Sheldon Keefe

Maple Leafs sign signing Mikko Lehtonen KHL
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Maple Leafs create intrigue by signing Mikko Lehtonen

The Toronto Maple Leafs made an interesting signing by landing defenseman Mikko Lehtonen.

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.

Jokerit director of player personnel (and NHL Central Scouting chief European scout) Janne Vuorinen raved about Lehtonen to Post Media’s Michael Traikos.

“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.

Stretching back to 2018-19, Toronto’s deployed an abundance of LHD. Some of the names changed, but the puzzle remains.

To summarize: the Maple Leafs obviously will emphasize Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin. From there, the Maple Leafs also have emerging defenseman Rasmus Sandin, pending RFA Travis Dermott, and now Lehtonen.

(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.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Long-term outlook for Toronto Maple Leafs

Maple Leafs long-term outlook Tavares Marner Matthews Nylander Hyman
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Confession time. When I first started scrolling through the Maple Leafs’ forwards at Cap Friendly, I cringed.

Maybe it’s only natural. When you realize that Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander combine for more than $40M per year, it’s reasonable to feel bewildered for a second or two. That’s basically half of their salary cap.

Yet, if you’re going to invest a ton of money in any hockey area, go with star forwards. And while John Tavares awaits the aging curve at 29, Marner and Matthews are only 22, and Nylander’s merely 23.

While GM Kyle Dubas & Co. didn’t leave unscathed, you could say the Maple Leafs are out of the woods. Or … out of the most treacherous woods?

For a team that is so heavily invested in a few forwards, it’s interesting to see quite a bit of medium-term deals for supporting cast players.

You can’t pin that on Lou Lamoriello, either. Dubas retained Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen before hashing things out with Marner. He traded for a goalie with some term in Jack Campbell. Time will tell if it was wise to invest in an extension for Jake Muzzin, who’s already 31. Pierre Engvall and Justin Holl also received some interesting term.

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.

MORE ON THE MAPLE LEAFS:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Plenty of big surprises, disappointments for Toronto Maple Leafs

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The many surprises and disappointments involving Babcock, Maple Leafs

Look, this isn’t the first instance of the Maple Leafs turning into a hockey soap opera. The pressure cooker Toronto media environment practically demands the spilling of tea.

Even by those heightened standards … my goodness, the Mike Babcock era certainly ended with messy drama. Didn’t it?

You could almost imagine a crowd egging Babcock on with “oohs and ahhs” as he undermined his GM Kyle Dubas more than once. Little did we know that time would reveal just how problematic Babcock’s ego could become.

It’s no surprise that Babcock sometimes rubs players the wrong way, but following his in-season firing, rather troubling details emerged. The hockey world learned about Babcock’s childish mind games with a rookie Mitch Marner. Johan Franzen also spoke out about pretty gross treatment by Babcock during their time in Detroit.

Details about Babcock going far beyond “strict” inspired players to speak up about other coaches blurring the line, including former Babcock protege Bill Peters.

Again, it was no secret that Babcock could be harsh, but learning about the times he went too far ranked among the season’s bigger disappointments. While the jury remains out on Sheldon Keefe, for many Maple Leafs players, a coaching change probably went beyond a pleasant surprise to a downright necessary change.

Biggest changes don’t really work out

Dubas often comes off as progressive, forward-thinking GM, but this past offseason reads like a swing-and-a-miss. Maybe several strikeouts, really.

  • Trading away Nazem Kadri doesn’t look so great. Admittedly, I thought Alexander Kerfoot could be, say, 75 cents to Kadri’s dollar. Unfortunately, some might argue Kerfoot’s closer to a quarter.
  • Few players saw their stock drop like Tyson Barrie‘s did this season. That’s uncomfortable being that Barrie was the biggest takeaway of the Kadri trade.
  • It’s fair to wonder: did the Maple Leafs realize Jake Gardiner might have been easier to retain than expected? As tough as this season’s been for Gardiner, it makes you wonder if there were better ways to move on from Kadri, if that was truly required.
  • The big picture move of ridding Toronto of the Nikita Zaitsev contract was crucial … but it was confusing that they kept Cody Ceci around. And Ceci failed to make that any less of a head-scratching strategy.
  • Yes, it’s true that Patrick Marleau‘s ill-advised contract had Lou Lamoriello’s fingerprints all over it, not those of Dubas. But Dubas still had to pay a big price to unload the final year of Marleau’s deal.
  • Fair or not, that Mitch Marner contract will remain polarizing for quite some time.

On the bright side, the Maple Leafs can walk away from mistakes like Ceci and Barrie if they want to. That doesn’t change the fact that Dubas struck out on some pretty big 2019 summer swings, though.

Not so steady Freddy?

When you factor in workload and difficult assignments, Frederik Andersen moves up your goalie rankings. Well, at least, Andersen did so during previous Maple Leafs seasons.

While Andersen wasn’t a flat-out disaster in 2019-20, he struggled. Andersen sported a .909 save percentage this season, easily the worst of the usually reliable goalie’s career.

Now, it’s true that the Maple Leafs don’t always provide the most nurturing atmosphere for a goalie. That was true under Babcock, and while there were some positive developments, it’s a fair criticism under Keefe. It’s just that Andersen was able to bail Toronto out quite a bit over the years, but hasn’t been able to don the cape so much lately.

Maple Leafs navigate the disappointments and surprises — to a point

People expecting the Maple Leafs to take “the next step” have been disappointing in this season. Really, the team took a step backward, as the gap widened between the Bruins, Lightning, and the Maple Leafs.

When you take stock of all that went wrong, though? It certainly could have been worse.

This team navigated turbulence and found ways to win, ugly or not. Beyond a coaching change, the Maple Leafs also dealt with significant injury issues and other curveballs.

Sports provide examples of plenty of teams putting things together after bumpy seasons. The 2018-19 Blues loom as an example, even if some find them a bit too tempting to apply when it doesn’t quite fit.

Could this team put something together if 2019-20 resumes? Well, the Maple Leafs have certainly been full of surprises already, so who knows?

MORE ON THE MAPLE LEAFS:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Can Maple Leafs survive on defense with Muzzin out one month?

Maple Leafs defense with Jake Muzzin out one month
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A season of extremes continues for the Maple Leafs, as their defense must find answers with Jake Muzzin out about one month. Muzzin broke his hand blocking a shot, souring Tuesday’s otherwise sweet win against the Lightning.

Everything about the timing fits the soap opera narrative of “As the Maple Leaf turns …”

  • Toronto lost Muzzin for a month in the first game after signing him to a contract extension.
  • It’s also the first game following a trade deadline that mixed the good with the bad. On one hand, it turns out that keeping Tyson Barrie was wise, warts and all. On the other, GM Kyle Dubas’ critics will argue that he still didn’t do enough.
  • Oh yeah, the Maple Leafs follow up this potentially devastating injury with an enormous Thursday game against the Panthers in Florida.

Woof. Dubas is a different cat, so naturally he tweeted out this very Zen approach to dealing with the Muzzin news.

(If you’re like me, you’re imagining Dubas trying to meditate after being thrown under the bus by Toronto media and fans. It’s kind of fun.)

The Maple Leafs defense has been, uh, flawed for some time now. Subtract Muzzin, and put him on an injured list that already includes Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci, and you might feel very UnDude.

Let’s take a look at the tattered remains of a Maple Leafs defense that may resemble seven wild horses.

Looking at the Maple Leafs defense with Muzzin out

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston and others shared the Maple Leafs’ defense pairings from practice:

Travis DermottJustin Holl
Rasmus Sandin – Tyson Barrie
Martin MarincinTimothy Liljegren
Extra: Calle Rosen

Do you look at that group as seven wild horses, or seven broken ones? (Don’t make any glue factory jokes, please.)

Long story short, this leaves the Maple Leafs with a relatively inexperienced group.

If you want a glimpse at Toronto’s confidence level in certain players, consider how Sheldon Keefe deployed Sandin on Tuesday. Through two periods, Sandin received just 5:27 time on ice. Once it was clear Muzzin wouldn’t return, Sandin’s ice time skyrocketed to 9:34 during the third period alone.

Dicey stuff, but what’s the best approach, Zen-like, or otherwise? What’s a good mantra for the Leafs going forward?

Accepting reality of the Maple Leafs defense with Muzzin out, and considering Panthers

Despite wildly different approaches and markets, the Maple Leafs and Panthers boast notably similar strengths and weaknesses. After all, they are the only teams in the NHL who’ve scored and allowed 200+ goals so far this season.

So maybe the Maple Leafs should embrace the perception of their most prominent, healthy defenseman in Tyson Barrie, and their perceived identity as a team that needs to outscore their problems, in general?

There’s also the potential silver lining of realizing that players like Sandin and Liljegren might be further along in their respective developments than Toronto realized. Interestingly, Dubas sort of touched on this during his trade deadline presser, before Muzzin was injured.

” … We need to see how our own guys develop,” Dubas said, via Pension Plan Puppets’ transcript. “In a perfect world your own guys develop and quell your concerns you have about the roster and that people on the outside may have about them as well.”

Both Sandin and Liljegren carry pedigree as first-rounders, and have produced some offense at the AHL level. Perhaps they can bring almost as much to the table as they risk taking away with mistakes?

Obstacles, and gauntlets thrown down on top Maple Leafs

When you dig deep on the Maple Leafs’ numbers, you get a more complicated look at their hit-and-miss defense. Either way, they need better goaltending going forward — even if that leads to awkward choices.

No, the Leafs don’t make life easy for Frederik Andersen, but he needs to improve on his .906 save percentage (his -4.25 Goals Saved Above Average points to some fault on his end).

Frankly, it might be just as important that the Maple Leafs show a willingness to turn to Jack Campbell instead. Through four games, Campbell’s generated an impressive .919 save percentage, going 3-0-1.

Of course, the onus is also on their big-money forwards. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares have mostly delivered in 2019-20, but the team needs them now more than ever.

The challenge comes in balancing attacking with supporting embattled defensemen. Not hanging them out to dry for icing infractions would be a good place to start:

If patterns continue, there will only be more twists and turns for the Maple Leafs. Maybe they can end up better after facing all of these challenges, but either way, it doesn’t look easy, and might not always be pretty.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Muzzin injury puts damper on Maple Leafs avenging loss to ‘Zamboni driver’

Nylander scores Maple Leafs win Muzzin injury
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(UPDATE: The Maple Leafs announced on Wednesday that Muzzin will miss the next month with a broken hand.)

The Maple Leafs heard about it endlessly: they lost to David Ayers, their AHL Zamboni driver. Ayers received celebrity treatment, even appearing on “The Today Show,” while Maple Leafs fans gritted their teeth. (Then the Maple Leafs grimaced about Jake Muzzin.)

Tuesday set the stage for a trying situation following all of that. With desperation and overreactions in the air, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas decided to stand pat during the trade deadline. If all of that wasn’t enough, Toronto traveled to Tampa Bay to face a Lightning team that might just be rounding back into shape as the scariest team in the NHL.

Yeah, it sure seemed like things were going to get uglier.

One thing that adds to the soap opera drama of the Maple Leafs is that they often surprise you, though. Instead of folding following that agonizing loss to Carolina, the Buds persevered, beating the Lightning 4-3 on the road.

Go-to scapegoat William Nylander continues to quietly have a strong season, and this goal was nicer than his summer hair was loud:

John Tavares ended up with two goals, while not-traded Tyson Barrie collected two assists. Auston Matthews set a new career-high with his 74th point of 2019-20.

“We did a lot of good things tonight, in terms of the way we want to play the game, to our identity,” Tavares said, via TSN’s Kristen Shilton. “Just staying with it and understanding that it’s not always pretty but just digging in, playing hard, playing as a group, sticking with it.”

Muzzin injury puts damper on Maple Leafs win

Pretty impressive all around, right?

Well, maybe … but we’re talking about the Maple Leafs, here. It can never be totally easy.

While the Maple Leafs grabbed a highly valuable win, there was some troubling news. Recently extended defenseman Jake Muzzin left the game and didn’t return after blocking a shot. Sheldon Keefe couldn’t provide a detailed update about how long this might sideline Muzzin:

Sounds ominous.

But, hey, the Maple Leafs won. They can carry something from that, even if the roller coaster readies more dramatic highs and lows.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.