It was almost inevitable that the Toronto Maple Leafs would acquire a backup goaltender of consequence. With Frederik Andersen injured, the deal with LA for Jack Campbell came together quickly. What’s the next item on the agenda for Kyle Dubas?
The first priority is straightforward: They need to figure out how much cap space they are working with here. Are any or all of Morgan Rielly, Cody Ceci, and Ilya Mikheyev expected back prior to the playoffs? If not, the Leafs can take advantage of the space to bring in a player of consequence.
Just to clear something up: If Mikheyev OR Rielly OR Ceci are out until the playoffs, their cap hit(s) can be replaced before the trade deadline. The NHL closely scrutinizes this I'm sure, but if there's a legitimate injury timeline there's language in the CBA to allow it. pic.twitter.com/S9hUtA10sz
— Earl Schwartz (@EarlSchwartz27) February 7, 2020
As a reminder: In the playoffs, there is no salary cap limit.
But if all three are expected back prior to the playoffs, that really complicates matters and limits the available cap space the Leafs will have at their disposal. As noted previously, they wouldn’t even be able to afford some of their current depth players with those three all back (such as Rasmus Sandin). Every penny counts for this team, as we saw them once again negotiate salary retention into their latest move (the Kings retained 50% of Kyle Clifford’s salary) to ensure it was dollar in, dollar out.
With all of this in mind, it could be a relatively quiet rest of the month from a trade perspective. If the Leafs don’t have a clear indication of what is happening here, they won’t be able to risk the implications of adding a player with a bigger salary unless cap dollars are simultaneously moved out.
That’s a tough spot for Kyle Dubas and the organization. They may have to figure some of this out in accordance with their medical staff and the league.
Otherwise, most would already assume the need on defense should be addressed. As previously noted, there are a number of players that would be great fits and are plausibly available. With a backup goalie acquired, is there anything else they might be interested in, though?
The other position to look into would be center ice. Frederik Gauthier has been in and out of the lineup as the fourth-line center, and while the team likes Jason Spezza, he has bounced around between center and wing. His best fit appears to be as a scoring winger that can fill on occasion at center rather than as a full-time pivot. Alexander Kerfoot has also bounced around. The team has used Pierre Engvall at center for an extended period of time, too.
It has been a case of musical chairs at center in their bottom six, which isn’t completely unnatural considering the injuries and amount of player movement down there. The question is: Are the Leafs even certain as to who their 3C and 4C would actually be if the whole team was totally healthy? It seems as though it is up for debate, and that makes it a position worth looking into.
It’s hard to see them acquiring a winger at this point — that kind of roster shuffle makes more sense in the summer should they look into rejigging their lines.
On defense, while everyone would love a top-four defenseman, is it possible that they will look for a depth addition as well? Timothy Liljegren is playing very little as their #6 right now, the team seems to waver in their belief in Martin Marincin, and a more steady option might be worth exploring. Even if that was the only move they made on defense, the impact could be notable. The Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl pairing is legitimately solid, while a healthy Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie can be effective in a more offensive role. Any sort of steady third-pairing defenseman to play with Travis Dermott could make this a better unit than critics give it credit for.
Of note, Cody Ceci leads the team in shorthanded time-on-ice per game by nearly 25 seconds (Jake Muzzin is second). Improving on Ceci’s ice time alone and Rielly returning to full health is a clear improvement on what they are currently rolling. With any sort of steady addition at center, this team would be as deep as it has ever been.
First thing is first, though — they need to figure out their cap situation.
– Lost in the heat of this playoff race is how good the Eastern Conference is. We aren’t used to this, but the Leafs’ current points percentage has them 10th in the East and would be good enough for fourth in the West. There are a lot of good teams in the East this year, making it all the more difficult just to make the playoffs.
– When the Leafs signed Jason Spezza, I wasn’t sure of the fit as a fourth-liner on a team that was already full of scoring, but his signing has turned out to be an important addition. Interestingly, it isn’t the fourth line where he’s really making his mark. With injuries and the constant roster shuffle. he has landed on the third line quite frequently and is playing at a near-40 point pace. His goal against Anaheim was a throwback and something Leafs fans will remember him doing to this team years ago. While his skating isn’t what it once was, his shot is still there and he makes the second power-play unit dangerous. His 15.5 shooting percentage hasn’t been that high since the 2015-16 season.
– One player we assumed would slow down at some point has finally done so in Pierre Engvall. He has two points in his last 12 games with 20 shots on goal in that time. In his last two games, he has played under 10 minutes in both of them. Engvall has fared admirably filling at center, but his game looks like a winger who can use his speed and size to go up the wall and get in on the forecheck. The full-time third-line center role was probably a bit of a reach for him, so he has been shifted back to wing. What is nice about his game, though, is that he has carved out a penalty-killing role. The scoring was always a bit of a bonus.
– There has been some talk about the Leafs and holding leads, so I looked it up — they are 17th in the league in winning percentage when leading after the second period. Interestingly, when leading after the first, they are sixth in win percentage. This is more surprising: They are 25th in win percentage when trailing after the first and 19th in when trailing after two. The Babcock portion of the season does not help, but you would expect a team with their firepower to never really be out of a game. Generally speaking, with decent goaltending, they have been fine at holding the lead.
– Against Anaheim, Alex Kerfoot pulled off a crafty little dump-in pass off the boards to Zach Hyman for a scoring chance. This is the kind of play the Leafs are going to have to be more creative with knowing teams are really starting to clog them up. The Habs were happy to play a boring, low-scoring game against them. Earlier in the week, the Rangers jammed them up all night. We’ve seen this happen to the Leafs before at this time of year.
– Also noteworthy in that game: Zach Hyman on the first power-play unit, winning a battle down low that led to a goal (Tavares), and the post-penalty-kill momentum shift that led to a goal with the power line (Matthews – Tavares – Marner) on the ice. Two nice adjustments paying off there.
“Disappointed with the fact that we had a chance here today and we were set up again in the third period. Right from the drop of the puck in the third, we were just on our heels. It just seems like we are lacking some confidence in those situations. It’s almost like we are waiting or expecting something bad to happen. It’s not what we want to be about. Clearly, when we play like that, we are not a very good team.
We need to get on our toes and get our swagger and get our confidence. It is crazy how quickly things turn here. We were sitting here on Friday and played like a fragile group there. There were chunks of the game I didn’t like, either. The way we ended the second period wasn’t very good.”
– Sheldon Keefe after the win against Anaheim
I have really appreciated Sheldon Keefe’s candidness since taking over as head coach. He has called the team out a number of times — and he’s not wrong to do so. The Leafs just seem a little fragile right now, but I think a good chunk of that has to do with not trusting their goaltending.
“There are teams in the league that are built a little bit differently in terms of their goaltending situation. They’ve gone to more of a tandem type of situation, and I know that gets a lot of press, but with us, we have a strong belief in Fred and what he is capable of over a season in being a bonafide number-one guy. But you do always have that fear of, “What if something happens to him?” You trust his work and how much we have been able to rely on him, but unfortunately, he’s got the injury.”
– Kyle Dubas on moving to acquire a backup goalie after Frederik Andersen got hurt
Jack Campbell is signed through the next two seasons, while Michael Hutchinson is a pending unrestricted free agent. Moving forward, I do think they will need to reconsider how many starts Frederik Andersen is receiving, be more proactive in managing his workload, and possibly look to acquire a legitimate third option in the pipeline who they can trust also. Andersen is not only going to be a free agent after next season, but he’s also turning 31 this year. There are a number of goalies that have completely fallen off a cliff around that time.
“Their work ethic and how hard they work will rub off on guys. Sometimes, because we have a really talented group we rely on that too much where I think we need that work ethic to come in and take over games.”
– Jake Muzzin on work ethic
Sometimes when you write about work ethic, people roll their eyes, but the players know it, too. It’s fairly obvious if you watch this Leafs team on a regular basis.
Tweets of the Week
Kings now open for business.
Clifford/Campbell deal could have been larger but Leafs/Kings couldn't fit Alec Martinez into deal, likely due to TOR cap situation.
Wouldn't be surprised if AMart is next, as another suitor has significant interest
— Dennis Bernstein (@DennisTFP) February 6, 2020
We mentioned Alec Martinez last week, so this isn’t particularly surprising. I wonder if it’s something they circle back on.
The Ducks are one of the worst teams in the NHL and are playing their 3rd game in 4 nights…and they’re all over the Leafs in the 3rd. Terrible look for Toronto.
— Bryan Hayes (@HayesTSN) February 8, 2020
In terms of results, it wasn’t exactly a banner week with two regulation losses and an OT win against a Ducks team that was playing their third game in four nights followed by an OT loss to the Habs.
You think this was just another game? Not to Ben Chiarot it wasn't. This is Hockey Night in Canada. “It’s a special game to be a part of. Leafs-Habs on a Saturday night in Montreal; it’s a big part of the reason I signed here was to be part of that game.”
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) February 9, 2020
Even though he’s on the Canadiens, I thought this was pretty cool. It can still be a special rivalry. An Original Six matchup on a Saturday night — there’s just something magical about it.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I noted last week that I would leave Andreas Johnsson in the top six. I stand by it. With Nylander out over the weekend, his ice time grew and he scored against Anaheim. Of all the left-wing options, I think he’s the best option they have right now for the second top-six spot — as long as Ilya Mikheyev is out, anyway.
2. I think, as usual with all prospects, there is little point in having a player up only to play him minimally. In this case, it’s Timothy Liljegren, who played roughly 11 and 10 minutes in each of the games over the weekend. If they aren’t going to trust him, fine — but don’t have him up to play minimally when he can be leading the Marlies in ice time. It’s not enough of a look and it’s not ideal for his development.
3. I think the ice time splits on this team are becoming too drastic. In the second half of a back-to-back, four Leafs forwards played under 10 minutes, while Jason Spezza played 10:30. John Tavares played 22:27, Mitch Marner played 23:52, and Auston Matthews played 24:21. And people are wondering why they spent the whole third period in their own zone? How else was this going to play out? That was the team’s second game in two nights. In the playoffs, they play every other night. This doesn’t seem like the recipe for success. They can’t expect to distribute ice time like this every night for the rest of the season. The stars all looked gassed down the stretch of the game.
4. In the summer, I think there is going to have to be a discussion on what the Leafs are getting from their mid-tier players and whether it’s worth the cost. That’s Alex Kerfoot, Kasperi Kapanen, and Andreas Johnsson. The Leafs are cash-strapped and can’t really afford to be paying what they’re paying for the level of the production they are receiving here (30-40ish points) when they can take on reclamation projects who can produce just as well. These are players that have had opportunities to play with elite players (Kerfoot has been with Tavares and Nylander for an extended run, for example). Meanwhile, the team’s defense isn’t balanced. I probably wouldn’t act on it now unless you can get a defenseman of real consequence, but I think this is a discussion at some point.
5. I think there has to be some accountability within the league when division rivals play three games against each other in a season and all of them are in back-to-back situations where one team is the tired team and the other is rested. I get that schedule-making is difficult and it’s not cut and dry, but three times in one season is just completely ridiculous. That’s a failure on the league’s behalf.