Maple Leafs News & Rumors: O’Reilly, Samsonov, Muzzin & Marner

The Toronto Maple Leafs had an impressive 5-0 start to their game last night against the Buffalo Sabres and held on to win 6-3. The newly put-together second line of John Tavares, Ryan O’Reilly, and Mitch Marner dominated play and didn’t quit until the game was out of reach. Then, for good measure, they scored an empty netter to put the icing on the cake.

It was an impressive game for the threesome. However, after the game, Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe focused his praise on the team game and not on the players per se. He loved the team’s counter-attacking style of play and noted that each line contributed to the win in different ways. 

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Coach Keefe probably went to bed dreaming that his team could play that way every game. Alas, that’s not life in the NHL. However, Keefe did emphasize the importance of working toward consistent performances like the one last night. 

I’ve read several hockey pundits suggesting that the Maple Leafs’ first period was one of the best the team has played in several seasons. Should that happen redundantly, even if Auston Matthews had only a single shot on goal in the game, it would make the Maple Leafs a hard team to beat.

Item One: Ryan O’Reilly Scores Three Times Against His Old Team

Last night against the Sabres, newcomer O’Reilly had an outstanding game. His hat trick (he also added an assist) led the way to the win. O’Reilly got the Maple Leafs off to a strong start by scoring two goals less than five minutes into the game. His third goal was the empty-net goal that finished the game. 

Ryan O'Reilly Toronto Maple Leafs
Ryan O’Reilly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

Suddenly all the questions about O’Reilly’s poor season with the St. Louis Blues have sort of dissipated into the background. After the four-point explosion, he has scored 15 goals and added nine assists (for 24 points) in 43 games on the season. He’s made an immediate impact on the team in just three games, with three goals and five points. 

O’Reilly is a welcome addition to the team. Now the questions begin as to where he will play. His recent acquisition offers several options for the team’s forward lines. Before last night’s game, coach Keefe announced that O’Reilly would play as the team’s second-line center for the near future. 

Related: Ryan O’Reilly’s Season So Far Means Nothing for Maple Leafs

However, after the game, Keefe might have modified that thought as he looked further ahead. He noted, “I still feel, at the end of the day, we’re going to have [John] back at centre.” 

Keefe added, “but you want to build chemistry, and you want to build confidence so that if and when you go to it that that’s what it’s capable of.”

Item Two: Ilya Samasonov Holds on to Win

Ilya Samsonov started in goal last night. He had been ill with a ”stomach bug” and didn’t have his best game against the Chicago Blackhawks in his last game, giving up four goals on 27 shots in the team’s 5-3 loss. Against the Sabres, he was much better. 

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On the night, Samsonov stopped 29 of the 32 shots he saw. He was perfect in the first two periods but gave up three goals on 13 shots in the third. His record in 29 games is now 20-7-2 on the season, with a 2.40 goals-against-average, and a .915 save percentage. Still, is it concerning that he’s allowed seven goals on 59 shots over his last two starts?

Item Four: Jake Muzzin Announcement Soon?

In other news, the Maple Leafs announced that Jake Muzzin would not play again this regular season or during the postseason. His cervical spine injury was simply too serious. As a result, Muzzin and the team will prioritize his recovery and long-term health.

Muzzin’s loss for the rest of the season (and especially the postseason) is significant. Will the team choose to rely more heavily on defensemen they have in the lineup; or will they seek to bolster their defensive depth via a trade?

The move to shut Muzzin down for the remainder of the season isn’t a surprise. There were indications that pointed to him being ruled out for the rest of the season. He’s been on long-term injured reserve since early February.

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

During the regular season, the Maple Leafs have used the defenseman’s $5.625 million cap hit to address areas to fill on their roster. They’ll continue to use that salary-cap space during the rest of the regular season. Muzzin’s cervical spine issue has kept him out of the lineup since Oct. 17.

The word was that he had been training with the team, hoping to return. Thinking personally, it has to be disappointing for him not to be able to join his teammates in their quest for the Stanley Cup. Muzzin is signed through the 2023-24 season. There’s no word on what will happen next.

Mark Giordano Toronto Maple Leafs
With Jake Muzzin out, Mark Giordano will be even more important to the Toronto Maple Leafs
(Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Muzzin’s been nothing but a team-oriented player for the Maple Leafs since he arrived from the Los Angeles Kings. At the time, in my memory, then-head coach Mike Babcock wasn’t a fan of the trade and implied that Muzzin was the best defenseman they could get at the time. In my mind, Muzzin has been considerably better than second-best.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

I find it interesting to see how the media and fans react to new acquisitions. The second line certainly has generated some hype because they have exceeded expectations. It’s great to see them come together so quickly. 

My guess is that that line’s success is the “fault” of Mitch Marner, who seems to carry the play and create chances for his two less-speedy, but certainly high hockey IQ players. It took me a while to warm up to Marner, but he’s certainly a player who can make magic happen on the ice. 

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When he’s at his best, Marner is an exciting player. Is it my imagination that Tavares and O’Reilly have a ton of similar traits? Both had solid games last night; but still, Marner’s five assists carried the mail.

When this iteration of the Maple Leafs uses their talent and fires on all cylinders, they’re a tough team to beat.

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