In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll look into the rumor that the Maple Leafs might decide to “go cheap” on defense after this season. I’ll also look at some of the news out of the team’s Phase 3 training camp.
Specifically, I’ll speak to the rumors that the Maple Leafs might be after defenseman Chris Tanev. I’ll review Morgan Rielly’s season, and I’ll look at different line deployments coming out of training camp.
Item One: Are the Maple Leafs After Chris Tanev?
When I look at the Maple Leafs options for next season, I am not someone who believes the team should trade away a young forward with unfulfilled potential to get a quality (and by that I mean expensive) defenseman from another team. Why give up on potential that hasn’t had time to reveal itself?
James Mirtle of The Athletic seems to agree, but for different reasons. In a mailbag article last week, he reported his belief that the Maple Leafs won’t move a core player for help on defense and could “go cheap” next season because of their lower cap space. He also noted that the team might look for inexpensive contracts like the Vancouver Canucks’ pending UFA Tanev. (from “Mirtle Mailbag: Fixing the Leafs cap crunch, the D question and NHL contraction,” James Mirtle, The Athletic, 07/17/2020).
If the Maple Leafs could get Tanev, I’d be all over it. He’s a warrior. But, they likely won’t. Tanev loves playing in Vancouver and knows the Canucks have an up-and-coming team. If Vancouver’s general manager Jim Benning offers him a decent contract – which could be team-friendly – Tanev will sign and continue to protect young defensive star, Quinn Hughes. Ergo, there’s little chance Tanev will join the Maple Leafs.
Mirtle was also asked if the Maple Leafs could get a decent return by trading Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, or Alex Kerfoot or if Kyle Dubas would do a salary dump. His response was that he thought the Maple Leafs could get value for Kapanen, but that Johnsson and Kerfoot had injury-impacted seasons that would impact their value.
Mirtle wrote that “One of these three probably has to go to make the cap math work, but with Johnsson especially, it certainly feels like selling low. If that’s the biggest blow the Leafs are dealt from a pandemic that decimates league revenue, however, you can live with it.”
Mirtle might be correct, but I don’t see it. There’s good news and bad news about the Maple Leafs flat salary cap. The good news is that because the salary cap next season is exactly the same salary cap during 2019-20, the same contracts that fit this season fit next season. That means the team’s core is all lined up contract-wise for another season.
With minor tweaking to sign young Ilya Mikheyev, which I believe is Dubas’ first priority this offseason – just like signing Mitch Marner was last offseason, everyone is there. From my perspective, Mirtle is correct that the Maple Leafs are forced to “go cheap.” But, I also think it’s time to go cheap on defense. There are prospects in the system that could be brought onto the big team’s roster. Next season seems the season to make that happen.
Item Two: Is Morgan Rielly Finally Healthy?
Given the devastating injuries accrued by the Maple Leafs defense during the 2019-20 regular season, I believe the team held together quite well. But, the player missed most severely was Rielly. He’s difficult to replace easily.
Rielly suffered a fractured foot early in January when he blocked a shot and missed eight weeks of the most important hockey his team played – the games fighting for the playoffs just before the suspension of the season in March. He returned for one game, which turned out to the team’s final game of the regular season against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Likely, the organization felt pressure to get Rielly back as quickly as possible given the team’s dogfight to stay ahead of the Florida Panthers in the Atlantic Division. Rielly is such a key part of the team’s defensive core that his injury could have been devastating for the team’s chances. Fortunately, it wasn’t.
When you look back at Rielly’s season, you can’t say he played poorly. However, he wasn’t the best version of himself. He wasn’t the dominating defenseman of 2018-19 who seemed poised to become a perennial Norris Trophy candidate. He only showed flashes of the speed that turns defenders in knots or his amazing skill to quarterback the team’s top power-play unit.
In 2018-19, Rielly scored a career-high 20 goals and 52 assists (72 points), but he only scored 27 points in 2019-20. Rielly has a huge responsibility as the Maple Leafs’ top defenseman. As my Hockey Writers colleague Peter Baracchini noted in his post yesterday, Rielly will be a leader on the team’s defense that could be an X-factor in the play-in series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
However, it’s good news that he’s finally healthy and it will be good to see him employing his total skillset during the postseason.
Item Three: Might Head Coach Sheldon Keefe Deploy a Power Line?
Because the Maple Leafs have such great forwards, there are all sorts of possibilities a creative head coach might employ. During a recent training camp scrimmage game, coach Sheldon Keefe trotted out an all-star line of John Tavares-Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner. That’s a power line.
How he might deploy such a line will be fun to see. But Keefe certainly has something up his sleeve. Might this be a unit that useful at the end of a game when the team’s down a goal? Might it be something to throw out to change the pace of a game?
Whatever the reason is, it will be interesting to see if we see it again. Current wisdom is that NHL teams are best served by spreading their talent around. However, much of the Boston Bruins’ success over recent seasons comes because they load-up a powerful top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak. So, we’ll see.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
At least three things interest me about the training camp so far.
First, Keefe has creatively used his players. He seems to have seen the suspended season as a time to re-think the way his team plays. For example, news that he’s tried William Nylander at center interests me.
Second, Mikheyev’s continued good play seems to demonstrate both that he’s fully recovered from his Dec. 27 wrist injury and that he’s grown in both his on-ice performance and demeanor.
Third, like everyone else, I’m intrigued by prospect Nick Robertson’s determination. What might the organization do with this youngster? If he’s as good as he seems, he opens up many possibilities for the future.
For Maple Leafs fans, that’s part of the joy of watching a dynamic team.