The good news is that the Toronto Maple Leafs won their exhibition game on Tuesday against Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens by a 4-2 score; but, that’s not the best news. The best news I’ve heard in a while came the day before when the NHL reported there were no new cases of COVID-19 at the end of Phase 3 as teams moved into the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles. That’s exceedingly good news.
That doesn’t mean the NHL’s Phase 4 is out of the woods, but it does mean that all 24 teams have entered “isolation” without virus-related issues so far. Does this mean that the NHL’s protocols and policies have proved successful? We don’t know yet.
COVID-19 is similar to “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” except it’s not at all fun. “Bacon’s Law” theorizes that everyone on Earth is connected by six or fewer links or degrees apart. In other words, everyone in the bubble is connected to everyone else; and, as Major League Baseball has shown us, COVID-19 has a “life” of its own and infects by exploiting the shortest path between people. That is, Mitch Marner is only as far removed from infection as the young man who serves him dinner, and all his friends, and all their friends – six links.
For now, the lack of positive tests for COVID-19 is good news. Let’s hope it lasts.
In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll explore some of the news emerging from the only exhibition game the Maple Leafs will play before they face the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday, Aug. 2. I’ll also take a look at what general manager Kyle Dubas might be up to during his time in the bubble.
Item One: Defenseman Morgan Rielly Reminds Us How Good He Is
It’s good to remember how great Morgan Rielly was two seasons ago when he was in consideration for the Norris Trophy. During Tuesday’s game, he scored a goal and two assists and demonstrated his speed all night long.
Rielly’s two assists came first on Ilya Mikeyev’s goal just 33 seconds into the game and on Alex Kerfoot’s second goal of the game during the second period. Finally, he topped off his scoring with a shorthanded goal in the third, the Maple Leafs’ second of the game. After his injury-riddled season, Rielly looks ready to start the postseason.
By the way, did you note that Mikheyev scored.
Item Two: Frederik Andersen Looks Sharp-Enough in the Exhibition Win
At least for one night, one of my biggest questions about the Maple Leafs’ postseason was answered positively. Frederik Andersen stopped 28 of 30 shots against the Canadiens and looked ready for primetime. Even the goals he allowed were good chances that few goalies could have stopped on a good night.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe elected to play Andersen the whole game, and the Dane stood tall. In truth, the Canadiens didn’t have many stellar chances on the evening. Still, you can’t fault Andersen for either goal. Maple Leafs fans will hope he can improve on his regular-season 29-13-7 record (with a goals-against-average of 2.85 and a .909 save percentage) into the qualifying series against the Blue Jackets.
Item Three: Alex Kerfoot’s Third Line Looks Sharp
Kerfoot looked sharp centring the third line with partners Nick Robertson and Kasperi Kapanen. His first goal came on a rebound in front of Price and his second was a deflection in the final minute of the period.
He also looked strong defensively, blocking shots, getting into shooting lanes, sacrificing his body. It was a strong game for the former Colorado Avalanche center.
Although the commentators made a big deal of the Canadiens dressing in the Maple Leafs locker room, Kerfoot noted that he had been a visiting player with the Avalanche before, so it didn’t seem too weird.
Item Four: Is Dubas on the Prowl During His Time in the Bubble?
As Sportsnet’s Luke Fox tweeted on Monday, it looks like Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas isn’t going to miss an opportunity to look “at various different free agents that might be available that are here and playing.”
Fox noted that life in the bubble offers Dubas a unique opportunity to observe opposing players both on and off the ice. The Maple Leafs, like other NHL teams, must be diligent about how they spend money during the offseason given the flat salary cap for next season, at least. Finding a good deal on the “right” free agents is crucial. That includes players who will fit into the culture the Maple Leafs are working to build.
I don’t have a picture of what life is like in the “bubble” or how often teams literally bump into each other, but there must be some of that going on with 12 teams using the same arena. Dubas won’t be the only general manager watching the qualifying rounds and the playoffs in this unique way. It will be interesting, when this is all said and done, what emerges in the way of free agency and how much – for any NHL team – might be traced back to this very odd experience.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
One of the stories I’m most interested in during this postseason is what to expect from Keefe. In some ways, his experience this season is similar to St. Louis Blues head coach Craig Berube who in November 2018 took over a struggling Blues team and led them to the 2019 Stanley Cup (the first in franchise history).
Can Keefe and his Maple Leafs replicate that feat? Given the Maple Leafs’ recent history of playoff failure, it would be a surprise. But one of the 24 teams will do it. Could this be the season?
In the two seasons I’ve covered the Maple Leafs, I’ve learned that Toronto fans are a wonderful blend of ever-optimistic and totally cynical. That seems fair, but what happens if the team actually wins? Might cynicism leave Toronto?