This post aims to round up some of the perspectives from players who have gotten the chance to get back a bit, though. Please note that this isn’t a comprehensive list of every team back in action for Phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan.
One curious question is: how long does it take to shake off the rust. Considering that the NHL is still trying to hash out details for training camps (aka Phase 3), the answer appears subjective.
“If I’m off the ice for two days, it feels like I’ve never skated in my life before, so three months was a little bit nerve-wracking …” Oilers defenseman Matt Benning said.
Benning noted that it takes different players different amounts of time to get used to edgework and other skating factors. But it sounds like Benning specifically sits in the “more the merrier” camp. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
If you need a moment of zen, enjoy this footage of the Oilers beginning Phase 2:
Tavares doing Tavares things early in NHL Phase 2
Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares is known for being something of a thinking man’s hockey star. Sometimes that drive can manifest itself in ways that are … honestly, kind of nerdy.
“There’s a pretty big-time crunch on being in the arena; you only have about 45 minutes to an hour to complete your workout and you’ve got about 40 minutes on the ice,” Tavares said. “The windows are fairly small, but the actual work we’re able to get in is going to go a long way in helping us prepare and get ready. The intensity is there.”
There’s also no substitute for family. Bailey acknowledged that the “hub city” system will take some getting used to. At least he’d have his Islanders teammates, though.
“It’ll definitely be different,” Bailey said, via Cory Wright of the Islanders’ website. “No matter how it all comes together, when, how, if, whatever the case may be. It won’t be what we are accustomed to. But when you’re with the team it kind of gives you that feeling of normalcy.”
Plenty still needs to be settled before NHL goes from Phase 2 to Phase 3
Overall, the Phase 2 return to ice seems more like a trickle than a stampede.
For every instance such as Marc-Andre Fleury getting geared up with the Golden Knights, there are players who want to avoid taking risks, or teams facing restrictions.
With the NHL’s Return to Play announcement on Tuesday, we learned the eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play to determine seeding for the First Round.
For the Eastern Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of Boston, Tampa, Washington, or Philadelphia.
Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Eastern Conference matchups.
(5) Penguins vs. (12) Canadiens
Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens vs. Penguins Monday, Aug. 3: Canadiens vs. Penguins Wednesday, Aug. 5: Penguins vs. Canadiens Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens* Saturday, Aug. 8: Penguins vs. Canadiens*
Regular season recap
At the time of the March 12 pause the Penguins were sitting in a playoff spot, four points behind the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division lead. The Canadiens, on the other hand, would be enjoying their off-season if we had the traditional 16-team playoff format.
How rough of a regular season was it for the Habs? Out of their 71 games played, they only won 19 in regulation. They were one of the league’s top possession teams (54% Fenwick, per Natural Stat Trick) but it was their own end of the ice where the issues popped up. Montreal was middle of the pack at 5-on-5 goals against (142) and shots against (1,710), save percentage (.917), and were bottom-10 in shooting percentage (7.49%).
The Canadiens experienced two eight-game losing streaks, a five-game skid, and went into the break losing 10 of their last 14 games. Pittsburgh also would be coming off a big-time slide having lost eight of their last 11 games. A several-month pause could certainly help break such a skid.
It was also a season of injury for the Penguins. Pittsburgh is currently third with 298 man-games lost to injury or illness, per ManGamesLost.com. Only seven players have played at least 60 games. But, in line with their season, one of those players, Dominik Simon, injured his shoulder in February and will be out at least six months following surgery.
Penguins lead season series 2-1-0. Last meeting: Feb., 14; a 4-1 Penguins victory.
Injured players who could return
Jake Guentzel suffered a shoulder injury in late December and was ruled out for 4-6 months. Should play resume in late July/early August that could be enough time to mend for the Penguins forward. Zach Aston-Reese, Brian Dumoulin, and Nick Bjugstad were all injured players who returned just before the pause. Unfortunately for Bjugstad, GM Jim Rutherford said on Wednesday the forward underwent an undisclosed surgery this week and will be out the rest of the season.
This will be a series featuring a team that dealt with major injuries seemingly every week, yet remained in contention for the division lead against one that has dealt with consistency issues. It’s a short series, so we know a hot goalie can steal games, which brings us to…
Carey Price, who became the focal point of a storyline about the Penguins fearing him in a short series, hasn’t been his usual dangerous self. He’s 32nd in even strength save percentage this season among goalies with 1,000 minutes played (.919) and 32nd in goals saved above average (.27). Why would Mike Sullivan’s team be scared of that?
(6) Hurricanes vs. (11) Rangers
Saturday, Aug. 1: Rangers vs. Hurricanes
Monday, Aug. 3: Rangers vs. Hurricanes
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Hurricanes vs. Rangers
Thursday, Aug. 6: Hurricanes vs. Rangers*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Rangers vs. Hurricanes*
Regular season recap
It was a tight race at the bottom of the Metro as well as for one of the East’s two wild card places. The Hurricanes played 68 games and earned 81 points, putting them in the top wild card spot with two games in-hand on the Rangers, who were two points behind Carolina.
New York is in the middle of a franchise transition rather than the tear-it-down approach to rebuilding. They’ve brought in youth to mix in with prime-age veterans and it resulted in a good step forward. There are plenty of decisions to be made in the off-season, but GM Jeff Gorton’s moves have set the team up well. Artemi Panarin is a Hart Trophy candidate, Mika Zibanejad scored a career high 41 goals, as did pending restricted free agent defenseman Tony DeAngelo (15 goals, 53 points). Chris Kreider, who was nearly dealt at the trade deadline before signing a seven-year extension, hit 20 goals for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Rookie Adam Fox, whose signing rights were traded from Carolina to the Rangers last summer, played his way into the Calder Trophy discussion with 42 points.
The Hurricanes were one of two NHL teams to vote against the Return to Play proposal. Player rep Jordan Martinook said the reason was because they felt it was unfair for a team already in a playoff spot to have an extra round to participate in. Carolina headed into the break with a three-game winning streak and were feeling confident about their final 14 games.
Whatever goaltender the Rangers play will be busy. The Hurricanes fired 300 more even strength shots on goal than New York. They’ll also be tasked with facing a tough offense with Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov leading the way. Carolina likes to dominate possession, but like Montreal, their own zone tends to be where the issues develop. Their goaltender has been sub-par, leading to a .912 5-on-5 save percentage despite 1,549 shots allowed at even strength, fewest in the NHL.
Rangers lead series 0-4-0. Last meeting: Feb., 21; a 5-2 Rangers victory.
Chris Kreider fractured his foot on Feb. 28, but he should have enough healing and rehab time for a return to the lineup.
He wasn’t injured, but the Rangers will likely be without Brendan Lemieux for some portion of the series. The forward was suspended after the NHL pause for an undetermined amount of time. There will be clarity on that before games resume.
Storylines to watch
Is this the Adam Fox Bowl? Maybe the Brady Skjei Series? Whatever angle you go with, this is a divisional matchup with two teams believing in their bright futures. Part of the next generation for New York is goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who returned from injuries sustained in a car accident just before the pause. Will head coach David Quinn go with him in goal ahead of Alexandar Georgiev or Henrik Lundqvist, who has made one start since Feb. 3?
Saturday, Aug. 1: Panthers vs. Islanders
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Panthers vs. Islanders
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Islanders vs. Panthers
Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders vs. Panthers*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Panthers vs. Islanders*
Regular season recap
Neither team entered the break in a traditional playoff position, but they weren’t far off the pace. The Islanders were one point back of Columbus for the second wild card spot, while Florida sat three points behind the Blue Jackets.
Under new head coach Joel Quenneville, Florida remained on the playoff bubble, but one wonders how much further up the standings they would be if Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal in the summer, played better than his .900 even strength save percentage. Could he steal a short series? Sure, but his .904 career playoff save percentage doesn’t instill much confidence.
If we’re still counting losing streaks, the Islanders would enter a resumption in play on a seven-game losing skid. That slide goes back to mid-February as they won just twice in their last 13 games and have six total victories since Jan. 11. They lost a comfortable playoff position and found themselves fighting for a wild card place in a competitive Metro.
That 17-game point streak earlier in the season seems forever ago.
Veteran Andy Greene was added to help a defense that hasn’t been what you’d expect from a Barry Trotz team in 2019-20. Only Ottawa has allowed more even strength shots on goal and the Islanders have allowed the fifth-most high-danger scoring chances. That’s a big change from the team that swept the Penguins out of Round 1 a year ago.
The Panthers own the possession advantage here (50% Fenwick to 47%, per Natural Stat Trick) and have converted more 5-on-5 chances with an edge in shooting percentage at 9%. A huge factor will be in net with Bobrovsky against Semyon Varlamov. The Islanders netminder has a .921 ESSV% vs. a .903 for Bob. If New York, who has scored the third-fewest 5-on-5 goals among the Return to Play teams, can get their offense going, it could spell trouble for Florida.
(8) Maple Leafs vs. (9) Blue Jackets
Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs
Thursday, Aug. 6: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs*
Regular season recap
The Maple Leafs offense is potent, as we saw through 70 games. Auston Matthews put home 47 goals, followed by William Nylander‘s 31 and John Tavares‘ 26. Their top two lines are dangerous, but their goaltending will be among their biggest questions.
Frederik Andersen‘s .915 ESSV% puts him near the bottom among goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played. He had to play a lot of hockey given Toronto’s backup issues. Maybe the extra time off will allow him to get his game back? Consider his likely counterpart, Elvis Merzlikis, who posted a .931 in 32 games played. Or if John Tortorella could go with Joonas Korpisalo, who put up a .926 in 37 games.
Columbus was among the lowest scoring teams at 5-on-5, with 125 goals compared to that of Toronto’s 158. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though, as the Blue Jackets were right behind the Maple Leafs with 1,837 EV shots. Converting was the issue, as seen by their 6.8 shooting percentage. Even if Andersen isn’t on his game, Toronto can overcome that with a smothering offense.
The pause could allow the Blue Jackets to get healthy as their 352 man-games lost to injury led the NHL. Already dealing with the loss of Panarin and Bobrovsky in free agency, Columbus didn’t lose faith in their ability and persisted, even as players were being added to the injury list on a regular basis.
Maple Leafs have a regulation victory. Blue Jackets have an overtime win. Last meeting: Oct. 21; a 4-3 Columbus OT win.
On one hand you have a Blue Jackets team that was battered all season long, fighting for a playoff spot despite losing their two biggest stars in the summer. They surprised many and really played with a chip on their shoulders all season long.
On the other hand, there’s a chance that if Toronto win they could face the Bruins for the third-straight season — and we all know how much Maple Leafs fans love seeing Boston in the playoffs.
Lehtonen, 26, topped all KHL defensemen with 49 points (17 goals, 32 assists) this season. Not surprisingly, Lehtonen represented Jokerit as a KHL All-Star. The Maple Leafs website notes that the KHL tabbed Lehtonen as defenseman of the month for three months in a row.
“I think his style fits well for Toronto,” Vuorinen said. “Torey Krug is a good comparison. He runs the power play well and gets pucks to the net with a good wrist shot. He was the best player in Europe, IMO. He’s ready to play in the NHL.”
Why the Maple Leafs signing Lehtonen is intriguing
You could call this an intriguing signing for a number of reasons:
The Maple Leafs managed to sign Lehtonen despite what Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston deemed “a long list of suitors.” Fans may delight in the belief that Lehtonen seemingly chose the Maple Leafs over the Canadiens.
Johnston reports that the Maple Leafs convinced Lehtonen to sign without any performance bonuses involved.
On paper, Lehtonen creates quite the logjam of left-handed defensemen.
(It makes me wonder, at least a little bit, if Lehtonen really looked at Toronto as the easiest path to regular playing time.)
Could this be it for, say, Dermott? Might the Maple Leafs aim for a trade to balance things out a bit more on the right side?
Toronto seems willing to roll with defensemen playing on their off-side, if nothing else. While those scenarios don’t always feel optimized, sometimes it’s better to just put together as much talent as possible, and hope the other details work themselves out.
Getting possibly the best defenseman not playing in the NHL, and doing so with a cap-friendly deal? This seems like strong work by GM Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs.
Some significant “Who else will be a part of the core?” questions remain. Things could also change thanks to the cap uncertainty, not to mention the Seattle expansion draft. Still, a lot of the core is in place, and while it isn’t cheap, it’s quite impressive.
Long-term needs for Maple Leafs
Chalk it up to luck or coincidence, but the Maple Leafs don’t face too many big calls during an upcoming offseason thrown out of balance by COVID-19 fallout.
Further down the line, there are some key calls, though. Frederik Andersen, 30, needs a new contract after 2020-21, while Morgan Rielly, 26, awaits a big raise following 2021-22. The Maple Leafs need to find answers to those long-term (mid-term?) questions down the line.
Speaking of down the line, the Maple Leafs must hope that Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren develop into useful defensemen for them. Defense is a big problem for the Maple Leafs, and while (likely departing) Tyson Barrie disappointed, he also did so at a cheap clip of $2.75M. The Maple Leafs want to improve on defense, yet they don’t have a ton of cash to make such improvements, so it would be crucial to get the most out of two blueliners on entry-level contracts. Their respective developments seem pivotal.
Overall, the Maple Leafs need to squeeze every bit of value out of their robust analytics department.
That means finding useful, cheap players, like they did with Jason Spezza. They’ve burned significant draft capital in trades involving Muzzin and Patrick Marleau over the years, so they’ll need to unearth prospects through a mixture of luck and deft scouting.
Considering monetary limitations, they might also need to get used to saying goodbye to players they like, but don’t need. Would it really be wise to bring back Kyle Clifford, for instance?
Long-term strengths for Maple Leafs
Again, the Maple Leafs boast a formidable foundation of young talent thanks to their big three forwards (plus Tavares).
Frankly, their front office now appears to be a long-term strength, in my eyes. Rather than the mixed messages of old-school (Mike Babcock and Lamoriello) battling with Dubas, there’s now a unified viewpoint. Dubas has his analytics team, and he has his coach in Sheldon Keefe.
A more rigid team might panic with, say, Frederik Andersen. Maybe Dubas will make the right moves there, even if it comes down to going with Campbell and someone else instead?
It’s that kind of thinking that could really help Toronto sustain itself even with pricey top-end players. There’s already some promise, also, in seeing solid scouting. While placing 21st on Scott Wheeler’s Prospect Rankings (sub required) isn’t world-beating stuff, it’s not bad considering how many picks the Buds shipped off in trying to rise to that next level.
Of course, for Dubas & Co. to be a long-term strength, they need to remain in place for some time, and that might hinge on the Maple Leafs making short-term gains. Considering the teams in front of them in the Atlantic, that won’t be easy.
There’s a lot to like for Toronto … but is there enough? We’ll find out — eventually.
With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Record: 36-25-9 (70 games), third in the Atlantic Division, sixth in the Eastern Conference Leading Scorer:Auston Matthews – 80 points – (47 goals and 33 assists)
In-Season Roster Moves:
• Acquire Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford from the Los Angeles Kings for Trevor Moore, a 2020 third-round pick and a 2021 conditional third-round pick.
• Traded Aaron Luchuk and a 2021 conditional sixth-round pick to the Ottawa Senators for Max Veronneau.
• Acquire Denis Malgin from the Florida Panthers for Mason Marchment.
• Traded Ben Harpur to the Nashville Predators for Miikka Salomaki.
• Acquired Matt Lorito from the New York Islanders for Jordan Schmaltz.
• Traded Martins Dzierkals to the Vegas Golden Knights for a 2020 fifth-round pick.
• Acquired Calle Rosen from the Colorado Avalanche for Michael Hutchinson.
The expectations for the Maple Leafs seemed to be very high in Toronto coming into the season. It wasn’t so much about what they’d do in the regular season as much as it was about finally making a deep run in the postseason. But things got scary at different times during the year.
There were nights in the middle of the season where the Leafs weren’t sitting in a playoff spot. Despite having offensive stars like Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander, Toronto still couldn’t climb any higher than third in the division.
Tavares and Matthews is a solid one-two punch down the middle, but it seems like they miss Nazem Kadri. Yes, he crossed the line at critical times, but they didn’t replace him after he was moved.
Even with Kadri out of the picture, offense clearly wasn’t an issue with the Leafs. Defense, on the other hand, continues to be a major issue for this team. The Leafs’ number one defenseman, Morgan Rielly, missed an extended period of time, Jake Muzzin brought some stability to the unit, but the Tyson Barrie acquisition was a flop.
Starting netminder Frederik Andersen had to mask a lot of his defense’s warts. The 30-year-old has a 29-13-7 record with a 2.85 goals-against-average and a .909 save percentage this season. Those numbers don’t jump off the page, but he was forced to play a lot of hockey. He was on pace to play 61 games and he missed four games with a neck injury in February.
Again, what happened during the regular season wasn’t going matter unless the Leafs missed the playoffs entirely. It’s all about what they can do in the postseason. Are they able to get by Tampa Bay in the first round and Boston in the second round? It’s entirely possible, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see them lose in the first round either.
The big issue for general manager Kyle Dubas is that he won’t be able to make his team better because they’re tight against the salary cap. To add someone, they’ll have to subtract someone. That’s not always easy to do.
Highlight of the Season:
Putting a David Ayres highlight here would’ve been mean-spirited.
But how about we go with a another game between Toronto and Carolina. This one happened on Dec. 23, 2019. Toronto built up a 3-0 lead, fell behind 5-3 and eventually won, 8-6. That’s a 2019-20 Maple Leafs game if ever we’ve seen one. Throw defense out the window.