I’m tired of reading idiotic, over-the-top proclamations on Twitter and making fun of it, but I’m also tired of being so damn negative, so, instead, I’m going to join the “It’s Always Sunny In Leaf Nation” crowd and point out a few good things about this team that aren’t insanely out to lunch:
Yeah, I know, just trying to sell the teams goaltending as a positive is tough. However, I’ll do my best.
The starters role is questionable at best. My hope is that we’re all sitting around at the end of next season talking about how great Matt Murray is and how they may be able to get a 2nd rounder at the draft for Ilya Samsonov because, while he was great too, he now deserves a raise, but Matt Murray was way better and you can only afford to keep one of them. That’s my hope. My expectations are a little different.
I believe the Leafs could have 2-4 backup goalies. This, surprisingly, is a type of progress. While I’d take back the Andersen/McElhinney tandem of yesteryear in a second, at that time the goalies on the Marlies consisted of players such as Calvin Pickard, Garrett Sparkes and Kasimir Kaskisuo. None of those players amounted to anything at the NHL level and likely never will. In fact, the only one of those players to play an NHL game that year was Pickard (1GP). The team was lucky that their tandem was healthy, because a healthy goalie is often a tough thing to find.
It would appear that this season brings a little more depth at the position, despite the high end talent being in question. Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov are at least backups in the NHL. I think if anybody takes a serious look at the situation they’ll realize that any angst and doubt surrounding them stems from the fact that the expectations for both, as of last season, was to be a starter, which they failed at. If you consider that if either played behind a bonafide #1 (Hellbuyck, Vasilevskiy, etc) they would be sought after by other clubs with the hope of being the acquiring clubs new starting goalie, it puts things under a different light.
Sometimes it’s tough for fans to separate a player from their expectations and contract and for them to simply accept a player for exactly what they are. What the Leafs have, in my opinion, is a pair of backups and one of those backups has a terrible contract, as compared to the rest of NHL.
On to numbers 3 and 4 in my “the Leafs have 2-4 backups” statement.
Erik Kallgren is #3 on the Leafs depth chart at the moment and that appears to be a good place for him. He enjoyed mixed results last season, but you could see he brought sound positioning to the ice and has some potential to improve. If, after 14 NHL games last year, he entered the offseason with more clarity on where he has to improve and the drive to do so, he could be a step further in his development already. I’d argue that he’s a better #3 than the team has had in years (Hutchinson was in that spot for too long) and could already be an NHL backup.
Joseph Woll, like Kallgren, is in a great place to succeed right now. While he’s in the #4 spot on the depth chart, nobody would be surprised if he leapfrogged Kallgren this year and, at least for me, there would be no surprise if he pushed for playing time in the NHL even while Murray and Samsonov are healthy. That may be as much a compliment to Woll as it is a knock on the Leafs current tandem, but I choose to view it as a positive.
Lastly, there’s Dennis Hildeby. Taken in the 4th round, #122nd overall in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, Hildeby is listed at 6’6″ 234lbs. He’s a monstrous kid that moves well and has high potential. He had a solid showing in the SHL last year and the hope is that will translate to the ECHL and then AHL level, quickly. While he was an overager at the draft (he turned 21 on August 19th) and he’s a few years away at least, it’s nice to have what, in my opinion, appears to be a goaltending prospect with a high ceiling.
If I were to rate this offseason’s goaltender moves it wouldn’t be a very high grade, I’ll admit. The Leafs need a true starting goaltender and theres no guarantee they have that. However, adding two hopefuls, a solid prospect and knowing that you have a couple of kids in the system that can step in to help at the NHL level in case of injury can be spun as a positive. All they need is for one of these goalies to do well and their grade rises quickly.
The Engine Remains
The big 4 haven’t won a thing in the playoffs. With Matthews, Marner and Nylander now in their mid twenties, otherwise known as the prime of their careers, we can’t expect that they’re just going to wake up and be playoff hardened warriors either. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know the Ovi story. Cling to that if you wish, but I’ll choose to believe that a change in the guard will help the team when things matter the most.
With that said, I truly hope, as a fan of this team and, believe it or not, a fan of those players as individuals on and off the ice, that they do breakthrough…. and quickly.
It’s that hope that has me writing about the three fully grown, established men, that are absolutely not kids in any way, shape or form that are listed above, and the journeyman, John Tavares, as a positive to have on the team.
With a combined 156 goals and 359pts last season, the big 4 certainly produce big numbers in the regular season. It’s the playoffs and their contracts that are hurting their reputations at the moment. If you can, once again, separate the players from their contracts, you would be happy to have any and all of them on your team for 82 games. After that…. well, its a matter of opinion.
One fact remains, you can’t win in the playoffs if you don’t make the playoffs, so having 4 players that can produce at such a high level is only going to help your chances of getting there and, hopefully, breaking through to the 2nd round and beyond.
The Good Contracts
I understand why people believe that the stars on this team are overpaid, but that’s not exactly true.
Auston Matthews has back-to-back Maurice “Rocket” Richard trophies, awarded to the player that leads the league in regular season goals. He added a Hart Memorial Trophy and the Ted Lindsay Award to his mantle this year as well. He’s a star in this league and deserves to be paid like one….. which he is. Meanwhile, the William Nylander contract has aged well (I’m terrified of what he’ll get on his next deal) and Mitch Marner would be the best player on a lot of teams in the league. John Tavares is aging, but his regression is overblown. Is he overpaid? Yes. I would say that’s accurate. However, it’s not as bad as some would make you believe. He’s also the complete opposite of William Nylander in my opinion, in the sense that I think he’ll take a deep cut in pay on his next contract.
More than that, I think the contracts for some other players are excellent. Mark Giordano is an extremely useful player and is set to make just $800K this season and next. He’s still a top 4 player in this league and signed for depth money to play for his childhood team. He meshed well with every player he was paired with last season and will be a huge asset on the 2nd and 3rd pairs this year.
Like him, Michael Bunting decided to sign a 2 year deal with the Leafs last offseason and has been wildly successful here. With 23 goals and 63pts in 79 games, Bunting cemented his place alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on the top line. If he can have similar, or superior results this year, it will be an interesting issue leading up to next year’s offseason, as the Leafs will have to shed cap in order to keep him with the team. I think that should be a priority, as their line was one of the better ones in the NHL last year. Aside from point totals, Bunting brought more of a scrappy game to the ice, which is in very short supply on this roster and provides a nice boost to their line.
A Checking Line
When players buy into their roles it helps the unit and roster as a whole. We didn’t see much of that last year. While the roster appeared to have some clarity at times, there were too many instances where you’d see scoring players, like William Nylander, placed onto a line with checking players, such as Pierre Engvall and David Kampf.
The hope is that this year they’ll assemble and stick with a true defensive line. Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and the newly signed Calle Jarnkrok should, in theory, form a fantastic checking line that can chip in a little on the offensive side as well. It’s my expectation that Head Coach Sheldon Keefe will say screw it and put Nicholas Robertson on that line and fuck everything up, but for now I’m holding out hope that common sense will prevail.
Those three players are “whatever it takes, Coach” type of players, that will do whatever is asked of them. They have a propensity to play different positions and on both sides of the puck. It’s ideal if you ask me.
Do or Die
This is the year.
I said that last season, but there’s no other option if this team fails this time.
Presidents Trophy? Meh.
Individual awards and accomplishments? Meh.
A hard fought 7 game playoff series loss, with every excuse in the book, including star players injured early, clearly bad refs, your top 3 goalies being concussed which forces you to turn to your 4th stringer to win a round, that is a success in every single way except for the 4 losses? Meh.
If they don’t break out of the 1st round heads will roll. The hope and excuses will be gone. The dream for Shanahan, Dubas and Keefe will be snuffed out.
This may sound like somebody that would be happy to see the team fail, but that’s not accurate. I honestly don’t care who the Coach, GM or President is if the team wins. However, this team hasn’t found a way to win and the Coach, GM and President need to take a lot of the blame for keeping the roster much the same as it has been the past couple of years. So, I’ll list this as a positive, because no matter what happens next spring, we’ll see something different at least. Be that a series win (or two?) or a new direction from new management, I’ll be happy either way.