In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll explore possible pressure on John Tavares, look at Andreas Johnsson’s return to practice, report some of the interesting surprises from the team’s exhibition game against the Montreal Canadiens, and look at where Mike Babcock will likely go fishing next.
Item One: Does John Tavares Carry More Pressure than Other Maple Leafs?
The Maple Leafs are filled with elite forwards, but John Tavares is unique because he was specifically signed as the free agent who could put the team on his shoulders and carry them on annual long journeys toward the Stanley Cup. So, far – although it’s only been one try – it hasn’t happened.
Given what we’ve come to know from Tavares’ actions both on and off the ice, you have to think he carries the knowledge that the Maple Leafs went all out to get him. He cares about “things.” Now that he’s captain, I believe he cares even more. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander are all elite offensive forces as well – but they were drafted and have always been with the team. As well, they don’t carry the formal responsibility of being the designated leader.
Maple Leafs fans cannot fault Tavares’ leadership. He’s present in the community (he began a foundation this season to help children) and throughout the NHL (he was a player member of the league’s return-to-play committee). But so far the team hasn’t experienced the playoff success he was brought to Toronto to provide. During this postseason, I’m thinking he carries the pressure to deliver when it matters the most. It should be fun for fans to see how Tavares steps up.
Item Two: Andreas Johnsson Practices with the Special Teams on Thursday
The good news is that Andreas Johnsson’s rehabbed knee was part of the Maple Leafs special teams part of practice Thursday. The bad news is that, although Johnsson was on the ice, it was only for a small portion of the practice. That leaves a question about his availability to play against the Columbus Blue Jackets this weekend.
In total, the 24-year-old Swedish winger missed 27 games this season with injuries. Given his production this season of only 8 goals and 13 assists in the 43 games he did play, one has to believe he was hurting even when he was supposed to be healthy.
With the emergence of Nick Robertson and the presence of Jason Spezza, it’s unlikely the Maple Leafs would rush him back for the qualifying series. However, if he’s deemed “fit to play,” he’ll compete for a top-six role, which would force someone into the press box.
Item Three: Can Morgan Rielly and Travis Dermott Play Together?
During the Maple Leafs’ exhibition game against Canadiens, at times Morgan Rielly and Travis Dermott played on the same defensive pairing. What makes that pairing interesting is – looking toward next season – that’s a defensive pairing that has been speculated. It moves the left-handed Dermott to his off-side, which is a possibility many have asked about.
During an interview after the game, head coach Sheldon Keefe was asked his assessment of the Rielly and Dermott pairing and his comfort level playing the two together.
Keefe responded, “I think they have done fine. I don’t know that the sample is larger enough yet to make any real final determinations. What we have seen throughout this — and it started in Phase 2 with the number of reps that we were able to get for Dermott over the course of three or four weeks while playing and practicing on the right side — that he is comfortable to play there at any time if we feel we need to make a change or want to make a change. It gives us increased flexibility and gives him further opportunity to move up the lineup.”
Related: Eddie Shack Passes Away at 83
Looking toward next season, unless the team trades for or signs a free agent right-handed defenseman, given the current plethora of left-handers someone must move to their off-side. This pairing, if it works, solves one of the Maple Leafs’ biggest issues for next season.
Item Four: How Did Keefe Know Kerfoot Could Play on the Penalty Kill?
One small surprise during the Canadiens’ exhibition game was that Alex Kerfoot played so much penalty kill and was good at it. During that same interview, Keefe was asked what made him give Kerfoot more of a role on the penalty-kill?
Keefe deferred the praise to an assistant coach: “It was really just through analysis through the pause of looking at his play on the penalty kill. Dave Hakstol really took the lead in that. We had used him (Kerfoot) sparingly. Just looking a lot closer at it, we just felt there were a lot of positives there that gave us reason to want to give him a chance early in camp to expand his role there.”
Keefe then expounded on the obvious benefits of Kerfoot’s role: “If we can get him more minutes there, it helps us a great deal having a centerman that can take some faceoffs and all of that kind of thing. That is positive. Really, just how he skates and pressures the puck and his reads of the play have been really good. We have seen lots of reasons to continue to go with that.”
Finally, Keefe noted, “If he can pair with (Kasperi Kapanen) like he did yesterday, with the fact that they can play together at 5v5 and then go to the kill, it really helps the rhythm of our bench.” That deployment also gives young Nick Robertson a chance to catch his physical and mental “wind” on the bench.
Item Five: Mike Babcock Shows Up as a Volunteer Coach at the University of Vermont
Either one of two things is happening. Former Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock figures he one can only do so much fishing or he’s setting himself up for future fishing. A recent report is that Babcock has accepted a “volunteer” coaching position (he won’t go on another team’s payroll), and will work with the University of Vermont’s first-year hockey coach Todd Woodcroft.
Woodcroft’s last job was as an assistant with the Winnipeg Jets. Also, coming with him is former defenseman Marc Stuart, who played six seasons with the Jets.
Speaking of removing oneself from pressure, for those who don’t know Vermont well, it has a gorgeous natural landscape, which is mostly forest. It’s a major producer of maple syrup. The University of Vermont has about 12,000 students and is located in Burlington, which has a population under 50,000 people. By the way, the state of Vermont had only 623,989 in its last census, about one-fifth the size of the city of Toronto.
Babcock’s position is being classified as an advisor for the 2020-21 season.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
As Maple Leafs fans know, the team faces the Blue Jackets on Sunday. One question is how disciplined a brand of hockey the Maple Leafs can play. The Blue Jackets lack the forward talent of the Maple Leafs, but they’re well coached and don’t make mistakes. They beat the Boston Bruins 4-1 in their exhibition game last night.
If the Maple Leafs can avoid being pressured into errors, they have a chance to do well against the John Tortorella-coached team. Hockey is coming in two days.