It was supposed to an exciting week for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Leafs Nation. The Heritage Classic took place in Hamilton against the Buffalo Sabres and fans of the team were getting a chance to see some new faces step into the lineup and show what made them a Maple Leafs’ prospect.
Instead it was yet another up-and-down week for the blue and white with headlines flowing heading into what could be a busy trade deadline for general manager Kyle Dubas and his squad.
With that, here’s another look at some of the good and the bad from the week that was for the Maple Leafs and their fans.
Plus One: Maple Leafs’ Källgren Gets In
To say that the Maple Leafs are in need of goaltending is an understatement. That’s something we’ll discuss in a moment. But on Mar. 10, in a game against the Arizona Coyotes – the team that drafted him – Erik Källgren got into his first NHL game for the Maple Leafs when a struggling Petr Mrazek was pulled after giving up four goals.
Källgren, a 25-year-old Swede, made 10 stops on 11 shots in relief of Mrazek and gave the Maple Leafs an opportunity to pick up a point in the overtime loss. He looked poised and his movements from post-to-post were smooth and controlled. And with Mrazek still struggling, Källgren will now get a chance to start his first NHL game on Mar. 15 against the Dallas Stars.
While it wasn’t his play that head coach Sheldon Keefe made reference to while praising the young netminder, he was impressed with Källgren’s poise in another aspect of his handling of his NHL debut.
“The piece I might have been most impressed with that day is how he handled you guys (the media) after the game; It’s a big part of the position, in particular when you are a part of the Leafs and you’re in this city,” said Keefe, according to David Alter.
Now, it’ll be time to see how he handles a full 60 minutes. It can’t be any worse than his predecessors.
Minus One: Maple Leafs’ Goaltending Still a Question Mark
Speaking of their goaltending, the Maple Leafs have some big question marks at the position. How will Jack Campbell be health-wise after his stint on injured reserve? How will Källgren play in his first NHL start? What is wrong with Mrazek?
Possibly the biggest question mark, however, is whether or not the Maple Leafs will acquire a goalie at the deadline.
Braden Holtby is likely off the table now that the Stars are without Anton Khudobin, but there is a long list of back-ups that could come in and help fill the void that Mrazek hasn’t this season.
The fact is, I was on board when Mrazek was quoted saying, “A win’s a win.” But he followed that up with saying that he’s struggled before and he’ll get out of it before having a horrible third period in the Heritage Classic this past weekend.
Even if his record shows a slightly different story, Mrazek’s 3.48 goals against average this season and .884 save percentage is not good enough to even be a back-up at this point. If the Maple Leafs want to make a run, their tandem in net needs to be better.
Plus Two: Robertson Finally Getting His Shot
Injuries were one of the major factors that kept Nick Robertson from getting playing time with the Maple Leafs over the past couple of seasons. It seemed like every time he was making a push to get into the lineup, he suffered some kind of injury that pushed him back.
Now, with injuries and suspensions affecting the team’s starting lineup, Robertson has found his way into seven games this season dating back to Feb. 26 against the Detroit Red Wings.
While the production hasn’t shown up yet – aside from his first career regular season goal – Robertson’s found a way of making himself seen in most of the games he’s played this season. His speed makes him a very slippery player on the ice and when lined up with William Nylander and John Tavares he added an extra element to a line that already had a presence in the offensive zone.
As for the production, it will come. The continued faith by his teammates to have him in the lineup will give him the confidence that he’s played with in junior and with the Marlies when healthy.
“He’s obviously had some adversity, some challenges. But we know he’s going to be a key guy for us now and in the long term,” said Maple Leafs’ captain John Tavares.
Simply put, don’t count this kid out yet.
Minus Two: Maple Leafs Lose Heritage Classic
Through the first 40 minutes of the game, the Maple Leafs and Sabres both seemed to be on track. Matthews scored his league-leading 45th goal and Mrazek had 13 saves on 15 shots. The game was tied.
But, it didn’t take long for the game to fall apart for the Maple Leafs, Matthews and Mrazek. Penalties got out of hand late in the game. There was a handful of misconducts handed out to finish of the third period and Mrazek gave up two more goals in the third period with one being from a horrible angle.
It was almost like all the bad storylines from the past month for the Maple Leafs came into play in the Heritage Classic. It was a game that, while they were the away team, was supposed to be like a home game with tons of hype and instead it fizzled into yet another loss making the Atlantic Division a little bit less comfortable for the Maple Leafs.
Plus Three: Ovchinnikov Arrives in Toronto
While he won’t be stepping foot in the big club’s locker room anytime soon, it was a pleasant surprise for Leafs Nation to see the arrival of Dmitri Ovchinnikov. The Maple Leafs’ fifth round pick in 2020 arrived in Toronto at the end of last week and was out practicing with the Marlies on Tuesday.
The recently signed forward had 13 goals and 29 points in 22 games with Sibirskie Snaipery Novosibirsk of the MHL before his contract was mutually terminated.
He’s a flashy skater that will drive the net and should add some exciting offensive production to the Marlies. On top of that, his presence just down the road from the big club should allow Maple Leafs’ brass to see what they have in the 19-year-old Russian.
Minus Three: Maple Leafs’ Matthews Gets Suspended
Well, as we’ve already discussed, the Heritage Classic didn’t happen without a number of hiccups for the Maple Leafs. The biggest of which was Matthews getting a two-game suspension following a cross check to the head of Sabres’ defenceman Rasmus Dahlin.
While the play surely deserved some supplemental discipline, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety has put themselves in a tough position, often handing out minuscule $5,000 fines for similarly dangerous plays over the past couple of seasons.
What makes this one tougher to swallow is that the Maple Leafs need every point they can get right now and Matthews, who is a first-time offender, is amongst the league leaders in points and currently leads the NHL in goals scored.
Matthews’ also only had 68 penalty minutes in his entire career. He’s not a player that is undisciplined. It’s worth noting that on the play, Dahlin was also called for crosschecking Matthews. It’s just the eighth penalty this season that Matthews has drawn — a stat that quite questionable when you’re talking about the leading scorer in the league.
As for what his teammates thought of the suspension, many of them stated that Matthews was just standing up for himself, while Tavares noted that there was clearly no ill-intent.
That said, there’s still a lot of hockey left to play and the roller coaster has only started. With the NHL Trade Deadline quickly approaching, there will be many more ups and downs for this Maple Leafs squad before the season’s all said and done.
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Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.