Welcome to another edition of Blues Bag of Pucks, where nobody wins and the goals don’t matter.
We’ll get this rolling right away with a question that was asked and then, in other words, asked again:
The Question:You know what I’m curious about? This whole “leopard can change its spots” narrative where players can learn to play harder, more competitive, etc. Are there some good examples we’ve seen of soft players becoming grinders in the NHL? Because I just don’t see this fairytale happening.
Same Question, Different Wording: Will Mitch Marner ever win a puck battle anywhere on the ice?
My Answer: Let’s be honest, even though William Nylander had as many hits last year as the garage band I played drums for in high school ever churned out, it’s Mitch Marner that people are looking towards to up his compete level. Don’t get me wrong, both need to put in more work, but there are at least occasions where you can find Nylander in the corner battling for a puck and that’s more than you can say for Marner. As for the other half of The Big 4, we saw that Auston Matthews has a playoff pulse in the Leafs 5 game play-in against Columbus, while John Tavares has never been short on compete.
Marner avoids physical contact like we used to avoid the plague and his dial doesn’t turn up when the playoffs begin. The fact that he makes nearly 4 million a season more on the cap than Nylander also adds fuel to the fire. It pains us Leaf fans to watch him, with all of his skill and potential, only to compare him to other players, like Stanley Cup champion Brayden Point, and wonder if he could even do what Point does. That is, physically engage the opposition and battle for every puck.
Which brings us to the other part of the question.
Can a player truly change their game?
Let’s go to fellow pucker, Ingy, for a little insight:
- Generally the guys who change their games do so to stay in the NHL. They may have been scorers and skill players in junior, but to stay in the league they have to adapt. Peter Zezel might be one that comes to mind.
I have to agree that this is generally the way. You don’t often see guys become more willing to put their bodies on the line to win puck battles or go to the front of the net. The biggest “success” stories in hockey that involve star players changing their game revolve around Steve Yzerman and Alex Ovechkin. Both played more of a run-and-gun style until they finally had to change their games in order to win it all. However, Alex Ovechkin always brought a physical element to his game, and Steve Yzerman had to transition into a more well rounded, 2-way player. Mitch Marner, if you’re not aware, led all Toronto forwards in short handed TOI/GP last season and already plays a good defensive game. He has a good stick that he uses to strip players of the puck and disrupt passing lanes. Maybe that’s why he has been 2nd, 1st, 1st, and 2nd on the team in TkA/60 (takeaways per 60 minutes, Minimum 30 games played)) since he entered the league 4 years ago (note: Auston Matthews was 1st, 2nd, 2nd and 1st in the same time frame).
I’ll argue that he already plays a 2-way game, even though I know his detractors would make you believe that isn’t true.
What he doesn’t do is take a hit to make a play and/or physically engage players in an attempt to disrupt their play and/or physically battle hard along the boards, in the corners, or in front of the net. It’s that style that is missing, let’s be very clear about that, because if you’re expecting him to lay big hits all of a sudden you’re only fooling yourself. He won’t do that, he doesn’t need to do that and it shouldn’t be expected of him.
My simple answer is this: No. Mitch Marner won’t change his spots. I’ll also pose this question; If you led all forwards on your team in TOI/GP, SH TOI/GP and PP TOI/GP, would you think you need to change while you get that type of trust from the coaching staff?
The Question: I think I asked this for a past article… the goaltending situation after this coming season. It doesn’t appear to be that signing Fred again is in the cards with the (flat) cap and his possible salary demands. What are the options? Would Campbell play a bigger role in a possible 1A/1B situation? Could they even give him the starting job and search for another backup? Or do they try and sign a UFA starter for 5ish (million per season)? What do the market options look like?
My Answer: Frederik Andersen will be the Leafs starting goaltender moving forward. I’m all but certain of it. He’d have to have a terrible season in order for this to not happen (he won’t, he’ll be good) and follow that up with an even worse playoffs (he’ll be good there as well).
I’m even more convinced of it due to the flat cap and COVID-19 pandemic, which is something I wouldn’t have said prior to this offseason.
This season saw a few good goalies hit the market, including Robin Lehner, Jacob Markstrom and Braden Holtby. All three have proven track records and are similar in age to Andersen, but it’s Lehner and Markstrom that compare the closest due to Holtby having a couple of subpar years as of late.
Robin Lehner signed a 5 year, $25M (5M average) deal with the Vegas Golden Knights, while Jacob Markstrom signed with the Calgary Flames for 6 years and $36M (6M average). If the Leafs re-signed Andersen to anything near those numbers it would be considered a good deal.
Add in the fact that players such as Tuukka Rask, Jordan Binnington, Antti Raanta, Philip Grubauer, Pekka Rinne, Devan Dubnyk and a host of secondary options are also primed to hit the open market (and that’s just UFAs), coupled with the fact that teams are reluctant to hand out big deals right now (Taylor Hall @ 8M for a single year is unprecedented) and you have the perfect circumstances to squeeze a goalie that likes his situation but has never won any personal or team awards of consequence.
If you’re not convinced that Andersen is the guy then you only have to look at the above list to find good solutions. If Kyle Dubas thinks that he can save a little money in net in order to open up space to improve the players that skate in front of that goalie, then Antti Raanta would be my #1 choice, but only because they have a quality backup locked in already. Great numbers (career 0.921SV%), coupled with a lot of injuries, means Raanta will come cheaper than the other best options. If you can give him a lot of rest, which means leaning on Jack Campbell more heavily, in order to have him ready for the playoffs, then you could hit gold on the cheap. Of course this means having a strong #3 in place as well, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
My prediction: Freddy re-signs for 4 years and $25M, for a 6.25M average.
The Question: The draft will be completely unpredictable. As a result do you keep or trade your high picks for playoff help this year?
My Answer: Trade away Kyle!! The North Division is there for the taking!!