The Toronto Maple Leafs have had their last training camp practice. Along with the other 11 teams in the East, they’ll be heading into their bubble tomorrow. The 12 teams in the West will travel to Edmonton to also enter that bubble. The next big event on the Maple Leafs’ schedule will be their exhibition game against the upstart, No. 12-seed Montreal Canadiens, led by the great goalie Carey Price.
In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I want to share what Maple Leafs fans learned from the team’s final day of practice. In addition, I want to share Kyle Clifford’s feelings about playing the Columbus Blue Jackets. I also want to celebrate the 43rd anniversary of the Maple Leafs hiring of the strange genius of Roger Neilson. Finally, I’ll look at some keys to the team’s postseason success.
Item One: What the Final Practice Might Mean in Terms of Where Players Are in the Lineup
In a tweet after the Maple Leafs final practice today, Kristen Shilton tweeted the team’s final line-up.
Obviously, this is only the team’s final line-up after today. There’s still the exhibition game to play and coaching decisions likely to come before any real games begin. However, a number of general probabilities can be assumed based upon what we can see from the way head coach Sheldon Keefe deployed the roster as the training camp ended.
Here’s what we can guess.
Guess #1: Nick Robertson Will Likely Play on the Third Line
Everyone’s been wondering what would become of young Nick Robertson. He’s pushed hard to make the team and has impressed everyone with both his skillset and his drive. Certainly, he has a lot to learn; but, he’s made his first step towards permanent placement on the Maple Leafs roster.
Guess #2: Pierre Engvall Is In, and Frederik Gauthier Is the Odd Man Out
There might not be many surprises in this lineup choice because of coach Keefe’s history with Pierre Engvall, but he’s is on the fourth line and Frederik Gauthier is watching. The surprise for me is that Engvall is at center and Jason Spezza is on the wing, although that’s easy enough to change.
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Engvall’s strong wrist shot provides more offense that Gauthier brings, and Engvall also adds great value to the penalty kill. His high fitness level and speed gave him an advantage over Gauthier.
Guess #3: Ilya Mikheyev Is Permanently Placed on the Second Line
Perhaps Ilya Mikheyev’s emergence from training camp as a permanent top-six player was the biggest surprise of the camp. He was a wild card coming in because no one really knew if or how well he had healed from his lacerated wrist.
But both his award as the team’s training camp MVP and the growth he’s made in all aspects of his game suggests that he’s going to be around a long time. Now all general manager Kyle Dubas has to do is sign him during the offseason.
Guess #4: Coach Keefe Will Risk Angering Fans by Keeping Cody Ceci in the Top Defensive Pairing
If Maple Leafs fans had their way, Cody Ceci wouldn’t even be on the roster. But, Keefe is the coach and the fans are not. I keep contending there must be something that Keefe sees in Ceci that fans don’t, and the postseason will prove if that’s accurate or not.
That means Justin Holl and Jake Muzzin will continue as the shut-down defensive pairing and Tyson Barrie will be on the third pairing with Travis Dermott. That’s no surprise really, and obviously Ceci’s placement with Rielly makes all that doable. A question for me long-term is what this might mean for next season’s defense, especially for Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren.
Item Two: Kyle Clifford Is Ready to Play Against the Blue Jackets
Given the lineups utilized during the last practice, Kyle Clifford will play on the fourth line with Engvall and Spezza. Clifford made it clear that he’s raring to go and anxious to engage physically.
Clifford, who came to the Maple Leafs with backup goalie Jack Campbell at this season’s trade deadline, was more than a throw-in in that trade. The Maple Leafs benefit from the toughness and physicality he brings, though.
As the veteran Clifford noted, “There’s a line (with being physical with his teammates in camp) and you don’t really want to be flirting with it because you don’t want to injure your guys, but at the same time, you want to make sure your teammates are ready for what Columbus is going to bring.”
Clifford added, “We know the hard, heavy game they’re going to bring. If you got an opportunity to take somebody’s head off (during scrimmages), you have to let up a little bit because we don’t want any injuries coming out of this camp.” (from “Kyle Clifford looking forward to unleashing physical side once Maple Leafs square off with Jackets,” Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun, 24/07/20).
Item Three: 43 Years Ago Today, Roger Neilson Became Maple Leafs Coach
On July 25, 1977, the Maple Leafs hired Roger Neilson to replace the great Red Kelly. Neilson proved immediately successful. During Kelly’s last season as the Maple Leafs coach, the team finished with a 34-33-13 record. In 1978, Neilson’s first season, the team made the Stanley Cup Semifinals with a record of 41-29-10.
Neilson was nicknamed “Captain Video” because he’s one of the first to use video to analyze both his own team and his opponents. He also was the first coach to use headsets. Such actions were so novel that some fans considered him crazy. Looking back, he was one of the great innovators of the game.
Neilson’s ideas and genius helped pave the way for how so many things are currently done. It’s obvious that Keefe, during this time of COVID-19, spent much time engaged in the activity that Neilson inaugurated so many years previously – analyzing film of both his own team and his opponents.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
As the Maple Leafs get ready to play the Blue Jackets, there are a number of keys heading into that best-of-five series. First, the team will ride goalie Frederik Andersen wherever he takes them. It’s unlikely, at least for this postseason, Keefe will bail on his starting goalie. Andersen must play well.
Second, the forwards need to score more goals than they give up. John Tavares and William Nylander need to put up points without becoming “minus” players. In addition, both Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner must overcome any postseason pressure and become the true core of the team. Although there’s little pressure on Mikheyev, he could help the team if his energy was contagious.
Finally, Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin must hold the defense together. If all these things can happen, the team has a good chance to go a long way during this postseason.