Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Underhill, Ritchie, Spezza & Rask’s Curse

When the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Boston Bruins tonight, it will be two long-time rivals meeting each other for the first time in nearly two years. Both teams are trying to continue their winning streaks. The last time the two teams met, the Bruins won the game 4-2 on November 15, 2019. Then the pandemic.

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Should the Maple Leafs be able to beat the Bruins tonight, they will finish off an improbable run – especially given their difficulties early in the season. This will be the Maple Leafs’ fourth game in a five-game homestand. 

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Oh my, if they could win the last two games against the Bruins tonight and against the Los Angeles Kings on Monday, this little stretch could have the impact of turning around the team’s season. 

In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll share a thank you to Barb Underhill for her contribution to making the Maple Leafs a better team over the past ten years. Second, I’ll look at Nick Ritchie and his meeting against his old team. Third, I’ll look at Jason Spezza’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning and speculate why he wasn’t noticed as much. Finally, I’ll take a look at the Tuukka Rask trade and the Maple Leafs’ scoring to date this season.

Item One: Barb Underhill Is Leaving the Maple Leafs

Barb Underhill probably wouldn’t have become a skating coach except that the former Canadian Olympic figure skater appeared on the 2009 CBC television program Battle Of The Blades. There she worked with aging former-NHL player Ron Duguay to improve his acceleration and cross-overs for the skating show. (from “Barb Underhill leaving her skating instructor post with Leafs … Game Night Bruins, Lance Hornby, Toronto Sun, 05/11/21).

Underhill came to realize that, if she could get a 50-year-old NHL veteran like Duguay to improve his skating, she might have a career working with other NHL players. Out-of-the-box Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman offered her a contract to work with his prospects. The rest is, as they say, history. 

When the Maple Leafs hired Underhill, who knew what success she would bring to the team? Now 10 years later, her legacy is that she’s been an amazing teacher and coach to hundreds of NHL players. She leaves the Maple Leafs a much stronger team than when they would have been without her.

Furthermore, she’s become a well-respected member of what’s been one of the most forward-thinking NHL clubs – the Maple Leafs. When Brian Burke hired her ten years ago, she didn’t even have a dressing room. Now, the Maple Leafs have half a dozen women in the area of player development – including the great Haley Wickenheiser who’s now become both a medical doctor and was hired this year as the senior director of player development. 

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Say what you like about any of the other leaders with the Maple Leafs, and some are liked or despised; however, no one has a bad thing to say about Underhill or her work. She leaves the organization as one of its most respected coaches ever. The 58-year-old Underhill is leaving her work to spend more time with her family and grandchildren. I wish her well.

Item Two: Nick Ritchie Faces His Former Team for the First Time

If ever there were a time for ​​Nick Ritchie to score his first goal of the season, tonight’s the night. He’ll face his former Bruin team for the first time. I can only imagine how Ritchie feels. First, the Bruins failed to protect him during the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. When he wasn’t chosen, they failed to qualify him and he became a UFA. They simply didn’t want him.  

Nick Ritchie Boston Bruins
Nick Ritchie, with the Boston Bruins (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

After Ritchie didn’t receive a qualifying offer, he signed a two-year contract with the Maple Leafs. Clearly, Ritchie hasn’t started well. He began on the top line; but, with only a single assist in 11 games, he’s slid down the depth charts. A big game against his former team might ignite his production with his new team. 

Ondrej Kase is in a similar situation. He too wasn’t tendered a qualifying offer after his last Bruins season and signed with Toronto.

Item Three: Jason Spezza Played Well, But No One Noticed

Speaking of Ritchie, as my sometimes collaborator Stan Smith emailed me, the Jason Spezza line might have played its best game of the season against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Advanced analytics show that the line was over 60% Corsi (shots for vs. shots against at even strength play). 

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Interestingly, prior to the Lightning game, Spezza stood out because he seemed to be the only player on that line having any success. That wasn’t the case on Thursday. Both Wayne Simmonds and Ritchie made some really nice plays. It might have been Simmonds’ best game since before he broke his wrist last season.  

Wayne Simmonds Toronto Maple Leafs
Wayne Simmonds, Toronto Maple Leafs Right Wing (Photo by Steven Kingsman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The growth of that line and the emergence of Kase have yet to be fulfilled. If they can be, the team will improve immensely.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

In 2006, the Maple Leafs traded Tuukka Rask to the Boston Bruins for Andrew Raycroft. Many Maple Leafs’ fans believe the team is cursed because of that trade. When the Maple Leafs face the Bruins tonight, they won’t have to deal directly with the Rask curse because the long-time Bruins’ goalie won’t be back in action until after Christmas with hip surgery. 

However, the Maple Leafs will have to deal with Patrice Bergeron, who’s coming off a four-goal game against the Red Wings. Those were Bergeron’s first four goals of the season. It was Bergeron’s seventh career hat trick and the second four-goal game of his career.

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Maple Leafs’ point leaders to date are William Nylander who has five goals and four assists (for nine points) and John Tavares who has four goals and five assists (also for nine points) in their 11 games. The Bruins are led by Brad Marchand who’s scored four goals and eight assists (for 12 points) in eight games. Marchand is coming off a four-assist night against the Detroit Red Wings.

Tonight’s game promises to be interesting, for sure.

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