MLHS’ Anthony Petrielli joined Sportsnet Today to discuss the Maple Leafs’ offseason additions, whether the team is better than last season, and the challenges of returning to the Atlantic Division for 2021-22.
On whether the Leafs are an improved team over last season after the offseason moves:
I don’t know about the one that finished the season, but I think they are better than the one that started last season when they were betting on guys like the Jimmy Veseys, Alexander Barabanovs, and Travis Boyds of the world. I think they upgraded the depth on that end of things, but they are going to miss Zach Bogosian a lot.
The team that ended the season was quite good, and then John Tavares got hurt and things sort of spiraled out of control from there. But they have set themselves up nicely to get to the trade deadline and then kind of assess and make a move from there.
On the most recent additions of Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie:
Ondrej Kase is a really good hockey player. He was playing on the top line with Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim when he started his career. Boston traded away a first-round pick, and in part they made them take on the David Backes contract, so it wasn’t straight up. But they had full intentions of him playing him up their lineup.
Anaheim did have him high up their lineup and he did not look out of place. He has been a very good hockey player, but he has not stayed healthy at all. It is hard to bank on him in any sense whatsoever. But he is a very simple case of if he stays healthy, the Leafs have a complete bargain on their hands. But it is really, really difficult to bank on him staying healthy.
That is sort of where the Nick Ritchie signing comes into play. Ritchie is just a solid player. He is going to chip in his 15 goals or whatever. He can play a little bit up and down your lineup and not look out of place. His floor is quite high, but if you wanted to go right to who has a really good ceiling, it would be Ondrej Kase if he can stay healthy.
On whether the team’s goaltending situation is improved over last season:
The funny thing is they got very good goaltending last year at the end of the day. Frederik Andersen struggled, particularly once he got hurt and was playing through that injury, but Campbell came in and played very, very well. A big question is whether or not that is going to be repeatable. If he reverts back to being unable to stay healthy, carry a workload, or be consistent game-to-game — in fairness, he has been very good since the Leafs acquired him in general, but any sort of slip back, and now they kind of get into that questionable territory.
Petr Mrazek is also very good, but he didn’t stay healthy last year. He was really good when he did play.
I think the biggest thing the Leafs can bank on is that they have been good defensively since the beginning of last season. Their top four is locked in. They are bringing back that group. I think they can sit there and feel confident that their defense can limit chances. All their goaltending really has to do is be average because they are on an above-average defensive team. Average goaltending behind an above-average defense will net out good results at the end of the day, and that’s really all they need.
On how much the team will miss Zach Hyman:
They’re going to miss him quite a bit. It might be getting underplayed. In the last two years, he has been on pace for 28 and 33-goal seasons. He has been super productive. The other thing of note is that he was an extremely important penalty killer, too.
He was hurt at the end of Mike Babcock’s tenure. That run they went on when Sheldon Keefe got hired coincided with Hyman returning and getting healthy, Tavares getting healthy, and Mitch Marner was hurt for a time. They got healthy. It wasn’t just a coaching switch. Their team got back together and they started rolling. Zach Hyman was a part of that.
I think they are really going to miss him in terms of being able to load up a line and then supplement it with a Tavares-Nylander second line. The Leafs don’t have a guy who is going to easily fill in. If Kase stays healthy, they might have a guy, but it is difficult to bank on.
In the absence of that, they are going to have a bunch of guys who can play that 13-14 minute range but not be a horse like Zach Hyman was. You will feel that at times, especially in a regular season where you can’t load up as well. It gives them an opportunity to spread out the minutes a little more between Matthews and Marner so that they aren’t playing insane amounts of ice time. That will benefit them in the long run.
On where the question marks remain with the Leafs:
It is a few things. I was disappointed with the answers with management saying they have to lose to win. When you go out in the first round five years in a row, it is kind of hard to trot that line out and take it seriously in year five. You can only go back to that well so many times.
A big part of what is happening is that they really need to have the coaching staff put it together. The power play has been genuinely bad for the second half of the past two seasons plus the playoffs. It was to the point where you just want them not to get power plays anymore. And that can’t happen when they put all of that money towards a few offensive players.
Some of their ice-time allocation has been really, really questionable. They are asking Matthews and Marner to do things basically no one else has done. I know people like to sit there and say, “Well, they are paying them, so they kind of have to.” You can’t ask these guys to play 25 minutes a night every other night for two months in the playoffs. It is not sustainable.
I think Kyle Dubas has done a pretty good job of putting together the team this offseason. I thought he did a good job at the trade deadline. Most people would have agreed with it at the time. They were primed to go on a run. They are primed to be pretty good this year.
Boston probably just got worse losing Krejci. Tampa has lost an entire really important line for them, although they are still really good. Florida probably improved adding Reinhart, and the Habs have probably not improved losing Danault.
I really look to the coaching staff to kind of put things together, but it doesn’t feel like they have. If we are being honest, it feels like they have been out-coached two playoffs in a row now.
On the challenge of returning to the Atlantic Division and if making the playoffs is at all in question:
It’s a good thing for them. I think they need to be battle tested a little bit more. It will be good for them to have those measuring-stick games throughout the season. I know they are not in their division, but even just playing teams once in a while like Colorado and Vegas — teams of the upper-echelon of the game — and getting to see what they look like against them, they missed that last year.
Basically, every single game that they went into, they were the favourites. Even betting wise, they were pretty much the favourites in every single game last year. They were very rarely challenged in terms of just playing a team that might actually be better than them. When you play a team that is better than you, you have to commit a little more defensively, players have to follow their roles a little more, and you can’t get away with mistakes as much.
They played in a division that was very forgiving. The Habs went to the Cup Final, but the division was not good last year and I don’t think it did them any favours to play in that for 56 games. A lot of the games were very boring. With about 20 games left, it was just about getting to the playoffs and seeing how it goes. I don’t think it helped them ramp properly.
The talk about them not making the playoffs is crazy at this point. They would need multiple injuries to significant players for that to happen. I think what is happening is that people are just looking at the lines, see the same old names, and they don’t like it anymore. But Marner is a 100-point player. Matthews is going to challenge for 50 goals next year if he is healthy. Tavares has been a point-per-game center his whole career, including pretty much last year as well. Nylander is a 30-goal guy. You don’t have all of those guys and miss the playoffs. That shouldn’t happen as long as they all stay healthy.
I think all of that will help them going in. They’ll maybe have a better read on their needs at the trade deadline.