza’s Desire to Stay in Toronto
As I reported in my last Maple Leafs News & Rumors post, veteran forward Jason Spezza announced that he’d like to stay in the NHL another season for a chance to win the Stanley Cup. He reiterated that message to other Maple Leafs reporters recently.
This is what we know. Spezza is interested in returning to the Maple Leafs next season and he’s probably willing to sign another team-friendly contract to do so. What we didn’t know before is that Brian Burke has an opinion on the matter as well.
In a short Sportsnet Facebook video, Burke noted that, although he likes more “bite” in his bottom-six players, he would have Spezza on his team any day and he’d find a tough winger in the mold of a Brad May to be a physical presence.
Item Three: The Maple Leafs and Pietrangelo? Probably Not
There’s been a long-running rumour that the Maple Leafs were interested in the 30-year-old talented defenseman Alex Pietrangelo from the St. Louis Blues. I’m sure they are. That he’s from the Toronto area has fuelled that speculation. His $6.5 million contract ends after the 2019-20 season when he will need to re-sign with the Blues (he’s been with the Blues his entire 12-season career).
However, Sportsnet’s Luke Fox, in a wide-ranging mailbag article where he answered fans’ questions, reported that he believes signing the defenseman isn’t likely. Pietrangelo likes St. Louis; they like him; it’s become home; and, both sides want to re-sign.
Fox, instead, believes the Maple Leafs want to trade for players with term left on their contracts. His list includes the Anaheim Ducks’ Josh Manson, the Buffalo Sabres’ Rasmus Ristolainen (who for some reason has fallen out of favour in Buffalo), and the Minnesota Wild’s Matt Dumba (who would be my choice).
Item Four: Is Andreas Johnsson the Most Likely Player to be Traded?
In that same article, Fox was asked about Andreas Johnsson. He noted that Johnsson might be the player the Leafs hope to trade; however, he also noted his trade value might be really low. A history of injuries and poor scoring numbers from 2019-20 could make other teams hesitant – especially for the return Kyle Dubas would want.
That said, if I was an NHL general manager, I might take a flyer on Johnsson for the right price. He has the ability and can score. He’d fit in on a lot of teams’ second line based on what we saw in 2018-19.
Trading him is iffy, and the Maple Leafs might not be in the driver’s seat. If other teams held out and Toronto faces a cap crunch, they might not have much leverage to make a suitable deal. In that case, Johnsson might go for a song to move salary.
Item Five: Ilya Mikheyev’s Likely Bridge Deal
Finally, news about almost every fan’s favourite young Russian player Ilya Mikheyev is that he’s recovered from his scary wrist injury and will be able to play if the NHL season resumes. He’s a restricted free agent and needs a new contract at the end of the 2019-20 season.
There’s no way Mikheyev will leave the Maple Leafs. At least, that would be my call if I was his agent (Dan Milstein). First, Mikheyev doesn’t have much leverage after playing only half a season and scoring eight goals (23 points in 39 games). Second, Mikheyev likes the team; the team likes him; and, he and Dubas are friends.
Finally, if you have any charisma – which Mikheyev has in spades – Toronto is a gold mine for advertisement income. Mikheyev (Souperman) already has a corporate contract with Campbell’s Soup and who knows what else might come along?
I agree with Fox that a two-year bridge deal would be best for both player and club, but I bet it worth more than the contract extension Pierre Engvall signed in the middle of the 2019-20 season (two years at $1.25 per year). I think Dubas would be wise to sign this youngster to just over $2 million per season for two years. It’s not like Mikheyev is injury prone: he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and caught a sharp skate blade.
What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?
When I research the News & Rumors posts, I read other Maple Leafs commentators’ work. Maple Leafs fans are fortunate to have so many fine hockey analysts writing about their team. As a group, they are thoughtful and insightful and give me new things to think about.
I also read the comments left by fans on those same articles. Interestingly, I noticed the constant aversion to Dubas – some don’t like him and think he’s done shoddy work. That’s not my take. I think he’s a smart young executive – which I can say because I’m in my mid-70s – who knows the rules and utilizes them to help his team.
Dubas also seems to care about his players. He has more than a financial interest in Mikheyev; they hung out for days together in the hospital after the young Russian’s horrible accident and surgery. It must be hard to balance paying people you care about and balance the books when the salary cap limits choices. It will be interesting to see the choices Dubas makes over the next few months.