The most recent news is that the NHL is committed to seeking a solution for completing the 2019-20 NHL season, and they are not giving up the exploration for creative ways to do so.
In the absence of definitive news about the resumption or the cancellation of the season, in this post, I want to help Toronto Maple Leafs fans stay up-to-date on news and rumors emerging from the team and the organization.
Item One: Goalie Joseph Woll’s Teachable Season
The 2016 NHL Entry Draft was a good one for the Maple Leafs. With the first overall pick, they chose a highly-productive goal-scoring sensation named Auston Matthews who has proven worthy of that pick. He hit the ice with a great 2016-17 season and hasn’t looked back except to see frustrated defenders chasing him down. Already he’s logged 282 games with the Maple Leafs scoring 158 goals and 285 points – more than a point-per-game pace.
In that same draft, the team chose goalie Joseph Woll in the third round (62nd overall). Woll played three seasons with Boston College and last season moved to the AHL where he played in 32 games for the Toronto Marlies.
If you asked Woll how his season went, which the Toronto Sun’s Terry Koshen did earlier this week, Woll’s answer would be: “I learned a lot.”
Such an answer typically means that the season could have been better, and that assessment would – in Woll’s case – be correct. The 21-year-old goalie has a roller-coaster season, which ended with an 11-16-3 record, a .880 save percentage, and a goals-against average of 3.75, (from “Leafs prospect Woll ‘learned a lot’ in first year of pro hockey,” Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun, 12/05/20).
Related: 7 Cool Things About Auston Matthews
Woll wasn’t the only player who struggled. In fact, it was the poorest season the Marlies have had in a while; they were nine points out of a playoff spot in the North Division when the season was cancelled. Woll admitted both he and the team “dealt with a lot of adversity.”
He became more explicit about what he learned: “It was different than any hockey I had played before. Across the board, everyone is more skilled, for the most part, stronger, faster. It can be a little overwhelming at first. The way players see the ice, their ability to make plays, was something I had to adjust to.”
Woll noted that his biggest lesson was, “to have a really short mindset and focus on going into the next game, work on keeping your identity with all the ups and downs.”
When the Maple Leafs drafted Woll and then Ian Scott in 2017, they hoped one of these youngsters might move up the ladder to the big club. So far, that hasn’t been the case. Woll struggled, and Scott missed the season entirely recovering from hip surgery.
The Maple Leafs are not solid at the goalie position, and won’t be for the foreseeable future. Frederik Andersen’s contract is done after the 2020-21 season, and Jack Campbell’s contract expires after 2021-22. Kasimir Kaskisuo is eligible for free agency, and it’s difficult to know how mindset after he was thrown to the wolves in his NHL debut. On Nov. 16, 2019, he gave up six goals on 32 shots backing up his listless teammates. (By the way, Mike Babcock was fired three days after Kaskisuo’s debut.)
General manager Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs management don’t tend to rush their goalie development and have to hope that Woll will take a route similar to the St. Louis Blues’ Jordan Binnington, who followed a wandering path to NHL stardom. Maple Leafs fans will see in time.
Item Two: Calling All Jason Spezzas
Perhaps it’s the impact COVID-19 will have on the 2020-21 salary cap upper limit or maybe the experiment was a success, but earlier this week James Mirtle of The Athletic reported that the Maple Leafs were seeking more players like Jason Spezza. In his May 11 column, Mirtle assumed that the team would be forced to trade their two young forwards Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen and would be beating the bushes for less costly forward help.
Mirtle then listed players who might sign for less, but who would produce results that exceeded their pay, (from ‘Mirtle: Breaking down 19 intriguing UFA forward targets for the Maple Leafs,’ James Mirtle, The Athletic, 05/11/2020).
The top of Mirtle’s list included Kyle Clifford, Tyler Ennis, Josh Leivo, Patrick Maroon, Jesper Fast, and Matt Nieto. He added Alex Galchenyuk, Conor Sheary, Colin Wilson, Jimmy Vesey, Michael Frolik, and Derek Brassard as possible reclamation projects. Finally, he named Mike Hoffman, Craig Smith, and Carl Soderberg as long shots. However, players most like Spezza include Joe Thornton, Ilya Kovalchuk, or Corey Perry.
As Mirtle noted, “Dom Luszczyszyn pulled together this handy chart of game-score projections for the next three seasons for all of the players listed above. Of the more realistic targets for the Leafs, he’s highest on Ennis, Leivo, Maroon, Wilson and Fast.”
I think the Maple Leafs would jump at the chance to get Tyler Ennis or Josh Leivo back. Both are former Maple Leafs and, in an article written in the Hockey News late in 2019, Ennis was named the best bang-for-the-buck player in the NHL in goal scoring. He’ll likely stay home with the Edmonton Oilers and Leivo seems to have found a home in Vancouver, although the Canucks might have their own salary-cap squeeze.
Item Three: Timothy Liljegren Is Ready for the NHL
As TSN’s Mark Masters reported a few days ago, right-shot defenseman Timothy Liljegren had a standout 2019-20 season for the Marlies. In a conference call on May 11, Maple Leafs assistant general manager Laurence Gilman, who’s also general manager of the Marlies, noted:
“I really felt that his (Liljegren’s) game took a tremendous step this season. He obviously has very good puck skills, he transports the puck very well, he skates very well, he has a good shot, but I think what he worked on the most this year … was how he processed the game, how he thought it, his decision making going forward.”
Gilman believes Liljegren will help the team’s defense and added, “I believe that Timothy Liljegren is ready to become an NHL player, whatever level that will be. I will be surprised if he doesn’t play in the top seven or eight with the Toronto Maple Leafs next year. He’s got to hold up his end of the bargain, but in terms of the development that he’s had in the past 12 months I think it’s been tremendous.”
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
On Wednesday, NBC Sports reported that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stated: “I don’t want to sound Pollyanna, but canceling is too easy a solution. That means you stop working hard to do all of the things that we’re doing, and I ultimately believe that there will be an opportunity.”
The good news is that the NHL hasn’t stopped exploring viable solutions to complete the 2019-20 season. Only twice in NHL history has the Stanley Cup not been awarded. The first was in 1919 when another pandemic – the Spanish flu – wreaked havoc globally. The second time was in 2005, after a season-long lockout when players and owners fought over the distribution of NHL revenue.
Bettman added, “We would like to bring a conclusion to this season. It’s got to be fair, it’s got to have integrity, and if we have to do it over the summer on some modified basis, then we’ll do it on that basis.”
For Maple Leafs fans, the good news is that there might be hockey, but that comes at a cost; the longer the NHL waits to resume this season the longer it pushes back the start of 2020-21. Could the new NHL season begin just before Christmas?
It’s an interesting time to be a Maple Leafs fan, with so much up in the air.