Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Nylander, Campbell, Salary Cap & Spezza

I wonder whether — if the Toronto Maple Leafs make the playoffs — this three-game California road trip might not come back to haunt the team. Anaheim Ducks head coach Dallas Eakins had one primary goal against the Maple Leafs in Friday night’s game and he pulled it off.

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As he noted, “The primary objective was to jam that neutral zone up. I thought our guys did a great job. It was muddy and deep coming through there for them. That’s what we have to do against teams with great skill like that.”

That’s exactly what the Ducks did; they neutral(ized) a team with great goal-scoring firepower. Specifically, after a great little scoring run, Auston Matthews was held off the scoresheet completely during the last two games. The only Maple Leafs player to score during two games was William Nylander, who scored with three minutes left. But by that time, the team’s scoring drought had reached 144:33.

For Maple Leafs fans doing the math, that drought lasted two whole games, plus one period, plus one five-minute overtime. “Nada,” as the greatest percentage of California residents would say.

Toronto has now lost its last three games and, as head coach Sheldon Keefe noted postgame, “This trip we haven’t been able to generate much offensively. You look at a lot of the goals we’ve scored here in recent games, a lot of it’s been happening around the net. We need to have more of a presence in there.”

Sheldon Keefe Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

With 13 games remaining, the Maple Leafs still hold down the final spot in the Atlantic Division ahead of the Florida Panthers by five points. But the team must start winning to make the postseason happen. As the team waits to face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday, in this post I want to help keep fans up-to-date with the news and rumors emerging from the organization.

Item One: William Nylander Finally Breaks the Maple Leafs Slump

William Nylander scored in Friday’s loss to the Ducks when he stole a clearing pass and put one over goalie Ryan Miller’s shoulder with three minutes left in the game. That goal was the 23-year-old Nylander’s 30th of the season and his 58th point in 67 games.

William Nylander, Morgan Reilly
Toronto Maple Leafs soon-to-be-returning Morgan Rielly celebrates with teammate William Nylander. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hans Deryk)

It’s a great comeback season for the young Swede, and his contract will become more palatable the closer he gets to 40 goals.

Item Two: It Wasn’t Jack Campbell’s Fault

Although it was Jack Campbell’s second-straight loss and his overall season’s record has now fallen to 11-12-3 overall (with a goals-against average of 2.80 and a .904 save percentage in 26 starts), he got little help from his team in his last two losses.

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He stopped 26 of 28 shots in Friday’s 2-1 loss to the Ducks and had a solid-enough game against the San Jose Sharks Tuesday night.

Item Three: Timothy Liljegren Is Being Returned to the Toronto Marlies

Timothy Liljegren was sent back to the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate the Toronto Marlies on Friday. There he will get plenty of ice time, which he wouldn’t have garnered with the big club, where he was one of eight defensemen on the roster.

Marlies defenseman Timothy Liljegren
HERSHEY, PA – MARCH 15: Toronto Marlies defenseman Timothy Liljegren (7) skates to the puck during the Toronto Marlies vs. the Hershey Bears AHL hockey game March 15, 2019 at the Giant Center in Hershey, PA. (Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The 20-year-old Swedish defenseman played 11 games with the Maple Leafs. He should be back sometime, more ready to make an impact.

Item Four: Cody Ceci Finally Returns to the Ice

Cody Ceci played just under 15 minutes on Friday night against the Ducks, after being activated from injured reserve earlier in the day. Ceci had scored 8 points in 54 games this season with the Maple Leafs.

Item Five: How Will the Maple Leafs Take Advantage of Next Season’s Higher Salary Cap?

During the NHL general manager’s meetings, it was announced that the upper limit of the salary cap would be moving upwards. In fact, TSN’s Frank Seravalli reports that the new NHL cap projection for 2020-21 would bump the cap up about $7 million more than the limit teams currently operate under (about $81.5 million).

Like a number of other teams, the Maple Leafs are right against that upper cap limit. Before news of the pending salary-cap jump, it would have likely been a summer that demanded Dubas make magic somewhere or move prized players either through trade or letting them sign with other teams. However, this raised salary cap offers a chance for Dubas to go after that extra player the team needs during the offseason.

There’s no secret that the Maple Leafs covet a top-four defenseman. Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci are likely gone, and the team probably can’t win with the defensemen that remain — a group built around Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin.

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Already, Alex Pietrangelo’s name has been tossed around. The 30-year-old is a great player and his $6.5 million contract ends after this season. He’s also Ontario-born, from about 50 km away from Toronto. But, if the team goes after him, he’ll cost them big on the open market.

Related: Remembering Borje Salming: “King” of Maple Leafs’ Defensemen

Other defensemen on expiring contracts include the Calgary Flames T.J. Brodie (now at $4.65 million), the Washington Capitals Brenden Dillon (now at $3.27 million), and the Vancouver Canucks Chris Tanev (now at $4.45 million). Might one of these players have the Maple Leafs as a new employer?

Item Six: Will the Maple Leafs Keep Jason Spezza Next Season?

On Mar. 4, Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts article noted the rumor that Jason Spezza wants to play another season. However, will he stay with the Maple Leafs?

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Certainly, Spezza’s getting older, but he still believes he can offer value to a team. Spezza admits there haven’t been any contract talks with Toronto about an extension, but he still has a passion for the game. From what I’ve seen this season, he has plenty to offer.

Although I don’t think salary is much of an issue for Spezza, if it is an issue the Maple Leafs aren’t likely a good landing place. However, given his limited ice time (just at 10:04 per game), his 25 points in 55 games looks pretty solid.

Jason Spezza Toronto Maple Leafs
Jason Spezza, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It isn’t likely Toronto could offer more than the NHL league minimum even if they wanted. Would another team take a chance on this potential future Hall of Fame player? If his ice time were increased, undoubtedly his production would also increase. I’m confident there’s an NHL team who believes he could still score 40 points if he were partnered with more skilled players. I’d love to see him with the Maple Leafs one more season.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

The team has a three-day break. I’m betting that Keefe will have the team working on moving through a clogged neutral zone. Breaking down the film on the three California games will likely be front-and-center for Maple Leafs coaches.