The NHL is filled with surprises. For example, who knows when another Martin St. Louis might show up? Most hockey fans know that St. Louis was a small, but skilled scorer, who was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, his first year of eligibility. However, many don’t know that St. Louis went undrafted, tried to make several NHL teams and was cut, and even was a healthy scratch with the Tampa Bay Lightning before he finally made it.
The rest is history. In total, St. Louis played over 1,000 NHL games and scored more than 1,000 points in his NHL career (391 goals, 642 assists, 1033 points in 1134 games). He was a member of the Lightning’s Stanley Cup championship team in 2004 and was the oldest-ever Art Ross Winner in 2013 at 37 years old.
In this post, I want to ask if the Toronto Maple Leafs might have found their own future Art Ross Winner. That isn’t likely, but one never knows. In addition, I will both look past this season towards the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. I will also look at the uniqueness of the team’s training camp this season.
Item One: Maple Leafs Invite Xavier Simoneau to Training Camp
Could there be another St. Louis just around the corner? No one knows, but the Maple Leafs are anxious to find out. Taking a chance on another diminutive player 20 years after St. Louis’ first NHL season, the team invited Xavier Simoneau to its training camp, which starts in less than a month. Simoneau is an undrafted free agent, but he isn’t new to the Maple Leafs. He skated during the team’s rookie camp earlier this year, and the Maple Leafs want to see a little more.
As a result, the 18-year-old
Part of the reason Simoneau went undrafted was his size and, at 5-foot-7, he’s about the same size St. Louis was. Second, he suffered a number of concussions. Still, as a no-risk possibility, Simoneau is worth a look-see. Simoneau has great hockey IQ and, for a small player, plays with a nasty edge.
And, it isn’t as if the Maple Leafs haven’t struck gold before. Andreas Johnsson was drafted during the seventh round because teams were worried about his asthma, and Trevor Moore went undrafted but is likely to make the team’s roster this season.
So, there’s a chance Simoneau will earn a deal with the Maple Leafs. Certainly, he’ll return to junior, but might he be in a Blue and White uniform in the near future? From my watching of Dubas at work, Simoneau seems to be the kind of player the team likes to take a chance on – small and skilled.
Item Two: Who Will the Maple Leafs Protect in the 2021 Expansion Draft?
It used to be that NHL expansion teams struggled for several seasons before they were able to compete. As one example, the Columbus Blue Jackets played their first NHL season in 2000-01; and, although they’ve become a good team, they’ve haven’t yet seen a Stanley Cup Final.
But, that wasn’t true of the Vegas Golden Knights, who used the expansion draft wisely and chose players like Marc-Andre Fleury, James Neal, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith (in a trade), and (by the way) undrafted Jonathan Marchessault. The Golden Knights not only made the Stanley Cup playoffs during the team’s inaugural season but also made the Stanley Cup Finals.
Starting in the 2021-22 season, the NHL will expand to its 32nd team based in Seattle. Former NHL star Ron Francis has already been named the team’s general manager.
The new Seattle team will follow the same rules to draft players from 30 other NHL organizations (the Golden Knights will be exempt) during the June 2021 Expansion Draft. Those rules include:
- No pre-draft trades.
- All no-movement clauses are honored.
- Players who will become restricted free agents in 2020 or 2021 remain with current teams.
- Players who will become unrestricted free agents in 2020 or 2021 either remain with current teams or are left off lists entirely (that would include Tyson Barrie, who currently cannot be protected by Maple Leafs).
Among those teams, obviously, will be the Maple Leafs. Like other NHL teams, the Maple Leafs can protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goalie. So, what players will the team protect?
The Hockey News commentator Jared Clinton wrote an interesting post answering just that question. As Clinton noted, this next Expansion Draft will be more difficult for the Maple Leafs than the last one. Specifically, during the 2017 Golden Knights expansion draft, the team protected seven forwards: Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Matt Martin, Connor Brown, and Josh Leivo.
In reality, other than Kadri and JVR, the quality of the other five protected players wasn’t strong. They were basically depth players; and, in fact, none of these players is still with the organization.
How things have changed. The Maple Leafs were not then the team they are now. John Tavares was still with the New York Islanders, and the Maple Leafs best young players at the time (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander) didn’t need draft protection. Ahead of this expansion draft, the Maple Leafs will have a dilemma.
Matthews, Nylander, and Marner (assuming he’s still with the team) require protection. So does Tavares, whose contract has a no-movement clause. Then, the pair of recently-signed Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson will likely also be protected. Then, who?
Here are Clinton’s projections:
Seven protected forwards: John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, and Jeremy Bracco.
Bracco is an interesting choice. Although he was a point-a-game player last season with the Toronto Marlies, the jury is out on whether Bracco could ever make the Maple Leafs roster. He’s a good skater and a great passer, with great on-ice vision. Although he was a great power-play specialist, he wasn’t called on to play much defense last season. How his game will translate to the NHL is in question.
If Bracco is protected, Alex Kerfoot cannot be protected. I have to believe, after looking at the Maple Leafs roster, Kerfoot would be the player who might likely be chosen in the draft.
The three protected defensemen are easier to choose. Barrie cannot be protected because he’s a free agent, then obviously Morgan Rielly, Travis Dermott, and Jake Muzzin (who Clinton believes the Maple Leafs will sign during the season) will be the three protected.
Obviously, unless something really strange occurs, the protected goaltender would be starter Frederik Andersen.
As Clinton notes, the Maple Leafs are in good shape and “should have everything they need to exit the expansion process with a core group of forwards that can produce a top-five result with their eyes closed.”
Heading to Training Camp
In the absence of signing Mitch Marner, Dubas is obviously trying to create a cadre of possible prospects or depth players to fill out the bottom part of the team’s roster. That makes the upcoming training camp especially interesting. This season’s team will be an odd one, with hugely expensive contracts for team stars, and exceedingly cheap contracts for the remainder of the players. That leaves open spots for new players to come in and impress.
For me, that makes an interesting season. I love seeing the stars play, but I also love the surprise of watching a young prospect or an aging veteran seeking one more chance do well. If the team’s bottom-six can play strong defense, it should be a strong season for the Maple Leafs.