Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Murray, Acciari, McCabe & Muzzin

Tonight the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Buffalo Sabres on home ice. The Sabres are a team of the future but are facing an uphill battle to make the playoffs this season. They are currently seven points behind the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. If they are to have any chance for the postseason, they need to begin stringing some wins together.

They are capable of doing so. Although they were drubbed last week by the Dallas Stars by a score of 10-4, their most recent game was a solid effort against the New York Rangers. They played a solid defensive game against the Rangers, with defenseman Rasmus Dahlin playing a key role. Dahlin is one of the top defensemen in the NHL.

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The Sabres will be trying to build on this recent performance and earn a much-needed win on the road against the Maple Leafs. It could be a close game. However, I expect a ton of scoring.

Related: Sabres News & Rumors: Luukkonen, Lyubushkin, Tuch & Dahlin

In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll take some time to share some thoughts about goalie Matt Murray’s play. The Hockey Writers‘ readers have been discussing his game in recent posts, and I’ll try to summarize some of their thoughts. I’ll also speak to why I think the team’s management went so “all in” on bringing in experienced defensemen.

Finally, I share some thoughts about the contributions of some of the new players to the team.

Item One: Fans Have Mixed Feelings About Matt Murray

Murray has been named the starter for tonight’s game against the Sabres. Murray has been in and out of the Maple Leafs’ lineup all season and recently returned from a 17-game stint on the Injury Reserved List. Since his return, he’s made two starts with a record of 1-1. The word also is that Ilya Samsonov is not quite 100%.

Matt Murray Toronto Maple Leafs
Matt Murray, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In those starts and a couple of starts before them, he’s given up four goals in each game. Over his last two, he’s allowed eight goals on 50 shots. That is far from a stellar save percentage. On the season, Murray has a record of 12-6-2, with a goals-against-average of 2.86 and a save percentage of .905.

Murray is expected to split starting duties with fellow goaltender Samsonov for the remainder of the season. That’s probably to give Samsonov some time offload management. 

In recent posts about Murray’s play, The Hockey Writers’ readers have had mixed feelings about Murray’s performance. Some readers acknowledge and credit him for battling hard and showing resilience after giving up early goals. Others believe he has lost his game and is only a backup goalie at best. They question the decision to acquire Murray instead of pursuing other options.

Related: History of NHL All-Star Game Format Changes

In truth, Murray’s past few seasons have not been stellar. However, I am not in the goalie-assessment business (except unprofessionally as a fan and a writer). So I don’t know for certain how any goalie will work out. It seems that goalies are susceptible to ups and downs in their performance. I do know that Murray has had postseason success. I also believe goalies can regain their form after dealing with injuries and other issues. My hope is that Murray will do so; and because I cannot read the future, I don’t know for sure that he won’t.

I’m unwilling to give up on any player – especially a goalie. If the team can find two goalies who can win on any given night that would be a huge advantage in the postseason. It just makes sense to me. It also allows for more flexibility in terms of rest and workload management and can give the team a better chance of winning games. 

Ilya Samsonov Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Samsonov, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

What I don’t know is whether Murray can regain his form and become one of those goalies. I’ll watch his play over the remainder of the season as the season progresses. He’s had the form and the game previously. From my unprofessional assessment, he needs the work and the confidence. Can that happen?

Item Two: Remembering Past Postseasons and Adding Defensemen

In terms of Maple Leafs’ management’s decision to bring in a number of experienced defensemen and head coach Sheldon Keefe’s decision to play an 11-forward and seven-defensemen lineup, I can’t help but wonder if the past three postseasons were on everyone’s consciousness. 

To my mind, the loss of Jake Muzzin due to injury in the 2020 Playoffs was one of the key factors why the Maple Leafs’ lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets. He was injured in Game 2 of that series and his physical play and defensive skills were missed by the team over the remaining games. The team was, as all Maple Leafs’ fans know, eliminated.

Related: Maple Leafs Commentary: Jake Muzzin, Two Different Players

This trade deadline, general manager Kyle Dubas added more experienced defensemen to the team’s roster before the trade deadline. Those defensemen included Jake McCabe, Erik Gustafsson, and Luke Schenn. The challenge now is to work these new additions into the team’s lineup before the postseason begins as a way to find the best defensive pairings possible before the postseason begins. 

Jake McCabe Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake McCabe, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Ryan O’Reilly’s broken finger has presented an opportunity to experiment with the team’s defensive depth and find solutions to potential problems in the playoffs. Perhaps that’s not the best thing that might have happened. But I can see the logic.

Item Three: Noel Acciari and Jake McCabe Have Looked Good

By the way, the two players the team recently acquired, Noel Acciari (from the St. Louis Blues) and Jake McCabe (from the Chicago Blackhawks), have looked good in their first games with the team. They’ve made an immediate impact and have contributed to the team’s success. 

Acciari in particular has impressed me with his reliability, his physicality, and his offensive abilities. As one reader (Andrew) suggested, he might not have the most graceful style on the ice, but his hockey IQ is really strong. He can hit, score, and push the pace of the game. He also has found strong chemistry with David Kampf, who to my mind is one of the team’s unsung players.  

Meanwhile, McCabe’s physical play and strong puck-carrying abilities are great assets. He works particularly hard in the neutral zone. It’s an advantage to have a defenseman who makes life difficult for opposing forwards and contributes to the team’s offensive efforts as well. McCabe does just that.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Schenn, McCabe, Woll & More

In the small sample size I’ve seen of Sam Lafferty (also from the Blackhawks) play, he looks physical and fast. He seems able to fit into any line on the team and contribute.

Sam Lafferty Toronto Maple Leafs
Sam Lafferty, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Overall, it looks as if the team has made solid acquisitions in Acciari, McCabe, and Lafferty. I trust they will continue to perform and contribute to the team’s success moving forward.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

In a player move before tonight’s game, Alex Steeves has been recalled from American Hockey League’s (AHL) Toronto Marlies. The 23-year-old forward has been moving up and down between the minors and the NHL recently, playing three games with the Maple Leafs this season. 

In 55 AHL games this campaign, Steeves has scored 17 goals and 45 points.

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