The Toronto Maple Leafs are approaching two full weeks of action here in the infancy of the 2019-20 regular season. As is annually the case with this hockey club, everything is being viewed under the microscope, overreactions are rabid and an up-and-down start to the season is being scrutinized by the minute.
The purpose of these Maple Leafs Weekly pieces is to get a grasp on the progress of the club on a micro basis rather than what has transpired on the season as a whole. There’s no overreactions, no constant scrutiny or bias. These pieces are objective and aim to tackle the topics currently on hand as well as how the club fared over the past week. As usual, I’ll conclude by taking a look at the week ahead.
Failed Test Last Week
After a relatively soft opening-week schedule that featured the Ottawa Senators, Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens, the Maple Leafs were in for a pair of stiff tests in the form of the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning the following week before heading down Highway 401 to Detroit on Saturday.
The first test resulted in a failing grade as the Maple Leafs dropped a 3-2 decision to the Blues on Monday night. The home side looked good throughout this one and held a 2-1 lead late into the second period. However, Blues center Brayden Schenn notched the equalizer off a failed defensive zone exit with under a minute to go in the middle frame, cancelling any momentum the team had built from their two-goal period in the process.
Alex Pietrangelo’s marker almost eight minutes into the third period would stand up as the equalizer despite mounds of pressure from the Maple Leafs down the stretch. Toronto outshot St. Louis 34-30 in this one and had their chances to tie it, but hometown boy Jordan Binnington stood tall in the Blues’ crease.
The true failing grade game in the second game of the week when the reigning Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning paid their visit to Scotiabank Arena. A wild back-and-forth first period saw Tampa leading 4-3 after just 20 minutes after the Maple Leafs once again allowed a goal in the final minute of a period.
However, it was all Lightning from there on out as Tampa Bay’s big guns put this one to bed as the game moved along. A Brayden Point tally – his second of the game – was the lone goal of the second period before Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov each dealt third-period blows that sent Leafs Nation towards the exits.
The Steven Stamkos-Point-Kucherov line combined to terrorize the Maple Leafs for 11 points in this one and handed them their third straight loss on the young season. There weren’t many positive takeaways from this one whatsoever.
After a couple of disappointing results, the Maple Leafs ended their week on a strong note with a 5-2 win over the Red Wings in Detroit on Saturday. The home team opened the scoring, however the Maple Leafs scored the next three goals and four of the next five en route to the victory.
For the first time this season, the Auston Matthews line was held off the scoresheet while John Tavares’ assist on the fifth and final Maple Leafs’ goal was the only point registered by the top-six. Instead, the bottom-six did the heavy lifting in support of the big boys, salvaging a pair of points from an otherwise disappointing second week for the hockey club.
Fourth Line Discussion Continues
You would think, at some point, head coach Mike Babcock will settle on the fourth line he plans to use moving forward. The November return of Zach Hyman will answer some of the lingering questions as the financial impact of his return will single-handedly force changes to the bottom of the Maple Leafs’ lineup. For now, however, the battle for ice time in the bottom three rolls on.
After the Nic Petan-Frederik Gauthier-Jason Spezza version of the fourth line shined on Monday against the Blues and earned a second straight turn in the rotation against the Lightning, the Dmytro Timashov-Gauthier-Nick Shore version of the bottom unit were the driving force in Saturday’s win in Detroit.
Shore and Timashov teamed up to tie the game midway through the first period while Timashov set up Jake Muzzin’s insurance marker late in the third period. The trio combined to go plus-six with nine shots on goal in the winning effort. It came as no surprise to see this version of the fourth line ahead of the Spezza group in practice on Monday in anticipation of their Tuesday night matchup with the Minnesota Wild.
It appears Babcock is willing to roll with the hot hand at the moment, but it’s clear that tryouts are still ongoing to see who is going to hang around when the forward group gets healthier with the return of Hyman.
Mikheyev Continues to Impress
He might be only six games into his NHL career, however, Ilya Mikheyev has already become a cultural hero inside and outside of the Maple Leafs’ locker room. His play on the ice has continued to impress while his personality off of it is high on entertainment value.
With a goal and an assist on Saturday night, Mikheyev has two goals and three assists for five points through the first six games of his NHL career. His offensive game was said to be improving while with Avangard Omsk of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League after posting a career-high 23 goals and 45 points in 62 games a season ago. He followed that up with four goals and 11 points in 13 postseason contests.
His speed and puck-hounding skills have been impressive, but the offense he’s created in doing so was largely unexpected – at least to this extent. The Maple Leafs have attempted to complement their high-priced forward group with cost-efficient pieces signed from overseas before. Par Lindholm and Igor Ozhiganov are two examples from last season – both of which yielded negative results. However, to this point, the Maple Leafs have hit a home run with Mikheyev as he continues to be a vital piece to the puzzle up front.
The Maple Leafs signed Mikheyev to a one-year deal in the offseason and retain his rights as a restricted free agent after the conclusion of the season. With his early-season play, he’s certainly earning a raise on his next NHL contract. If he continues to play like this, however, the Maple Leafs will be forced to find a way to retain their hidden gem for the long term.
Sandin Sent Down
The biggest news coming from the Maple Leafs over the last week was their decision to send top prospect Rasmus Sandin to the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies on Monday, recalling rearguard Kevin Gravel as the corresponding move.
After averaging just 12:13 in a limited role with the big club, Maple Leafs brass felt it was necessary to give Sandin more development time while playing in all situations with the Marlies as he did a season ago.
From that standpoint, the move makes sense. It’s tough to develop a prized 19-year-old while issuing him around 12 minutes per night, a tiny number for a defenseman. Sandin notched the first two points of his NHL career with the Maple Leafs prior to being sent down. Given the rationale for the “demotion”, it stands to reason that this move is for the long-term.
Furthermore, defenseman Travis Dermott appears to be closing in on a return to the lineup. The original plan was for Dermott to miss 12-14 games to open the season, but at the six-game mark, Dermott wore a full-contact jersey at practice on Monday, a strong indication that he’s close to returning to the lineup. As a result, it makes even more sense to get Sandin down to the AHL and allow him to further develop while logging significant minutes in all-situation type role.
The Week Ahead
It’s a busy start to the week for the Maple Leafs as they face their second back-to-back of the young season before a monumental clash with a heated rival on Saturday night.
After defeating the Wild on Tuesday, the Maple Leafs travel to Capital One Arena to battle the Washington Capitals on Wednesday. The Capitals are coming off an embarrassing loss of their own to the undefeated Colorado Avalanche on Monday – a game in which goaltender Braden Holtby allowed a goal on the first three shots he faced.
As a result, expect the Maple Leafs to see Capitals’ goaltender of the future Ilya Samsonov for the first time on Wednesday. Samsonov, 22, was a first-round pick of the Capitals in the 2015 Draft and owns an impressive 1.43 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage through the first three appearances of his NHL career.
After taking Thursday and Friday off, the Maple Leafs are set for a big-time duel with the Boston Bruins at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday night. The Bruins are off to a hot start, going 5-1-0 over their first six games after knocking off the Anaheim Ducks by a 4-2 count on Monday. David Pastrnak scored four goals to account for all the offense on the Bruins’ side in that one.
For the second consecutive week, the Maple Leafs face a back-to-back, this time against the Blue Jackets on Tuesday followed by another clash with the Bruins on Tuesday, this time from the TD Garden in Boston. Having three back-to-back sets in the first three weeks of the season was part of the reason why October is a crucial month for this hockey club, and we’ll see if the team is up to the challenge.
With four games over the next seven days, the Maple Leafs are busy in another important week for the hockey club. As always, feel free to share your thoughts on how the team is doing moving forward and we’ll see how the next week goes!