As is the case with most teams, an 82-game schedule can bring so many ups and downs throughout its course. Some experience more lows than others, while some teams feed of the extended highs of a good season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are accustomed to rollercoaster-type seasons. More often than not the regular season brings those highs, while the playoffs – especially as of late – brings the lows of not being able to find sustained success.
It’s because of that, that we decided to look at some of the ups and downs for the Maple Leafs on a weekly basis. What headlines have Leafs Nation raving and which ones have them getting ready to fold it in for the year. With that, here’s the first edition of our Maple Leafs’ three up and three down.
Plus One: Maple Leafs Sign Ovchinnikov
Let’s call it a minor plus in this week’s look at the Maple Leafs’ headlines, but the team signed 2020 fifth-round pick Dmitri Ovchinnikov to a three-year entry-level contract on Feb. 18. The deal carries an annual average value (AAV) of $835,000 and Ovchinnikov will report to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL as soon as his Canadian work permits are approved.
The 19-year-old had 13 goals and 29 points in 22 games for Sibirskie Snaipery Novosibirsk in the MHL and three points in 17 KHL games this season before mutually terminating his contract.
Ovchinnikov should provide some solid depth to the Marlies roster and it will give the Maple Leafs’ brass more time and access to see what he’s able to do in North America. Given the opportunity, this could prove to be a great move for the Maple Leafs and an underrated pick from the 2020 draft.
Minus One: Maple Leafs Lose to Blue Jackets, Canadiens
In back-to-back games, on back-to-back nights, the Maple Leafs lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens in what should’ve been four easy points – on paper that is. Albeit they did get one after Jason Spezza tied the game against the Blue Jackets late in the third, the team didn’t look good in either contest.
In fact, Sam Montembeault looked like a Vezina-capable goalie against the Maple Leafs in Montreal and Jean-François Bérubé doubled down and finished with 39 saves on 42 shots. Both teams ran all over the Maple Leafs physically and were able to capitalize on their chances, while the Maple Leafs’ special teams let them down at crucial points during each game.
Keefe explained that, “Sometimes you need these kinds of games as a wake-up call.” That was following the loss to the Canadiens, but will this be a wake-up call for the Maple Leafs? Time will tell.
Plus Two: Maple Leafs Acquire Lyubushkin
This past week, the Maple Leafs filled one spot on their blue line by acquiring Ilya ‘The Russian Bear’ Lyubushkin from the Arionza Coyotes along with Ryan Dzingel in exchange for Nick Ritchie and a conditional pick (Arizona’s choice of a 2023 third-round pick or a second-round pick in 2025).
While Dzingel was placed on waivers shortly after the trade and claimed by the San Jose Sharks, Lyubushkin has suited up for two games with the Maple Leafs since the trade.
In those two contests, the defenceman – known for his stay-at-home tendencies has averaged just under 16 minutes of ice-time with four hits and two blocked shots to go along with a penalty in the win against Minnesota on Thursday.
The Maple Leafs did lose out on Dzingel, but by moving Ritchie’s contract gives the Maple Leafs a hint of cap relief. On paper, this should be a win for the Maple Leafs, with Lyubushkin filling a spot on a blue line that needs another rock heading into playoffs.
Minus Two: Maple Leafs’ Muzzin Injured
Speaking of stay-at-home-type defensemen, the Maple Leafs lost Jake Muzzin in their 5-2 loss at the hands of the Canadiens. The defenceman suffered what looked like another head injury after colliding with Chris Wideman and hitting this head on the ice.
This comes not long after Muzzin returned from another apparent head injury and makes for a very scary situation for the veteran defenceman. The Maple Leafs quickly responded by placing the oft-injured blueliner on long-term injury reserve (LTIR), a move that team brass explains is to take pressure off Muzzin in terms of trying to come back too soon.
The move does open up some cap freedom for the Maple Leafs heading into the trade deadline, but there is some worry as to what the long-term effects could be for Muzzin after back-to-back head injuries.
Plus Three: Maple Leafs’ Reveal Heritage Classic Throwbacks
I’ll just come out and say it. I don’t mind the throwback Toronto Arenas jerseys that the Maple Leafs will be wearing for the Heritage Classic in Hamilton in March. The dark navy blue is a subtle difference from a jersey that is so tough to manipulate for moments like these and the the large ’T’ on the front of the jersey is a great throwback to the early days of Toronto hockey.
There has been some shade thrown at the blue-on-blue ‘Arenas’ on the front, but it’s kind of a nice touch that you see up close that doesn’t take away from the overall subtleness and simplicity of the jersey.
An added bonus is the textured detail on the numbers both on the back and the sleeves of the jersey making it look more like a sweater than a hockey jersey. While it’s not for everyone, it’ll certainly be fun to watch them skate around outside in mid-March.
Let’s face it, the Maple Leafs’ jerseys aren’t the easiest to make big changes to.
Minus Three: Rodion Amirov Shares Health Concerns
It’s fitting that we close this week with the upsetting news surrounding Maple Leafs’ prospect and 2020 first-round pick Rodion Amirov. As the team and Amirov’s agent announced this week, the 20-year-old was diagnosed with a brain tumour while he was being treated for another injury.
The diagnosis shuts down Amirov’s season and he will receive treatment with his family by his side in Germany. Amirov has released multiple statements regarding his diagnosis and thanking everyone who has exhibited support.
While he will be undergoing treatment and focusing on his diagnosis, Amirov has asked that everyone stay positive as he will do the same. Dan Milstein, his agent, has said that his client is continuing to train both on and off the ice while he steps away from the game to focus on his health.
The 2021-22 season has been a roller coaster ride for sure for the Maple Leafs thus far, and as such we’ll continue to bring you all the ups and downs that surround this team moving forward.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.