The Toronto Maple Leafs are on a roll. December might not have started well for them, with that horrible 6-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, goalie Frederik Andersen’s plea to start the next night against the Colorado Avalanche to support his team, and the next night’s 3-1 loss. The club then reeled off seven wins in eight games and pushed themselves into second place in the Atlantic Division.
I believe there’s a good chance Andersen’s actions to battle with his teammates in those two losses impacted the team in terms of chemistry and “try” – the desire not to quit. They certainly didn’t give up during their huge 8-6 comeback victory over the Carolina Hurricanes.
In this post, I want to keep Maple Leafs fans up to date with the news and rumors surrounding the team as it heads into New Jersey to play the Devils on Dec. 27.
Item One: 3 Maple Leafs Prospects Playing at World Juniors
Three Maple Leafs prospects – Nick Robertson (United States), Rasmus Sandin (Sweden), and Mikko Kokkonen (Finland) – will be playing in the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Robertson is expected to be a key player for the United States in the tournament. He’s scrappy, with offensive skills that make him exciting to watch. He seems to enjoy being the most annoying player on the ice and, yes, he can score with the best of them.
Rasmus Sandin is one of the smartest young players in the Maple Leafs’ system. He’ll get lots of ice time on Sweden’s top pairing, and he’s a smooth skater who floats up and down the ice. His passing skills are next to none for his age and he calmly makes on-ice decisions. Defensively, he’s improved with the Marlies, and he’s showing he’ll one day become a top-pairing defenseman on the Maple Leafs. He’s likely to dominate on the World Junior stage.
Mikko Kokkonen won’t get lots of ice time – at least not as much as Robertson or Sandin. He’s not flashy and so far he’s shown he’s a defense-first player, but his strength is that he won’t be noticed because he doesn’t make many mistakes. He’ll likely join the Marlies next season, where he’ll grow even steadier with experience.
Item Two: Santa Came Early for Hyman
Zach Hyman is having a December to remember, and in his last two games, he’s scored points beyond anything I can remember during his five-season career. He’s scored eight goals and six assists in 19 games this season. However, six of those points have come in his last two games. Against the Detroit Red Wings, he had two goals and an assist; and, against the Carolina Hurricanes, he had three assists.
His December totals are six goals and five assists in 10 games. He’s played well since coming back from his off-season knee surgery. Furthermore, his scoring pace might continue because head coach Sheldon Keefe has recently been playing him as Auston Matthews’ left-winger on a line that also includes Mitch Marner. That can’t hurt anyone’s numbers. If he continues to play on that line, it’ll be interesting to see how often he scores. Not that I’m a fantasy hockey enthusiast, but I’m thinking he might be a good pickup.
Item Three: Is the Hyman, Matthews, and Marner Line a Thing?
Speaking of Hyman playing with Matthews and Marner, Keefe was thinking both logically and creatively when he put together that line. They’ve been together in the last two games, including the comeback third period when they combined for nine points in the 8-6 victory against the Hurricanes.
Even going into that third period trailing and the line not working as well as expected, Keefe stuck with it. That decision proved wise. Although Keefe says he hasn’t decided if the trio will stay together all the time, it seems like the logical choice.
Keefe noted, “I would say we’re still kind of in the experiment stage. How it works out long term is not necessarily just on how that goes, but how things underneath them go. We look at all of that,” (from Marner and Matthews together make Maple Leafs magic, but Keefe will always consider options, Terry Koshan, The Toronto Sun, 12/23/19).
Item Four: Spezza Slowly Gathering Both Momentum and Points
Maple Leafs fans know too well Jason Spezza’s issues with former head coach Mike Babcock at the beginning of the season. However, he seems to have found a space in Keefe’s system. Spezza’s responded to his chances.
Spezza had a goal and an assist in the 8-6 win over Carolina. In fact, he scored just 30 seconds into the game. He also added an assist on a power-play goal by John Tavares to give the Leafs a 3-0 lead. Although Spezza didn’t have a point in the five games before playing the Hurricanes, he’s been inching up the team’s stats line. He’s only playing about 10 minutes per game, but he has five goals and nine assists in the 26 games he’s played this season.
Item Five: Kapanen’s Name Keeps Coming Up in Trade Talks
Hockey “insiders” discover and sometimes even create interesting news, and they’re quite good at it. However, given how much information some of these reporters have at their disposal, it might be wise to pay attention.
That’s become especially true with talk about Kasperi Kapanen’s future with the Maple Leafs. How sure are we that he will be on the roster next season? Specifically, Pierre LeBrun spoke recently on TSN radio about Kapanen’s future and noted, “I still talk to some teams that value him and like him. If he were to be made available I don’t think the Leafs would have a hard time gaining value in a trade involving him.”
In addition, LeBrun believed Kapanen’s contract would make trading him likely: “because of the pressure of the cap and the pressure of having to figure out the defense moving forward next year, I think he’ll be one of the expendable parts.”
By the way, LeBrun wasn’t the only hockey insider who spoke about Kapanen as trade bait. Earlier this month, Elliotte Friedman shared a similar thought.
What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?
The team heads into Dec. 27 and Dec. 28 with back-to-back games against the New Jersey Devils on the road and the New York Rangers at home. I have every reason to believe that, when the ice chips have melted, the Maple Leafs will have reeled off nine wins in there last 10 games.