During the offseason and a few days into the 2019 training camp, things looked rosy for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Reluctant young forward Mitch Marner had signed and newcomers Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot, who came in a trade for Nazem Kadri, were getting accustomed to life under the Toronto microscope.
It seemed this would be the season the Maple Leafs, especially after two consecutive 100-point seasons, would both rack up regular-season points and have a strong Stanley Cup run. For Maple Leafs fans, those were reasonable expectations and a natural extension of the team’s growth over the past two seasons.
The Maple Leafs finished in the top 10 in NHL standings the last two seasons and certainly had assembled a better team for 2019-20. The core players had been gaining experience season by season. Sure the team was young, but it was rightfully confident.
Both commentators and fans realized the team had flaws, but all NHL teams have flaws in this era of salary-cap influence on a team’s roster. Furthermore, despite any flaws, most fans – beyond the historically optimistic – expected the Maple Leafs to register between 100 and 105 points by season’s end.
It didn’t happen. This is not the season it was supposed to be. Here we are, coming off the All-Star bye week, and the team sits out of a playoff position. Only an extended run of victories is likely to cement a postseason playoff position.
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With the team now in playoff limbo, in this post, I want to keep Maple Leafs fans more appraised of news and rumors emerging from the organization.
Item One: Matthews Will Be In the Lineup on Monday
The first good news for the Maple Leafs is that forward Auston Matthews, who bedazzled the All-Star community with his haberdashery splendor, will likely suit up for the team’s game against the Nashville Predators. That means his nagging wrist injury wasn’t too serious.
Matthews didn’t miss any regular-season games because of his wrist injury and, because he engaged in the All-Star festivities, won’t have to miss a game with a suspension. Others, notably Alex Ovechkin, stayed home and were suspended (from “The Maple Leafs inch closer to full strength with Muzzin and Moore back — Matthews seems good to go, too,” Kevin McGran, The Star, 01/25/20).
Item Two: Both Muzzin and Moore Are Ready to Take the Ice
In addition to having Matthews in the lineup, it’s likely the team will have defenseman Jake Muzzin and forward Trevor Moore both skating against the Predators. Muzzin had broken his foot in late December, and Moore had a concussion in mid-November. In fact, Moore played a game on Dec. 21 before going back on the injured reserve and missing another month. Both Muzzin and Moore played on a conditioning stint for the Toronto Marlies in a 5-2 loss against the Cleveland Monsters Friday.
Because the Maple Leafs open on the road, Muzzin’s return gives the team an extra defenseman, which means either rookie Rasmus Sandin or Martin Marincin becomes a healthy scratch. If Sandin plays, it would be his 10th regular-season game and he would begin the first year of his entry-level contract (ELC). The word is that the Maple Leafs aren’t that worried about losing that first year of his ELC; however, the organization might limit his games to less than 40 this season. Playing 40 games starts the countdown on the seven years he must play to become an unrestricted free agent.
Item Three: Gaudet Recalled from the Marlies
Although Matthews expects to return from his nagging wrist injury, the team only has 12 forwards on the roster and has recalled forward Tyler Gaudet from the Marlies. The 26-year-old Gaudet is new to the Maple Leafs organization this season, but he’s previously played 20 NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes – most recently in 2016-17. He’s scored 13 points (2 goals, 11 assists) in 39 AHL games this season.
Item Four: Bracco, Liljegren & Kaskisuo Named to AHL All-Star Team
The American Hockey League announced that Marlies forward Jeremy Bracco, defenseman Timothy Liljegren, and goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo were all named to the North Division AHL All-Star team.
The 22-year-old Bracco finished second in AHL scoring with 79 points last season and has 33 points (4 goals, 29 assists) in 42 games this season. The 20-year-old Liljegren made his NHL debut vs. the Chicago Blackhawks on January 18 and has scored 26 points (4 goals, 22 assists) in 35 games with the Marlies this season. The 26-year-old Kaskisuo has played 21 games in goal with the Marlies with a record of 11-6-2 with a goals-against-average of 2.69 and a .911 save percentage.
Item Five: Are the Maple Leafs Interested in An Oilers Defenseman?
There’s speculation that the Maple Leafs might be actively inquiring about one of two Edmonton Oilers’ defensemen – Adam Larsson or Matt Benning. In return, there are rumors the Oilers are interested in one of the Maple Leafs young forwards. In fact, there’s thought that a Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson for Adam Larsson deal has been discussed.
The logic makes sense because the Oilers need a winger and the Maple Leafs need a defenseman. Larsson is signed for another season at just over $4 million annually, so those cap hits would be nearly equal.
However, according to the source of the rumor, Larsson isn’t that good and suggests adding Jesse Puljujarvi to the deal to make it work. Although it would be nice to have Puljujarvi, I disagree that Larsson is a poor defenseman. He’s a solid right-shot defenseman who could add steadiness to the Maple Leafs defense. He has size at 6-foot-3 and doesn’t make many mistakes.
The same source suggested that Benning was vastly underrated as a defenseman (to which I agree) and he’s also a right-shot defenseman. Benning missed a number of games this season with a concussion; however, when he’s healthy, he’s effective. What makes him attractive is that he carries a $1.9 million salary-cap hit. He becomes a restricted free agent this summer.
What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?
The Maple Leafs have some heavy lifting to do to make the playoffs. There are only 33 games remaining and little room for poor play. There’s also about a month before the Feb. 24 trade deadline, and to this point we have no indication what general manager Kyle Dubas is thinking.
What we know is that the Maple Leafs won’t be the only team playing with intensity as the end of the regular season looms. The next few weeks will help to spell out who makes the playoffs and who doesn’t. We also know that it’s not a lock that this team will make the playoffs.
It’s time for another winning streak. How the team comes out of the All-Star break will say lots about what it’s made of.