With the NHL’s season suspended in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, obviously there’s no on-ice news to report for any teams. However, a fair bit of “action” is going on within the Toronto Maple Leafs organization and with the players on the team. In my News & Rumors reports, I’ll try to look at some of that news. I’ll also take a look back at Auston Matthews’ run on the Rocket Richard Trophy this season.
Item One: Auston Matthews Goal-Scoring Season Revisited
It’s probably an overstatement, given the track record Auston Matthews compiled in his four seasons with the team, to suggest he had a breakout season. However, he seems to improve every year. He was having a strong season offensively before the NHL’s season was suspended; but, he also improved his defensive play.
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In fact, early in March, Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan told TSN Sports that he believed Matthews might one day win a Selke Trophy for the defensive component of his game.
As Shanahan noted about his young center, “I always thought when he came up that he was one of those rare players who had the ability to lead a league in scoring and also be its best defensive player.”
He added, “I think that Auston is dynamic and explosive offensively, but I think that he also has that ability with his size and his strength and his awareness and his commitment to also be a Selke Trophy winner.”
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When the season was suspended on March 12, Matthews was only three goals away from 50 for the season. Only three other Maple Leafs players in team history (Dave Andreychuk, Gary Leeman, and Rick Vaive) have scored 50. In fact, unless he was injured, Matthews would have probably beaten Vaive’s franchise record of 54. It was a great season for Matthews.
Item Two: Adam Brooks Learned a Lot in Seven Games
Adam Brooks played only seven games with the Maple Leafs in 2019-20, but he admitted he learned a lot from those games.
As he told TSN, “There were definitely some ups and downs with the way I played and things that I would have liked to correct. But just getting your feet a little bit wet, it allowed me to learn a lot. Even the things that didn’t probably go so well for me were still learning experiences that I’m able to correct and get better at, whether the season continues and I’m able to go back to the AHL, or maybe be a Black Ace for the Leafs. And then hopefully into next season as well.” [By the way, a Black Ace is a roster addition allowed as an injury replacement.]
Brooks scored three assists in seven games with the Maple Leafs; and, in his time with the Toronto Marlies, he scored 20 points (nine goals and 11 assists) in 29 games. While the NHL is on hiatus, Brooks is self-quarantining at his home in Winnipeg and trying to stay ready to play.
I encourage Maple Leafs fans to read the TSN article; it goes into some detail about Brooks’ learning process and his attempts to add quickness to his game. Brooks, I suppose like all other Maple Leafs players, is engaging in workouts sent from the Maple Leafs’ strength and conditioning staff. His workouts incorporate “everything from yoga to speed drills.” Because he worked hard to build the foundational skills he needed to reach the NHL, he’s committed to working hard during the break.
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He especially praises Maple Leafs skating consultant Barb Underhill, who he says is “incredible.” He adds, “Just the steps that she has made with me already, and that I still want to try to get to as a player, is exciting.”
Item Three: Timothy Liljegren’s Goal Is to Earn a Full-Time Spot
Timothy Liljegren is crystal clear about his goal. He wants to earn a full-time spot on the Maple Leafs defense next season.
In a 15-minute interview with TSN’s Mark Masters last week, Liljegren noted he wants to “be with the team all year.” And, because Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci won’t likely be signed by the club as unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2019-20 campaign, he has a good chance to make that hope a reality.
This season with the big club, Liljegren scored a single assist in 11 games skating limited minutes in a “sheltered role.” However, with the Marlies, he played big minutes, scored 30 points in 40 AHL games, and played in the AHL All-Star Game.
He noted that his NHL debut “was a dream come true. Once you get that first game you just want to play more games. Once I came back down to the Marlies after that first game I tried to work harder so I could go back there again.”
Liljegren is self-quarantined in Sweden; and, although he notes there are fewer rules there than in North America, he’s following the Maple Leafs’ guidelines to spend his time safely indoors.
Item Four: Jason Spezza Wants to Win the Stanley Cup
I’m sure, as a father and a grandfather, that many young boys (and probably young girls) dream one day of playing in the NHL. I’m certain Jason Spezza was no different as a kid growing up near Toronto. But, in a conference call on April 21, Spezza told hockey reporters that he’s motivated by a bigger goal than just playing in the NHL.
He was unequivocal, “I’m in it for as long as I can be so I can win a Stanley Cup. It’s something that I dreamt of as a kid, and I would love nothing more to do it here in Toronto. I definitely feel like I have game left, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than playing here another year. So I do hope that it works out. I feel like we’re building things with this club, and I want to be a part of it.”
That he wants it is clear: the NHL veteran of 17 seasons and perhaps a one-day Hockey Hall of Famer signed a one-year, $700,000 contract this season with the Maple Leafs. Although he could become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2019-20 campaign, I believe he’d gladly sign another team-friendly contract for the chance to seek Lord Stanley’s Cup one last time.
What’s New with the Maple Leafs?
In summarizing the team news since the season was suspended on March 12, I’ve seen two trends. First, general manager Kyle Dubas continues to build a team for a future after 2019-20 regardless of how this season might end. Second, repeatedly Maple Leafs players – young and old – report that they want to play in Toronto.
There was an interesting note in the TSN article about Brooks where he spoke about his relationship to head coach Sheldon Keefe. Brooks noted that he had a good relationship with Keefe, who was the Marlies’ coach the first two seasons Brooks played there.
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Brooks said, “Whatever was asked of me from Sheldon, I would be ready to do. He’s a coach where you know exactly where you’re at, at all times. You know what he expects from you. I would relish any chance he gave me.”
Perhaps I’m reading too much into Brooks’ comment; but, in Keefe, I see a coach who’s firm but respected. It will be interesting to see where the combination of Dubas and Keefe can take the team in the years ahead.