In the world of the NHL, we’re not certain of much. A new format for the postseason has been planned, but obstacles must be overcome. Traditional offseason activities – such as the NHL Entry Draft – have been postponed. The salary cap, which before March 2020 was expected to increase for next season, will likely not.
Despite all that, hockey is a beautiful game, and it’s improved over the seasons. Watch the “classic” replays and you’ll see that today’s rules – like them or not – allow gifted and skilled players to exhibit those gifts and skills.
Soon, we hope, hockey skills will be on display again. However, in the meantime, I hope to help Toronto Maple Leafs fans become more up-to-date with what’s happening in the organization. Here are some of the news and rumors.
Item One: Odds Released on the Maple Leafs Play-in Series
On June 2, OddShark.com released the odds for the Maple Leafs’ play-in series with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The site listed the Maple Leafs as early betting favourites. In part, these odds reflect that the Maple Leafs roster that was plagued with injuries for much of the season is almost – except for Andreas Johnsson – entirely healthy. A healthy roster looks formidable to me, and the oddsmakers agree.
If the NHL regular season had concluded as expected, the Maple Leafs would have likely placed eighth in the Eastern Conference and would have played the Tampa Bay Lightning int he first round. Not only are the Lightning a strong team, but they also have the recent memory of being swept in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets in one of the biggest upsets of the past few seasons.
Instead, the Maple Leafs will play these same Blue Jackets. Toronto is aware that Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella and his charges are capable of playoff success at their expense. However, should the Maple Leafs get past the Blue Jackets, as most hockey commentators believe they will, they are likely to face a difficult first-round matchup with the Lightning or another strong team.
The Maple Leafs the favourite to beat the Blue Jackets because their recent record against Columbus is positive. They have earned at least a point in six of seven games since the end of 2017. Hockey’s hockey, but the Maple Leafs will likely move to the playoffs.
Item Two: What Will Happen to the “Goat” After this Season?
Frederik Gauthier’s nickname is the Goat. After the 2019-20 season, he’s a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. Will he be back and, if he is, what might his contract look like?
The 25-year old, 6-foot-5, 239-pound Gauthier is a bubble player when all the Maple Leafs forwards are healthy. When he plays “regularly,” he skates about seven minutes a game. It isn’t that he doesn’t have the skill, I remember many games when he and his fourth-line partners kept the puck hemmed in the defensive zone on the cycle.
A few things make Gauthier valuable to his team. First, he’s affordable at $675,000. Although his seven goals and 12 points in 61 games this season give him leverage to seek a modest raise, that raise should fit within the organization’s need to keep its salary-cap structure under control.
Second, Gauthier plays better each season, and his size simply cannot be ignored. Should the Maple Leafs not want him in their fold, another team will. His skating is good enough to be the fourth-line center somewhere in the NHL.
Finally, his teammates seem to love him as a player and a personality. Six months ago, Maple Leafs captain John Tavares was interviewed by Sportsnet’s Luke Fox and had this to say about Gauthier:
“I call him the most interesting Maple Leaf. He’s awesome. … He’s just a quirky guy that’s very interesting and just a really good person. I think he plays a really good role for us. It’s not always seen or talked about a lot, but just a lot of consistency with him and just the way he carries himself and his professionalism.”
If I was a betting man, I’d bet the Goat would be happy to sign a short-term contract extension with the Maple Leafs for a small raise. The team needs him. As far as the length, there won’t be many long-term signings this offseason, except for elite players who are more interested in term security than squeezing big-money contracts from a team. I think it will take a few seasons before the COVID-19 pandemic becomes a memory.
Item Three: Riley Stotts and Zachary Bouthillier Are No Longer with the Organization
This week, general manager Kyle Dubas failed to do something he’s good at, sign two players he drafted during his first NHL Draft as GM in 2018. As a result, 20-year-old prospects Riley Stotts and Zachary Bouthillier are no longer part of the organization. Instead, each will re-enter the NHL Entry Draft.
The Maple Leafs had until June 1 to sign them. Stotts was Dubas’ second pick in the third round (83rd overall). He scored a career-high 68 points (25 goals, 43 assists) in 64 games with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen last season. He is an offensive-minded, playmaking center, who’s a strong skater. Although he showed growth in the past two seasons, there must be a reason Dubas didn’t work as hard to sign him as he has on other players from that draft.
Bouthillier, although he was chosen in the 7th round (209th overall), wasn’t outstanding in his two seasons with Chicoutimi and Saint John of the QMJHL. Given that both Joseph Woll and Ian Scott are projected higher in the organization’s food chain, it wasn’t a surprise that Dubas didn’t sign the young Quebec native to an NHL contract.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
If the Maple Leafs expect to win their play-in series against the Blue Jackets, head coach Sheldon Keefe has work to do. He’s been called out recently for the team’s offensive puck control when short-handed. So far, he’s not utilized his top two offensive centers – Auston Matthews and Tavares – on the penalty kill. Might that change?
One thing we know about Keefe, and what makes him different from his predecessor Mike Babcock, is that he’s creative and willing to try new things when old ways don’t work. I am interested to see how he performs under the pressure of the playoffs. Some pundits seem to believe that the Blue Jackets have an edge in this series because Tortorella is a better and more experienced coach.
For a Maple Leafs fan, it will be interesting to see how the team performs – and that includes the rookie coach.