The Toronto Maple Leafs regular season is soon ending. In this post, as I review the regular season, I’d like to share my list of the team’s three most surprising players. As is my way, I’m going to focus on those surprises that have been the most pleasant from a fan’s perspective.
If I’ve missed anyone, I invite you to add them in the comments section. As I’ve noted a few times in my posts, I’ve come to appreciate the comments of readers who add to my own thoughts and – with your permission – I’d like to begin sharing some of the comments you’ve made in these post in future posts. I’m hoping to share more of Maple Leafs’ fans’ voices in my writing.
Surprising Player #1: Jason Spezza and His Continuing Value to the Team
First, it’s almost silly to say, but Jason Spezza is a good hockey player. Second, at his age, he’s also a great leader and a positive example of how players on the Maple Leafs’ roster should prepare and act to be great teammates. He’s quietly become part of the ethos of the team.
That’s no surprise, really. The surprise really is just how capable he continues to be and how the team has come to rely on him as an on-ice leader who allows head coach Sheldon Keefe to roll four lines regularly. That has to be effective as the team moves into the postseason.
I noticed Spezza’s leadership last season just prior to postseason play when he took the time to hang out with and mentor young Nick Robertson. Not only was Spezza teaching, but he was valuing Robertson as a player by spending one-on-one time with him. When Robertson scored his first NHL goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the postseason, Spezza collected the puck for Robertson’s trophy case.
Night after night, Spezza takes difficult face-offs and usually wins. His speed allows him to spring open. His shot and skill puck-handling allow him to score. In 46 games, he’s scored 10 goals and 14 assists averaging just under 11 minutes of ice time. In early February, he scored the eighth hat trick of his career to lead the Maple Leafs over the Vancouver Canucks 7-3.
After that game, teammate Auston Matthews noted: “He (Spezza) means a lot to this team, I think more than anybody knows. That was fun to watch. That was vintage Jason Spezza. He put on a show. He deserves it. He works so hard (my emphasis).”
Matthews added, “At this stage in his career, the dedication that he pours into his own game, into the team … to see a guy like him get rewarded and put on a show like he did, that was pretty incredible.”
Related: Seven Things About Mikael Granlund
Spezza’s been a respected veteran presence, a leader, a teacher, an important contributor to the lineup, and a class act. Finally, a chief contribution is that he’s allowed the organization to gain a vision about how it can manage a flat salary cap and still bring in quality NHL players – those with long NHL experience who might be a bit past their prime but can still contribute to the team’s potential for a Stanley Cup.
Last season, Spezza was the only veteran signed on a bargain contract. This season the team added Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, and to a lesser extent Zach Bogosian (he’s only 30). It’s a great way to fill roster spots cheaply and add team leadership. Spezza represents a key conceptual plan for how the Maple Leafs’ can proceed going forward.
Surprising Player #2: T. J. Brodie and His Sneaky-Good Calming Influence on the Ice
In my time covering the Maple Leafs for The Hockey Writers, I’ve never really seen a player like newcomer T.J. Brodie, who’s both so quiet and competent at the same time. Ironically, the thing I notice most about him is how little I notice him. I know it might sound like a tongue-twister, but when I first noticed that I didn’t notice him, I started to really notice him on the ice.
Interestingly, one of Brodie’s main skills is to move the puck off his stick and the other is to anticipate the play on the ice and disrupt the opponent’s offense by continually trespassing on their passing lanes. Brodie moves the puck masterfully and makes dozens of safe, little plays to keep the game flowing in the Maple Leafs’ direction.
The surprise for me about Brodie is how well he does these little things and how important he’s been this season as an addition to the defensive unit and particularly with the more visible, offensive-minded Morgan Rielly. It’s easy to see why Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas had his eyes on Brodie and tried to trade for him before the 2019-20 season when the team “settled” for Tyson Barrie from the Colorado Avalanche in the Nazem Kadri trade.
Brodie solves one of two problems the team believed stood in the its way of being a successful Stanley Cup playoff contender – something the organization hasn’t been since 2004. One problem was the team lacked “grit” and the second was the team’s defense had to be solidified. Brodie has helped solve the second.
There are two surprises for me watching Brodie’s contributions to the team. The first surprise is just how much improved the team’s defense is with a rock-solid defender like Brodie who helps stabilize the on-ice defense for almost 22 minutes a game. The second surprise is just how much a strong team defense impacts the team’s won-loss column.
Surprising Player #3: Rasmus Sandin Is Not the Player He Was Only a Season Ago
I know it’s a bit early to crown young Rasmus Sandin as central to the Maple Leafs’ defense moving into the future, but his play has been outstanding over the past three games. I know, small “N” (in this case, only three games played) as they say in research. However, I’m not the only one who’s noticed it.
Yesterday, my Maple Leafs’ writing team member Alex Hobson wrote a piece titled “Maple Leafs: Emergence of Sandin Makes Rielly Expendable.” I don’t want to lose Rielly, but I agree about the skills Sandin embodies.
After his three recent games, Sandin has also impressed his Maple Leafs’ teammates with his solid play on the blueline. During last night’s game, he had an assist and – perhaps most obvious – he delivered a smart and clean hit on a player six inches taller and almost 45 pounds heavier when the Winnipeg Jets’ Blake Wheeler lined him up only to be jarred into reality with a reverse hit by Sandin.
I’d been looking forward to watching Sandin play this season and even earlier wrote a post suggesting that, while Dubas’ moves to solidify the team’s defense might be good for the team this season, they set back Sandin’s career development. Perhaps I called that one wrong.
The Maple Leafs have experienced numerous team injuries – both within their forwards and especially to their goalies; however, until Bogosian was injured, the defense had been fortunate. Now it seems as if Sandin is exactly what the defense needs to shore up the roster as it approaches the playoffs.
I chose Sandin as one of the three most surprising players of the season for three reasons. First, he emerged from nowhere. Second, it’s not surprising that he’s improved, just how much he seems to have improved. Third, it’s surprising how much potential he seems to have on the power-play unit.
As coach Keefe noted, “The power play is a big part of his game. He’s got great confidence there. I’ve seen him from a very young age at the American League level take over a power play. We knew when we had him in the line-up we wanted to introduce him to the power play and give him an opportunity.”
Keefe added, “The way he moves the puck with his confidence that he has at 5-on-5 really helps us. He doesn’t get rattled by much at all. He’s a competitive guy. He’s getting better and better every game, and that’s really what you want to see with a young player.”
The team isn’t missing a beat with Sandin in the lineup. As the Maple Leafs face the remainder of the regular season, the team’s defense – even without Bogosian who was injured on Tuesday against the Canucks and will be out of the lineup for the rest of the regular season and part of the playoffs – looks to be the strongest it’s been in the past few seasons.
Sandin has only played three games; but if he keeps playing as he currently has been, he’ll add skill, puck movement, and even physicality to the lineup. Obviously, that was the organization’s expectation when it drafted him in the first-round (29th overall) of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. The surprise has been how quickly he’s adapted to the team’s system.
Other Maple Leafs’ Players Who’ve Surprised
It would be remiss not to note other surprises on the team. A list might include Jack Campbell’s great job as backup to Frederik Andersen and surprise NHL record holder for most wins at the start of the season; Joe Thornton’s testy personality and physical play; Wayne Simmonds’ speed; and the home run Dubas seems to have hit by adding newcomer Alex Galchenyuk.
The result is that the Maple Leafs now have a comfortable lead in the North Division of the NHL. It’s no surprise really that the team’s better than last season. Perhaps the surprise for me is that Maple Leafs’ fans – including myself – have come to take that for granted.