Because the NHL regular season has been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in each of the News & Rumors posts I’m writing recently about the Toronto Maple Leafs I’m trying to do three things: reviewing the 2019-20 season and some of the surprises that occurred, collecting glimpses of what current Maple Leafs players are doing during their time in quarantine, and searching for news emerging from the organization.
In today’s post, I’ll take a quick look back at William Nylander’s 2019-20 season and suggest why I believe he’s the Maple Leafs comeback player of the year. I’ll check on what Auston Matthews and head coach Sheldon Keefe are engaged in during their “time off.” And, I’ll look at two young players general manager Kyle Dubas signed last week.
Item One: William Nylander Was the Comeback Player of the Year
When I started to cover the Maple Leafs for The Hockey Writers early in November 2018, the biggest story was William Nylander’s protracted holdout and last-minute signing of a six-year contract extension prior to the Dec. 1 deadline. I knew that Maple Leafs fans believed Nylander was a great young player; however, that’s not the Nylander who showed up to finish the 2018-19 season. Instead, the young Swede struggled during the 54 games he played, scoring only 7 goals and 20 assists – an average of exactly one point every second game.
Although the young forward’s confidence might have been waning, he never lacked talent. During the 2019 Ice Hockey World Championships in Slovakia, he led all international players in scoring with 18 points in only eight games played.
He obviously regained his swagger; and, during the 2019 NHL European Player Media Tour in Stockholm last August he announced, “I’m looking forward to this season to dominate.”
Apparently, he meant it. By the end of January, he’d passed his previous NHL career-high of 22 goals he scored during the 2016-17 season. When the season abruptly was suspended in early March, he was only two points (59) from setting a new NHL career-high for points. He scored 61 points during both 2016-17 and 2017-18.
In past seasons, Nylander was criticized for playing too far outside, but things changed. This season, he’s shown a desire to carry pucks to the net, and that desire has paid off on the score sheet. He’s been banging in those “dirty goals” near the crease.
When the season ended, he was second on the Maple Leafs in goals with 31 (Matthews had 47), fourth in points with 59 (only Matthews, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares scored more), and his nine power-play goals were three behind Matthews for the team lead. He’s made a big-time comeback.
Item Two: Auston Matthews Is Sitting But Wants to Be Playing
In an interview with TSN’s Kristen Shilton on April 9, Auston Matthews admitted he would love a have chance to battle in this season’s NHL goal-scoring race against the Boston Bruins David Pastrnak and the Washington Capitals Alex Ovechkin.
When the season was suspended, Matthews was a single goal behind those two for the top spot in the NHL. Pastrnak and Ovechkin had 48 goals, and he’d scored 47.
Matthews shared, “It’s pretty cool and humbling to be in the same conversation as a guy like [Ovechkin]. Being in a scoring race with a guy like him, he’s been a generational player and he’s made a big impact beyond the game and led the way for lots of players and lots of guys. It’s humbling; and, hopefully, we can get back to playing hockey and can compete again, that’s what everyone wants to do.”
That said, Matthews is wise enough to understand there are more important global events to solve before he returns to the ice. And, as I noted in earlier posts this past week, Matthews has been doing his part to help with the COVID-19 crisis.
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Still, as Matthews noted, when he looks back at the regular season, he believes there’s “unfinished business” that impacts both the Maple Leafs and his own goals.
Item Three: Coach Sheldon Keefe Is Far Busier Than His Players
NHL players and coaches have very different jobs during the NHL suspension. For players, there’s not much to do except stay in good shape and self-isolate to protect against illness. Coaches, on the other hand, are far busier preparing for all sorts of contingencies that might present themselves if the 2019-20 season ever starts again.
Matthews has been hanging out with Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen in Arizona and has been binge-watching “Love is Blind” on Netflix and “Love Island” on CBS. Head coach Sheldon Keefe has also been binge-watching, but he’s watching game film of his own team and teams the Maple Leafs might play should they ever restart the season.
Keefe’s been staying busy during the pause of the 2019-20 season. He notes that his family has “gone through the same emotions and similar experiences as everyone else. I’ve tried to take advantage. I’ve really enjoyed that.”
However, Keefe also admitted, “Even in the off-season, you’re still busy, you always seem to be on the run … As a coach, you want to continue to work and be prepared as possible for what might be coming.”
He’s been studying film and communicating with players, general manager Kyle Dubas, and his assistant coaches. (from “Maple Leafs coach Keefe keeps busy with Leafs during COVID-19,” Lance Hornby, Toronto Sun, 07/04/20)
Item Four: Toronto Marlies Sign Jeremy McKenna & Noel Hoefenmayer to AHL Contracts
Dubas signed two more young players – Jeremy McKenna and Noel Hoefenmayer – to two-year AHL contracts with the Toronto Marlies.
The 20-year-old McKenna, a native of Summerside, PEI, has been a prolific scorer in his four seasons with the Moncton Wildcats. For the past three seasons, he’s scored more than a point-a-game, and in 2018-19 he scored 45 goals and 52 assists in 68 games. During the 2019-20 season, he scored 40 goals and 42 assists in 57 QMJHL games. Although he attended the 2019 Calgary Flames training camp, he’s an undrafted free agent prospect.
The 21-year-old Hoefenmayer is a high-scoring defenseman who skated with the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s this season. In 2019-20, he scored 26 goals and 82 points in 58 OHL games. Although he was originally drafted by the Arizona Coyotes, they never signed him so Dubas picked him up instead.
This is another smart move by Dubas. It’s absolutely no-risk for the Maple Leafs, who didn’t even sign Hoefenmayer to a traditional entry-level contract.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
Frankly, no one knows what’s next. I, for one, am always anxious to follow how Dubas thinks his work and look forward to learning more about the business of hockey just watching him put ideas into practice.
For anyone interested in the business of hockey, Dubas is a good study. What will he do this week?