In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll look at a possible addition to next season’s roster, William Nylander’s increased production since Sheldon Keefe took over as the head coach, and wonder why Morgan Rielly might have a bit of a chip on his shoulder heading into the postseason.
Item One: Why Patrick Maroon Would Be a Good Fit in Toronto
Yesterday Maple Leafs blogger Mike Augello offered a series of forwards the team might go after and one of the players on his list was Patrick Maroon. Truthfully, I hadn’t considered him as a possible forward the team might target but I should have.
I got to watch Maroon play with the Edmonton Oilers when I was still was a professor at the University of Alberta. During the 2016-17 season, he had a great season where he scored 27 goals and 15 assists in 81 games. Although he was traded from the Oilers to the New Jersey Devils in February 2018 for a 2019 third-round pick and prospect J.D. Dudek, Maroon kicked around the NHL but was a contributing piece of the Stanley Cup-winning St. Louis Blues team.
Currently, he’s finishing a one-year, $900,000 contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He might just be a cheaper, bigger, and more-skilled version of Kyle Clifford. Both physical forwards are 6-foot-2, but Maroon has 25 pounds on the current Maple Leafs’ tough guy whose contract also ends after this season. Clifford, at 29 years of age, is three years younger but also more expensive. Maroon has also had consistently better production and has shown the hands to cash in on chances when playing with a team’s top-six.
Clifford won’t seek a huge contract, but any money saved helps. After he came to the team with backup goalie Jack Campbell, general manager Kyle Dubas noted that Clifford had been on his radar for a while. The Maple Leafs could use a bit more grit and physicality to face and overcome the challenge the Boston Bruins annually present.
However, Maroon might stay with the Lightning because, even at a smaller contract, taxes are lower in Florida. Additionally, Maroon’s a US citizen who was raised in St. Louis and that might matter.
But I can see his attraction for the Maple Leafs and I personally liked him as a player. He’s a straight-up guy.
Item Two: William Nylander’s Rising Production Since Sheldon Keefe Took Over as Coach
When Sheldon Keefe took over as head coach from the ousted Mike Babcock, William Nylander’s on-ice life changed for the better. He actually got a chance to do something he’s proved to be really good at, and that’s to help the power play. Prior to Keefe coming as the coach, Nylander had some time on the power play, but only because teammates John Tavares and Mitch Marner were injured.
Keefe saw Nylander as value-added on the power-play unit and envisioned him setting up in front of the net where he could use his quick reflexes and accurate shot to bang home rebounds. Keefe was right.
As a result of those changes to the power play, the unit’s success increased from 20.7% (11th in the NHL) to 26.5% (second in the NHL). Individually, after Keefe took over, Auston Matthews scored 18 power-play points, Marner scored 17, Tavares scored 16, and Nylander scored 14. However, Nylander’s shown he can be a finisher and his eight power-play goals (again since Keefe took over) tied him for first with Matthews.
Since Keefe, Nylander’s production has risen to keep up with Matthews, Marner, and Tavares. In fact, after Keefe became coach the team’s leading scorers were Matthews (53 points), Marner (49 points), Tavares (46 points), and Nylander (with 42 points).
Item Three: Sheldon Keefe’s Up-Tempo, Puck-Control Offensive Identity
In reviewing the Maple Leafs regular season, the team ended with a 36-25-9 record and enters the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ll play the ninth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets who had a 33-22-15 record in a best-of-five series, with the winner advancing to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The season was goofy because, although the roster didn’t change much, there were two different teams – one coached by Babcock and the second coached by Keefe – with different identities. In the end, clearly Keefe’s up-tempo, puck-control offense pushed the Maple Leafs over the top into the playoffs.
For good or ill, the identity instituted this season under Keefe will be the vision carried forward into the foreseeable future. Toronto’s 27-15-5 record after Keefe replaced Babcock saw increased goal-scoring and the Maple Leafs led the NHL with 3.51 goals per game after the coaching change. The team also scored at least four goals in more than half of their games (specifically 25 of 47 games).
What’s left to see is how this new identity translates into the playoffs and perhaps the Blue Jackets are the perfect litmus test. The Blue Jackets are “stingy” and allowed the third-fewest goals per game during the 2019-20 season. Already, captain Nick Foligno’s on record as believing his team can repeat last year’s playoff success against the offensive juggernaut of the Maple Leafs, who scored the third-most goals in the NHL in 2019-20.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
Interestingly, the Maple Leafs seem to be feeling a lack of respect – from somewhere. During a Zoom call with the media a few days ago, Morgan Rielly noted:
“We’re very motivated … as players we want to be as prepared as we possibly can be because we understand that there’s a chance to come back and prove some people wrong … we’ve all had some time to think about that and we have a chance to change the narrative a little bit.”
That’s an interesting comment and suggests the team has a bit of a chip on its shoulder. We’ll see how that turns out.