Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Growlers, Marner, Zaitsev, Bettle

In light of Nikita Zaitsev’s decision to ask for a trade from the Toronto Maple Leafs, there is a lot of news and rumors swirling around Toronto. While there’s some good news from the organization, there’s also some bad news. Here are some insights into what’s going on around the team.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Tavares, Nylander, Franson, Zaitsev & More

Item One: Newfoundland Growlers Capture ECHL

They were an expansion team, but the Newfoundland Growlers captured the 2019 Kelly Cup as the ECHL champions by beating the Toledo Walleye 4-3 on Tuesday. Not only was it the team’s first championship, but it was the province of Newfoundland and Labrador’s first professional sports championship in any sport at any level.

The Growlers were also the first team to claim the ECHL title in its first season of existence since the Greensboro Monarchs did it in 1990. Congratulations to the team for a remarkable accomplishment. The Growlers’ Zach O’Brien had 16 goals and 29 points during the playoffs and won the June M. Kelly Playoffs Most Valuable Player Award.

Item Two: Maple Leafs Lose Director of Sports Science and Performance

In a surprise move, it was reported that the Maple Leafs have lost Dr. Jeremy Bettle, a key piece of the team’s on-ice success and the director of sports science and performance. If you wonder what the director of sports science and performance does, in Bettle’s own words, he was:

“Responsible for what we call our ‘off-ice programme’. That means everything that happens away from hockey, so overseeing medical, S&C (strength and conditioning), nutrition, psychology, rehab, scientific innovation and technology.”

Related: 7 Cool Things About Auston Matthews

Bettle’s work has helped the Maple Leafs ice a team that is both in shape and that recovers from injuries more quickly. The team has been an NHL leader in keeping players on the ice. Tyler Ennis, specifically, was an advocate and notes that the work of the medical staff both helped him prepare for the 2018-19 season and return to the ice more quickly after he was injured. Ennis noted the breadth of resources he was able to access immediately after he signed with the team in July of 2018. He had his best season in several years, perhaps because of Bettle’s work.

Toronto Maple Leafs Tyler Ennis
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Tyler Ennis celebrates his hat-trick with teammates. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

Item Three: Dubas and Marner’s Agent Having Frequent Talks

Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas apparently is trying to ensure he won’t have to relive last season’s William Nylander saga with Mitch Marner. It doesn’t take a rumor to know that Dubas has decided to proactively seek meetings with Marner‘s agent Darren Ferris.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Dubas noted, “We’ve had a lot more discussion with Darren already than we had with Lewis Gross (Nylander’s agent).” He added, “This time last year, Lewis and I had not even had discussions… The discussions with Mitch, Darren and I, they’ve been going back to last year.”

Although Dubas has declared signing Marner is priority one, he has lots of pucks on the ice. Settling contracts with all the team’s RFAs is crucial but none of the three (Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, or Andreas Johnsson) should take up all the team’s attention. It’s a busy time for Dubas and Maple Leafs’ management.

Item Four: Will Kapanen Be Packaged with Zaitsev?

A number of rumors are swirling about where Zaitsev might land. One rumor has the Maple Leafs floating a trade that involves sending Kapanen with Zaitsev to the Carolina Hurricanes for one of their defensemen, Brett Pesce, Dougie Hamilton, or Justin Faulk.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Nikita Zaitsev Calls Don Cherry a Clown: Is He Right?

Pierre LeBrun (whose source with the Hurricanes is GM Don Waddell) suggested on TSN1040 radio that the Hurricanes might be interested in a trade involving Kapanen and Zaitsev, but only after Zaitsev’s signing bonus was paid. This rumor suggests that Zaitsev is considered a problem and that the Maple Leafs might have to sweeten any deal to move him.

Item Five: Might Zaitsev Be Traded to the Canucks?

In yet another rumor about Zaitsev, during an interview on Sportsnet radio, Elliotte Friedman wasn’t nearly as pessimistic that the Maple Leafs would have trouble trading the defenseman. He noted that, although Zaitsev had troubles during the past two seasons and has another five years on a contract worth $4.5 million annually, it isn’t true that teams think he’s valueless. Friedman also thinks Zaitsev is a much better player than he showed during the 2018-19 season and had a good playoff series against the Boston Bruins.

Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, Maple Leafs
Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Brown. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Friedman noted that teams are always looking for right-shot defenseman. He believed, for Zaitsev, the issue was less the amount of money than the number of years. However, he suggested that, because teams have learned that Zaitsev was really unhappy in Toronto, another general manager might feel a change of teams might boost Zaitsev’s performance.

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Friedman noted that the Vancouver Canucks might be interested. Canucks general manager, Jim Benning is rumored to be ready to make a deal because his team is seeking the playoffs in 2019-20 and because his best-before date as a general manager might be in flux if the team doesn’t.

In fact, Friedman doesn’t think the Maple Leafs will have to sweeten any Zaitsev trade much because he’s a right-handed defenseman, and those are rare. He also dismissed the idea of including either Kapanen or Johnsson as part of the deal.

Kasperi Kapanen
Toronto Maple Leafs’ right wing Kasperi Kapanen celebrates with the bench. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

However, one caution Friedman had for Zaitsev was that he believed Vancouver was a tough place to play and, if fan criticism was a factor in his decision to request a trade, the Canucks might not a good team for him.