In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I want to help fans stay more up-to-date on what’s happening within the organization and throughout the NHL that might impact the Maple Leafs. Today’s news and rumours involve the possibility of a new normal, the possibility of Auston Matthews winning an NHL award, and the Maple Leafs’ defense.
Item One: Might We Be Nearing an NHL New Normal?
As the NHL head office engages in the difficulties of dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the regular season, the postseason, and all things NHL-related, conversations have begun about whether it would be wise to permanently move the start of the regular season to a later date.
Mike Chambers of the Denver Post reported that “sources” told him the NHL might consider moving the regular-season start date to much later in the calendar year – November, December, or even just after the new year, (from “Chambers: NHL’s summer-long Stanley Cup playoffs this year could become permanent,” Mike Chambers, Denver Post, 06/06/2020).
Chambers reported that “the league likes the idea of growing the game after the NFL and NBA seasons are complete and when baseball is traditionally the only major sport in-season.”
He added that former Colorado Avalanche general manager François Giguère believes the league won’t “begin the 2020-21 season until 2021 when it is allowed to have fans in attendance.”
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote in his dialogue The Republic, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” As the NHL tries to solve problems created by the pandemic, their problem-solving may have envisioned a creative way of looking at the future.
It’s interesting to think about the Stanley Cup Playoffs in July or even August, but we will see fan support this summer if the NHL’s contingency plans are enacted. Maybe summer hockey will become the new normal.
Item Two: Is Auston Matthews an Award Winner?
In his weekend edition of Hockey Buzz, Mike Augello looked at the Maple Leafs’ 2019-20 season and suggested that only one player on the team – Auston Matthews – might be in line for an NHL Award.
Matthews ended the season one goal behind both Alex Ovechkin and David Pastrnak in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy. He also tied Ovechkin for the most even-strength goals (35) and landed in the top 10 of NHL scoring with 80 points (47 goals, 33 assists). As far as his prowess on the Maple Leafs, he led the team in power-play goals (12), power-play points (25), plus/minus (+19), and shots on goal (290).
What makes his quest for the Rocket Richard Trophy interesting is that, as Sportsnet’s Luke Fox pointed out on June 1, Matthews was unlucky. He hit the iron 13 times throughout the season – ringing the puck off three crossbars and 10 posts. Pastrnak hit eight posts and Ovechkin three during the 2019-20 season. Neither hit a crossbar.
Augello thinks that, although Matthews won’t win the Hart Trophy, he has a good chance of winning the Lady Byng, awarded to the player judged to combine sportsmanship, gentlemanly conduct, and high standards of on-ice play. If that is the case, and given that young Nick Robertson was just named the winner of the CHL’s Sportsman of the Year, it would be an honour for the Maple Leafs organization.
Combined with his high level of play, Matthews only had eight penalty minutes in 70 games. That compares favourably with the Florida Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov, who won the Lady Byng last season when he finished 10th in NHL scoring (96 points) with only eight penalty minutes in 82 games.
Augello thinks the other candidates will be the Edmonton Oilers’ Art Ross Trophy-winner Leon Draisaitl (the NHL’s leader in points with 110 and only 18 penalty minutes in 71 games) and the Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon (who scored 93 points with 12 penalty minutes in 69 games).
Item Three: Two Young Maple Leafs Defensemen
Defenseman #1: Timothy Liljegren
With all the talk about the Maple Leafs’ defense, and the search for a new defenseman, fans have to wonder about Timothy Liljegren’s status within the organization. What’s his future with the club?
My reading suggests that Liljegren is progressing nicely. He’s played three seasons with the Toronto Marlies, and last season, he scored 30 points (5 goals and 25 assists) in 40 games and earned a berth in the AHL All-Star Game. After both his offense and defense improved, the 21-year-old was called up to the Maple Leafs this season after many veteran defensemen were sidelined with injuries.
Liljegren played 11 NHL games and, similar to other young defensemen, grew more comfortable as he played. Assistant general manager Laurence Gilman thinks the young Swede is NHL-ready. Early in May, Gilman reported: “I’m very fond of Timothy Liljegren, both as a person and as a hockey player, and I really felt that his game took a tremendous step this season. He obviously has very good puck skills, he transports the puck very well. He skates very well, he has a good shot.”
Gilman added, “The greatest impact in his game in my mind was how he processed the game. How he thought his decision-making going forward. I believe Timothy is ready to become an NHL player, whatever level that’s going to be. I will be surprised if he doesn’t play in the top seven or eight with the Toronto Maple Leafs next year.”
Given the flat or lowered salary cap that’s likely to be in place next season as a result of lost revenue from the NHL shut down, Liljegren will probably get his opportunity. He’s cheap enough at $863,333 to help the team fit under the 2020-21 salary cap and he’s waiver-exempt.
Defenseman #2: Travis Dermott
Although Travis Dermott isn’t a prospect any longer, fans also have to wonder about the 23-year-old’s status within the organization. There have been rumours of his exit. What’s Dermott’s future with the club?
We know that he’s a strong skater with good hockey instincts, but his offensive numbers have been down the last two seasons. That might be a result of a slow start to 2019-20 because of offseason shoulder surgery. It also might be that his role on the club has been redefined over the past two seasons.
Dermott carried the best plus/minus (+14) among Maple Leafs defenders last season and did so playing on the team’s top pairing on an injury-riddled defense during the latter part of the season. From my perspective, the defense didn’t get enough credit for holding it together when Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Cody Ceci were injured at the same time.
I believe general manager Kyle Dubas will likely sign Dermott to a short-term contract during the offseason. I also believe that, unless a big trade occurs this offseason, the team will be “forced” to go with a younger defense that tests the NHL-readiness of its Marlies prospects. It’s possible that Muzzin, Rielly, recent signee KHL defenseman Mikko Lehtonen, Rasmus Sandin, Liljegren, Dermott, and Justin Holl will be on the team’s blue line next season.
One Maple Leafs defenseman will eventually be exposed to the new Seattle team in the expansion draft. It won’t be Rielly or Muzzin, so it’s either Holl or Dermott. That Dubas signed Holl to a $2 million, three-year contract, means he’s valued by the organization. Right now, I’m guessing Dermott will be exposed.
What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?
As we enter Phase 2 of the NHL re-start, a few Maple Leafs are in town being tested for COVID-19. The plan is to clear them for a return to small-group workouts this week. TSN’s Kristen Shilton tweeted that players who are cleared can begin practicing on Monday and might begin to work out.
Reports suggest that Phase 3 won’t begin until after July 10, but things are starting to happen. For hockey-starved Maple Leafs fans, that’s good news.