It’s an active time of the season, and there’s much happening with the Toronto Maple Leafs. As the team prepares to play two back-to-back road games on Saturday (against the Ottawa Senators) and Sunday (against the Buffalo Sabres), I want to keep Maple Leafs fans up-to-date on news and rumors emerging from the team.
Item One: Chris Johnston Reports an Ilya Mikheyev Sighting
Sometimes is easy to forget something that, only six weeks ago, was front-and-center in our minds as Maple Leafs fans. Specifically, I’m referring to the injury that halted rookie Ilya Mikheyev’s season. The young Russian captured the hearts and imaginations of fans. How good might he become? Will he grow into a fan favorite?
Even if the team misses the playoffs, the season might not have been entirely wasted because of the excitement Mikheyev brought. Actually, I know better. For die-hard Toronto fans, every season that passes without a Stanley Cup is an “entirely wasted” season.
Still, Mikheyev is an exciting player and I hope he can return this season. Since Dec. 27, when the rookie was sliced on the wrist by a skate blade and had to undergo difficult reconstructive surgery, Mikheyev’s been recovering. Recovery was expected to take three months and we’re halfway there.
On that front, there’s good news. Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported a Mikheyev sighting on Feb. 10. He was seen with coach Barb Underhill working on his skating. I hope his recovery is speedier than predicted. The team misses him.
Item Two: Bad News for Andreas Johnsson
Speaking of Mikheyev’s injury — as if the Maple Leafs needed to add yet another to its long list of injuries — the latest report is that forward Andreas Johnsson’s knee injury is serious. Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe announced Johnsson would need surgery and would be out of the lineup at least two months, a time period that extends into the playoffs.
The list of injured Maple Leafs now includes Johnsson, Mikheyev, Cody Ceci, and Morgan Rielly. First, the team’s defense was destroyed and now its forwards are falling. The injury to Johnsson might have been particularly noteworthy because he and Kasperi Kapanen were mentioned so frequently during trade rumors.
If the team is looking to deal before the Feb. 24 deadline, it won’t be dangling Johnsson as trade bait. He won’t be going anywhere. The only sliver of silver lining is that he will be placed on long-term injured reserve (LTIR) that would carry past the end of the regular season. That offers the team an additional $3.4 million in cap space to find a rental forward (likely) at the deadline. Then, if the team makes the playoffs and Johnsson could return, it wouldn’t hurt the Maple Leafs’ cap situation and they’d have a strong forward grouping. However, that’s major speculation on my part.
Johnsson ends his regular-season scoring with eight goals and 21 points in 43 games. That’s far less than the team expected when it signed him during the offseason.
Item Three: Kyle Dubas Weighs In on Recent Maple Leafs Moves
About a week ago, Maple Leafs general manager Dubas was interviewed by Sportnet’s Tim & Sid. His overall message was that, despite wanting to make a trade, the team was handcuffed. Now with injuries to two key forwards (Mikheyev and Johnsson) and two key defensemen (Rielly and Ceci), the team will look to make some deal at the trade deadline. But can it?
Dubas also spoke about how Jack Campbell’s and Kyle Clifford’s trade came together. When asked how long he’d been working on the deal, he noted he’d been talking to the Los Angeles Kings for much of the season. However, only during the last week before the trade did talks heat up. He noted that making the deal earlier would have been ideal, but sometimes trades don’t become possible until closer to the deadline. Dubas also noted the trade was coincidental to Frederik Andersen’s injury – discussions had been happening prior to that.
About getting Clifford, Dubas suggested he knew the team needed toughness but he wasn’t ready to sacrifice skill to add grit. He liked Clifford because he wasn’t a player who needed to be hidden in specific circumstances. Duabs believed he had proven he could play regular minutes, add experience, and play the style of hockey the Maple Leafs wanted to play.
During the conversation, Dubas was asked about Rielly’s status and what he planned for the team’s defense. Dubas understood how important Rielly was to this team and, although his injury could potentially open cap space to make a move (which had been rumored recently), the team would sit tight and ascertain where exactly Rielly was in terms of his rehab and return.
Dubas believed the LTIR didn’t always mean a team could spend money. Specifically, if the team found a replacement and then Rielly was able to return (which would be the team’s first priority) the Leafs would be stuck either continuing to sit out a healthy Rielly or would be over the salary cap. Either choice would be a pickle for the team.
What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?
As I’ve covered the Maple Leafs over the past two seasons, I have come to be impressed with Dubas as a hockey thinker and a person. I have found him both measured and upfront with reporters about his thinking.
I found it telling during the Tim and Sid interview that he said he would like to do more, but he might not be able to. On one hand, part of this problem is a result of his contract negotiations with the team’s stars. On the other hand, he’s been right about these stars. Quibble as we fans do about dollar figures, Dubas hasn’t yet negotiated a hefty contract with a player who turned out to be a dud.
Dubas called the next few games a test for the franchise. The team now stands a single point out of the playoffs. However, if the organization can get through this difficult time, the team might be well-positioned for a solid postseason.
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