The 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs got off to their desired start with a 5-3 victory over the rival Ottawa Senators on Wednesday night, receiving contributions up and down the lineup. The Maple Leafs got goals from three of their four lines while coming back from a Senators strike 25 seconds into the game that took the air out of Scotiabank Arena. All told, the evening was a success.
Contributing to that success were seven players who were skating in their first game with the Maple Leafs. No, that group interestingly did not include offseason signee Jason Spezza who was scratched for the opener with inexperience on the penalty kill as the culprit. While he watched from above in the press box, the players that did make their debut with the team had an impact on the end result.
Let’s take a look at the seven newcomers and how they fared before assessing which player impressed most in his Maple Leafs debut.
The Maple Leafs’ most high-profile offseason addition from the summer looked good in his first game with the blue and white, displaying his elite puck-handling abilities and smooth skating that should continue to benefit the club as the season moves along.
Barrie not only played a solid defensive game in his own third, but he showed why he has the sixth-most points over the last two seasons among NHL defensemen with a beauty spin move and dish to fellow newcomer Ilya Mikheyev who converted to make it a 5-2 game and essentially put this one into the win column for the home side.
Is he a high-risk player? Absolutely. Is the risk worth the reward? More often than not, yes. The Maple Leafs had a defenseman who played a similar style for many years in the form of Jake Gardiner. His puck-moving ability and skill at the offensive end was never in question, but fans grew impatient with his penchant for coughing up the puck too often.
While Gardiner had 53 giveaways in 62 games with the Maple Leafs last season, Barrie had just 41 in 78 games with the Colorado Avalanche. Miscues aside, it was noticeable to see Barrie attempting to put a ton of pucks on goal as he was credited with six shots. That is truly where Barrie separates himself from Gardiner is his ability to gets pucks to the net. Gardiner averaged just 1.26 shots per game last season while Barrie averaged 2.79 per game with the Colorado Avalanche.
Comparisons to Gardiner aside, Barrie was certainly as advertised in his Maple Leafs debut, collecting a pair of assists in the process. If that type of play continues for the duration of the season, the team might just have to open up extension talks with the rear guard before he hits free agency next summer.
After the Maple Leafs signed Mikheyev out of Russia last May, he was largely an unknown to almost everyone on this side of the Pacific. Training camp and the ensuing preseason games allowed us to get a sneak peak at what the Maple Leafs see in the 24-year-old, and early returns were positive. Last night’s effort might not be a confirmation, but rather an affirmation of what he can bring to this hockey club.
For one, he’s an absolute puck hound. He was flying around the ice and constantly putting puck pressure on any Senator holding the biscuit. While he was credited with just one takeaway, I would venture a guess and say we should expect plenty more of those from No. 65.
When I projected Maple Leafs’ penalty killers last week, I mentioned Mikheyev as someone who could eat some penalty kill minutes, but it’s already becoming widely apparent that he could become a big piece of assistant coach Dave Hakstol’s group. He may not start many kills due to the Maple Leafs’ need to get a centre out to take a faceoff, but he’s going to finish plenty. He moves extremely well for his big, 6-foot-3 frame and his tenacity works to his advantage in such situations.
As mentioned, he also scored in his Maple Leafs debut. It’s just one game against a defensively-weak Senators team, but it appears the Mikheyev — Alexander Kerfoot — Trevor Moore third line is set to give the opposition fits with their speed and puck-hounding abilities. His offensive game was said to be evolving in Russia prior to moving to the NHL, and if that’s the case, Mikheyev could pay big dividends to a team in need of value on the edges of their well-compensated star forwards.
It also appears the Toronto hockey media is going to have plenty of fun with the Russian as his apprehension of the English language continues.
All told, it was a fairly quiet Maple Leafs debut for Kerfoot — another piece brought to Toronto alongside Tyson Barrie. Kerfoot didn’t register a point or a shot on goal in the opener, skating just two ticks shy of 15 minutes in the process. We do know he’s firmly entrenched on the club’s second power play unit after skating 3:55 on the man-advantage last night.
After winning 56% of his faceoffs with the Avalanche last season, Kerfoot was knocked down to just 29% in his Maple Leafs debut. It’s a tiny sample, of course, but the club will hope he can turn that around as he’s going to be taking the draws to the right of the opposing goaltender on that second power play unit. Winning that draw is key to power play efficiency, so look for Kerfoot to continue his work in the faceoff circle behind the scenes.
I still see the Harvard product as an x-factor for this club and an offensive catalyst in a bottom-six that needs to produce to support the big boys up front. Add in the power play time, key faceoffs and play in his own end and we can surely expect more noise from the two-year veteran moving forward.
Truth be told, it was a quiet night for Rasmus Sandin as he not only made his Maple Leafs debut, but his NHL debut, as well. However, don’t confuse quiet with unproductive as Sandin notched his first NHL point — an assist on Trevor Moore’s second-period tally.
The plan with the 19-year-old top prospect is clear. Mike Babcock is going to ease him in as gently as possible, something concretely evident in his 8:58 of ice time last night. On top of the assist, Sandin added two shots on goal and once again looked poised with and without the puck.
It’s just so difficult not to wonder what the ceiling is with the Swedish rear guard. Sandin looked more the part of a seasoned veteran playing his 10th NHL season rather than an inexperienced rookie beginning just his second season of professional hockey under the bright lights of Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. His skating was smooth, his decisions were quick and accurate and his hockey IQ is evidently off the charts. Low minutes will be a staple in his career’s opening months, but he’s going to force an increased role sooner than later.
Quiet is mostly good for stay-at-home defenders such as Cody Ceci, so his season-opener was largely a success. However, it didn’t exactly start well as he lost inside positioning on former teammate Brady Tkachuk who converted a centreing pass from former Maple Leaf Connor Brown to open the scoring just 25 seconds into the game.
The raw numbers were solid as Ceci registered a shot on goal, a takeaway, zero giveaways, two hits and two blocked shots. He was narrowly a positive possession player on the night with a 51.4% Corsi For% at even strength, something that will likely continue moving forward alongside Morgan Rielly on the team’s top pair moving forward.
Ceci skated 22:01 despite the Maple Leafs drawing five penalties on the night, but he did log 3:02 on the penalty kill — the second-highest mark on the team behind Martin Marincin. The Senators went zero for three on the power play, so that area of the game was a success for the Ottawa native.
Quiet and steady is all the team is asking of Ceci this season on top of his penalty killing minutes, and after one game it’s so far so good.
Many were surprised to see Shore skating on the fourth line in yesterday’s pre-game skate, but he indeed got into the lineup for his first NHL game since the 2017-18 season. That said, there wasn’t much to speak about as his stat line reads zeros across the board in his 8:33 of ice time.
Shore did a solid job in the faceoff circle, going five for nine in the small amount of ice time provided to him. All of those draws came in the defensive end of the ice. Shore also saw some penalty killing time as well, skating 1:19 while down a man.
Truthfully, there isn’t much of an expectation for Shore with the team this season as Spezza almost certainly will dress the majority of the games on the club’s fourth line. The situation gets even tighter when Zach Hyman returns from injury sometime in November.
Barrie Looks as Advertised
As the old saying goes, you are successful when your best players are your best players. In this case, the Maple Leafs best offseason addition was their best newcomer in the season opener.
He was skating, he was handling the puck, he was putting pucks on net and he hit the scoresheet on two occasions. All in under 20 minutes worth of work. Barrie isn’t going to see a massive workload under Babcock. He’s not going to kill penalties and he’s not going to be exposed to the opposition’s top line. That duty will go to the Rielly-Ceci duo.
What he will see is second unit power play time, a regular rotation on the second pair and increased minutes when the team is trailing in the third period. Don’t expect eye-popping usage of Barrie. Expect a ton of skill, impressive puck-handling ability to some risk to boot.
After his debut, one thing is for sure: this guy is a ton of fun to watch.