The Toronto Maple Leafs are on the move. The team held its final Phase 3 training camp practice of the NHL’s return-to-play agenda and on Sunday evening were tested one more time before they moved into the NHL’s Eastern Conference bubble in downtown Toronto.
It was a busy and focused two weeks of preparation for the Phase 4 postseason tournament. For those who know the Toronto area, the team will be quarantined at the Royal York Hotel for their qualifying-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, which starts on Aug. 2. They will only be allowed to move between their hotel, the arena, and a small group of league-approved off-site venues.
In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I will share some of the news emerging from the team as well as consider some of the difficulties that face all those who are entering the “bubble.”
Item One: When the Good News is Bad and Bad News Is Good
The “good” news for the Maple Leafs is that, if the team beats Columbus in their best-of-five play-in series and joins the group of 16 postseason teams vying for the Stanley Cup, it might be weeks before any of the Toronto players sees their families and friends. The bad news is that losing teams will be able to head home to be with their loved ones sooner.
I say this tongue-in-cheek, but my point is just how crazy the times in which we are living have become. On one level, this return-to-plan plan is amazingly well-crafted and carefully designed and on another level it’s surreal.
Phase 4 won’t be easy, but if players are considered employees, many Canadian workers spend long stretches away from home working in remote places all over the world. That said, it’s going to be tough for many of these young players to be away from their wives and children at a time when they are growing so quickly.
Although I understand this is how NHL players and staff earn their living, I want to appreciate the difficulties they’ll face as they are doing it.
Item Two: What the Phase 4 Postseason Roster Tells Us
Late on Sunday, the Maple Leafs released their Phase 4 roster. There weren’t many surprises. Young forward prospect Nick Robertson and defenseman Timothy Liljegren were chosen to be part of the team’s 31-man roster.
The 21-year-old Liljegren played in 11 games with the Maple Leafs this season. When Phase 3 started, his status was more than a little uncertain because he was deemed “unfit to play,” and there was suspicion he might have tested positive for COVID-19. That wasn’t the case. Early in training camp, he was replaced by Mac Hollowell, but in the end, the young Swedish defenseman was named to the final roster.
The 18-year-old Robertson captured fans’ imaginations after his great junior season with the Peterborough Petes where he scored 55 goals in 46 games. He was a second-round pick by the Maple Leafs (53rd overall) in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. Along with Ilya Mikheyev, he used this training camp to cement his future with the organization. Het is dynamic and might see some ice time during the exhibition game.
Item Three: Egor Korshkov Didn’t Make the Roster and Will Return to the KHL
On Sunday, reports surfaced that, after not being named to the Maple Leafs roster for Phase 4, Russian prospect Egor Korshkov will head back to Russia to play in the KHL. The move is likely for developmental reasons. Korshkov will play a season in Russia because the AHL and the ECHL aren’t guaranteed to play next season and the KHL plans to play.
Nothing in Korshkov’s game suggests that he’s moving back to the KHL for good, and he’ll probably return to the Maple Leafs for the 2021-22 season. Many commentators suggest he might even crack the team’s roster at that time. Given the flat salary cap, he’s the kind of inexpensive contract the Maple Leafs need – as do all other NHL teams.
The Maple Leafs chose Korshkov in the second round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft (31st overall). His game improved during the 2019-20 season with the AHL Toronto Marlies, and he scored 16 goals and nine assists in 44 games. In his one-game 2019-20 NHL debut, he scored a goal.
The 24-year-old Korshkov has great size at 6-foot-4 and 214 pounds, and although general manager Kyle Dubas has a propensity to sign players who meet the five Ss (small, smart, skilled, speedy, and spunky) it isn’t likely he will give up on Korshkov’s potential easily. As Auston Matthews shows, skilled players with size matter.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
Here’s what I don’t know and can’t find out. This morning, it was reported that Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins, who just finished playing a three-game series against the Phillies in Philadelphia, experienced a huge outbreak of COVID-19 cases and cancelled their trip home and home opener.
NBC News Philadelphia reported that at least eight players and two coaches tested positive for COVID-19 in addition to the four who reportedly tested positive before Sunday’s win over the Phillies. Now, both the Phillies and the Marlins are concerned. It was also reported that the Marlins players were cloistered inside the Phillies’ visitors’ clubhouse all weekend, which was staffed by the Phillies’ organization.
That’s bad news. The NHL and teams must be aware that there has to be a plan in place to deal with the possibility that the NHL’s Phase 4 plan might all go south. A bubble helps keeps things out, but it also becomes a sealed environment that keeps things in as well.
I’m hoping this all works, but I’m also sure there are plans if it doesn’t. Good luck, everyone.