There’s a trio of Toronto Maple Leafs players who’ve benefitted from the pause more than others, not only saving their season but maybe even their careers and reputations. Every team has been able to cash in with months of rest to get players healthy. The Maple Leafs are no different.
Like every team, Toronto has had bumps, bruises, cuts, concussions and attitude adjustments throughout the season. But when it comes down to it, three players can rewrite the 2019-20 script in their favour when hockey resumes and the Maple Leafs face-off against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
John Tavares was captain of the New York Islanders for five long seasons. He was the guy who put the team on his shoulders and carried it as far as he could night after night. When Tavares was named the 25th captain in Maple Leafs’ history, you couldn’t help but think of the other Leafs’ greats who wore the “C” and pulled off similar herculean feats. Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, Mats Sundin, and the list goes on. Leafs captains who left blood, sweat, teeth and tears on the ice to win.
That’s what Leafs’ Nation was hoping for with Tavares being named captain. This isn’t to say he has failed, but he hasn’t succeeded – yet. When the NHL resumes, it will give Tavares a chance to show the grit and tenacity of Leafs’ captains who came before him, the captains he idolized growing up.
Barrie’s Contract Year
This has not been the season that Tyson Barrie wanted or the Leafs expected. He was a complete non-factor under Mike Babcock’s system, essentially removing 23 games from his season. Barrie turned it around with Sheldon Keefe’s game management, allowing the defenseman to pinch and control the play. His numbers immediately improved, and so did his confidence.
However, the damage was done – the 28-year-old had significantly underperformed during his contract year. But the underperformance of the regular season could be quickly forgotten if he can produce in the playoffs. Barrie will not only be playing for the Leafs but for his agent, who will have a much easier job in the offseason if he is shopping a winner.
Since signing with the Maple Leafs in 2016-17, Frederik Andersen’s played in 244 regular-season games and 20 playoff contests. While that is a lot of games, several goalies have matched or even exceeded those numbers – the difference is the amount of work. During those regular-season games, he faced 7,142 shots – that’s nearly 300 more than the next goalie. Thanks to not having a reliable backup goalie in Toronto, Andersen leads all goalies for time on the ice during those seasons at a whopping 14,204:46.
Of course, the more a goalie is on the ice, the more chances of taking hits and Freddy has endured more than his fair share, including blows to the head. Nearing the end of past seasons and heading into the playoffs, the big man from Denmark looked exhausted. Now he looks healthy and happy, likely because he has a chance to answer the haters.
Kasperi Kapanen had a very public and embarrassing punishment for breaking team conduct rules. When he returned to the ice, his numbers were okay, but he had nights where he looked like that old guy at the office who shows up to work for the paycheck while counting the days to retirement. The pause may have given the youngster a chance to reflect and reset his attitude.
Ilya Mikheyev was rolling along in his rookie season. With speed to burn, the undrafted 25-year-old put up 23 points in 39 games. A nasty cut on his wrist stopped the feel-good story cold. The Russian was out for at least three months, and it was beginning to look like the season may have been lost. However, due to the pause, all signs point to Mikheyev returning.
Then there is the coach. Sheldon Keefe’s rookie season as head coach of the Leafs goes down as 27-14-5. Impressive, no doubt, but after a blazing hot start, Keefe’s team came back to earth. Before Jan. 1, 2020, Keefe’s Leafs were 13-4-1, but when the New Year hit, the Leafs dropped to a fairly average 14-11-4. If Keefe’s last 29 games were his first 29 games, there might have been some different discussions.
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However, the pause has given him more time to learn about his players and vice versa. Keefe took over a team that was spiraling downwards. No matter what he did, there would always be the first 23 games under Mike Babcock that would be part of the season. Now Keefe has a clean slate.
I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to remember life before the pause. The 2019-20 regular season seems like a long lost memory. NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman, says training camp will start after July 1. Yes, training camp. A new season is upon us offering a rare, once in a lifetime chance for players and coaches to rewrite the memories of the season before COVID-19 with the victories after the pandemic.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.