Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Nylander, Aston-Reese & Gaudette

In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll take a little review of where things are as the team enters the 2022-23 regular season. What will be the status of the team’s second line? Second, I’ll look at one of the team’s biggest improvements in the four seasons that I’ve been covering the Maple Leafs – that’s the defence.

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Third, I’ll share a surprise I discovered in my research last night. Not only did Adam Gaudette and Zach Aston-Reese play a couple of seasons together at Northeastern University, but Aston-Reese was the better scorer of the two. Finally, I’ll take a look at a few of the questions the team must answer – one way or another – as the training camp opens.

Item One: Maple Leafs Second Line Isn’t That Bad

At the start of the offseason, there was concern that one hole in the Maple Leafs’ lineup was at the left-wing position of the team’s second line. However, really when you look at the team’s second line, it isn’t that bad. 

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I, for one, would love to see Pierre Engvall have some time on the left-wing spot, but I also did come to appreciate his work on the third line last season. And despite what seemed like a boring season almost, Alex Kerfoot put up a career-high 51 points (with 13 goals and 38 assists) playing every game of the season all over the lineup. So it’s hard not to like what he brings to the ice every game – and he hasn’t been injured.

Alex Kerfoot Toronto Maple Leafs
Alex Kerfoot, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In addition, although I’d love to see the first line split up a bit so that Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner could take turns with other line-mates, the other side of the coin suggests that if something isn’t broken don’t fix it. Who would want to argue with the success that these two youngsters bring to the team? 

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At the same time, we know that Michael Bunting works really well as the third partner on the first line. Would he continue to work well in another role? He plays the kind of game that would work lots of places, but as well? That could be another question.

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All this to say that there’s probably a good chance that Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe will leave things alone and bring back the same second line that played mostly together last season. That would be Kerfoot on the left wing, John Tavares at the center spot, and William Nylander at the right wing.

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In reality, it means running out a top-six regular-season lineup that played well during the regular season but that couldn’t score the big goal when it was needed against the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy last postseason. Vasilevskiy might be an all-world goalie, but the team still needs to beat him when it counts. That’s the reality the Maple Leafs are facing.

It makes no sense to me to put one of the Maple Leafs’ most skilled offensive players (Nylander) on the third line. And, in five-on-five hockey, as TSN’s analytic guru Travis Yost pointed out a couple of days ago, the Maple Leafs’ second line is outplaying their competition when they are together.

Item Two: Maple Leafs Defense Has Grown Tons Over the Past Three Seasons

I will soon be celebrating four seasons of covering the Maple Leafs. My first post was on November 21, 2018, and I considered whether the Maple Leafs should trade defenseman Jake Gardiner. Ironic that the first post was about the Maple Leafs’ defense. In those days, the team’s defense was not that strong. 

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How things have changed. Blame Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas for a lot of things, but one thing I give him credit for is how he’s created a strong defensive corps for the team. Given an injury or two or three, which is the nature of the game, last season was the team’s best in terms of its defense. This season, the Maple Leafs will play three defensively reliable pairings, including the third pairing with a former Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano.

Mark Giordano Toronto Maple Leafs
Mark Giordano, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

It’s a reliable defensive group and has turned from a team problem into one of the team’s strengths. And, I’m not even counting Rasmus Sandin in this mix because – as of this minute – he’s not there yet. Given that, when the RFA signs with the team (and I expect him to sign), the defensive corps will be even stronger.

What a change over the past four seasons. 

Item Three: Zach Aston-Reese Might Not Be As Offensively Impoverished As We Thought

In doing some research on Zach Aston-Reese, whose signing hit the team like a storm, I discovered that he and another offseason pickup (Adam Gaudette) had played together for two seasons at Boston’s Northeastern University. I had known that Gaudette had won the Hobey Baker Award there, which is presented annually to the top NCAA men’s hockey player. But I didn’t know much of about Aston-Reese until he signed as a PTO. What I first learned was that his defensive skills were lauded and his offensive skills were deemed almost nonexistent. 

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Well, it seems that, during the time Gaudette and Aston-Reese played together at Northeastern University, life was a bit different. During the 2016-17 season, Aston-Reese was the highest scorer on the team with 63 points (scoring 31 goals and adding 32 assists) in 38 games. Gaudette was the third-highest scorer with 26 goals and 26 assists (for 52 points) in 37 games.

Now the two will likely work together trying to shut down the other team’s scoring and not worrying so much about scoring themselves.

What’s New with the Maple Leafs?

A few questions remain for the Maple Leafs this regular season. The three most imminent include whether Rasmus Sandin signs a contract before the training camp.

Rasmus Sandin Toronto Maple Leafs
Rasmus Sandin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

A second is the status of Aston-Reese. Will his PTO turn into a contract for the regular season? And, if it does, will a trade be made? 

A third question is whether Kerfoot and Justin Holl actually remain on the team for a stretch of time. 

There’s only a little time left before we will see.