Maple Leafs’ Ondrej Kase Is at a Career Crossroads

Ondrej Kase was an interesting signing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He’s only 25 years old and he has talent – in fact, lots of talent. But Maple Leafs’ fans shouldn’t expect him to play any time soon.

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It isn’t because he’s not a good enough player. Instead, the problem is that Kase – sadly – has a history of concussions. All concussions are frightening, but in Kase’s case they’re even worse. He’s at a crossroads in his life where, if he can’t get well, his career as a hockey player is probably over.

From 30+ Goals in Two Seasons to None in Two Seasons

A slick puck-control playmaker who could score, at the age of 21 Kase put home 20 goals during the 2017-18 season with the Anaheim Ducks as a winger on center Ryan Getzlaf’s line. In fact, for two seasons, Kase shone. He totalled 31 goals and 20 assists (for 58 points) in 96 games during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. Then he was hurt.

Ondrej Kase Anaheim Ducks
Ondrej Kase, when he played with the Anaheim Ducks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, since he was traded to the Boston Bruins at the 2020 trade deadline, he’s been a shadow of his former self.  Because of his concussions, his health is precarious. In fact, he’s had five concussions during his last five seasons and was only off the Bruins’ LTIR for three games.

Why Would the Maple Leafs Sign Kase?

By picking up Kase, the Maple Leafs are doing two things.

First, they’re taking a chance on a player who, if he could regain his health, would probably become a great addition to the team. But that “IF” is all in capital letters.

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Second, the Maple Leafs are trusting in the organization’s first-rate medical facilities and player developmental staff. The Maple Leafs differ from other organizations in that they’re not limited by finances to invest in a person and a player like Kase. In fact, the organization’s financial resources have allowed them to build infrastructure that is far greater than the “measly” $81.5 million salary cap the Maple Leafs are forced to abide by when they sign players.

Toronto Is the Perfect Place for Kase, Play or Not

If there’s any team that can help Kase return to health, it’s Toronto. And say what you want about the Maple Leafs’ organizational leadership – and there seem to be many Maple Leafs’ fans who think the whole whack of them should be fired immediately – they’re ethical about  the way they try to protect the health of their players.

One has to believe the same is true with Kase. I can’t know the conversation between Dubas, Kase, and his agent; however, I’d guess it went something like this.

“Ondrej, we want you in Toronto. First, we’ll try to help get you back to being a healthy person. Second, we’ll see where you fit for us on the ice. We’ll commit to those two things, in that order. Your health is first; and, being a hockey player is second.”

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I believe that the Maple Leafs’ signing Kase is first an investment in returning him back to health. And, by the way, he’ll be paid $1.25 million to work on his health. Still, all that said and even with the team’s abundance of medical infrastructure, we’ll likely see Kase on the LTIR to start the season.

A Third Way to Look at the Kase Signing 

There are a few ways to look at the Kase signing. First, it’s typical of the Maple Leafs’ way of signing once high-level players who’ve hit a low spot. You can’t blame the Maple Leafs for hoping to score an overtime goal with each signing. The same is likely true with Kase. Second, it’s a low-risk gamble on a 25-year-old winger who was once on a path toward stardom.

Alex Galchenyuk
Alex Galchenyuk is typical of the kind of signings the Maple Leafs’ organization engages.
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, there’s a third way to look at the signing. Call me naïve, but I think it’s possible the Maple Leafs are (even among their other reasons) doing something helpful for a young man who’s probably at a life’s crossroads where his long-term health has become more important than his NHL career.

Kase hasn’t scored an NHL goal in two seasons. He didn’t score a single goal during his two years with the Bruins. There’s a good chance he’ll never play another NHL game. Still, the Maple Leafs invested in his future.

Maple Fans, Don’t Get Your Hopes Up – Still

Maple Leafs’ fans are probably wise not to bet on the possibilities that Kase could be the missing left-winger on either the John Tavares’ line or the Auston Matthews’ line that puts it over the top. 

Here’s what I think will happen with Kase and the Maple Leafs. The team will be exceedingly careful with him. But, if he’s deemed healthy enough to play, he could become a useful forward. But if fans are inclined to dream, how useful might Kase become?

According to a teammate Nick Ritchie, who’s been with Kase with the Bruins and the Ducks, Kase is “A great hockey player and even better person [who] obviously suffered some injuries that was tough for him to go through, but just a high-end player with lots of speed and skill and can score.”

Ritchie added hopefully, “I think he’s doing a lot better. He’s getting past the point and he’s going to be able to stay healthy for a long period of time here. The Leafs and the fans are going to love him.”

The Realist in me Isn’t Optimistic

Sadly, the realist in me thinks Ritchie might be overly optimistic. However, Kase does bring great potential. He’d be a wonderful redemption story if he does get well and eventually suits up for the Maple Leafs.

And that’s just the first-things-first order Kase and the Maple Leafs must engage in this venture together. First, Kase gets healthy. Second, and only second, he plays. Any other way would be engaging in an unethical risk with a hockey player’s health.

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For whatever you say about the Maple Leafs’ leadership, I don’t believe that they’d value winning a hockey game more than the value of a young man’s life.   

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