Maple Leafs Mailbag: Why we like Toronto’s Cup chances better now

Breaking down the playoff matchup between the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets in the proposed 24-team NHL postseason format with Shawn McKenzie, Chris Johnston & Steve Dangle.

As Common and Mos Def once rapped: It’s the questions, y’all!

So, let’s get right to them.

How does the NHL’s long layoff and 24-team, return-to-play plan affect the Toronto Maple Leafs’ chances to contend? How desperate are the Leafs in need of an upgrade at third-line centre? Could another Nick Robertson be stolen in Round 2 of the draft? And what about trading Morgan Rielly and William Nylander to Columbus?

It’s the questions. Dig in.

I like their chances.

Suddenly, I also like the Rangers’ chances and the Jets’ chances and the Flyers’ chances and the Stars’ chances and the Capitals’ chances.

“It’ll definitely feel like a new season almost,” says Washington’s star defenceman, John Carlson. “It’ll be a little funky. I think it’ll feel like a brand-new slate. Doesn’t matter if you were playing good or bad, we’re all gonna kind of be at the same level in terms of what we’re dealing with now.”

My opinion: The expected sloppiness of returning to meaningful action after what will be, at minimum, a four-month layoff favours the Maple Leafs’ offence-first approach. The closer to pre-season precision, the better.

Yes, they’ll have to survive Columbus to even reach the Round of 16, but doing so would do wonders for the collective confidence — and there will be no TD Garden ghosts to haunt them this time.

Few squads are better equipped to outscore mistakes than Toronto, and with all those weeks away from the ice, fans should expect mistakes aplenty. This makes for entertaining hockey, and if there’s one thing the Leafs do well, it’s entertain.

Teams don’t generally lock down their systems and perfect penalty-free hockey until the stretch. Perhaps most important: Goaltenders who haven’t been facing real shots will have to deal with four guys who already scored more than 20 goals apiece in a shortened regular season.

The Leafs’ youth and skill should serve them well in a quick restart. Having Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Ilya Mikheyev fully recovered is a wonderful boost. Frederik Andersen will be as well-rested heading into the tournament as Kawhi Leonard was. And the drive to improve during quarantine has been strong within the organization.

“I’m doing a lot of binging on the Toronto Maple Leafs,” said coach Sheldon Keefe, joking not joking. “We have to take advantage of every day that we have to work towards being better versions of ourselves for whenever we do get back to playing.”

The top priority should be a top-four right-shot defenceman.

With the top two centres in stone and plenty of internal competition for ice time on the wings (welcome, Alexander Barabanov), centre depth should be priority No. 2 with regards to solidifying the 2020-21 roster.

In the wake of Nazem Kadri’s departure, neither Alexander Kerfoot nor Pierre Engvall won the job outright. Both struggle to win face-offs: Kerfoot won 46.9 per cent of his draws; Engvall won 39 per cent.

The easiest and most economical option would be re-signing veteran Jason Spezza on another one-year deal (he’s keen), and sticking with a 3C-by-committee approach, but I’m not convinced the Leafs want to give that much ice time to a 37-year-old in what will probably be a compacted schedule.

Bonino, who will be entering the final season of his deal at a $4.1-million cap hit, would be a wonderful upgrade, no doubt. He wins draws (52.6 per cent), he helps keeps the puck out of his net (plus-17), and he has mitts (18 goals in 67 games).

But what’s in for Nashville, a team that is not interested in a rebuild? Why would the Predators trade away their second-highest goal-getter and one of their few forwards who is living up to his paycheque? Why would a franchise dealing with cap issues of its own retain salary in such a deal?

I’m skeptical Dubas could offer a package sweet enough to rent Bonino for a full season.

That said, I do believe he’ll try to upgrade the third-line centre role on a short-term contract.

Some pending UFAs worth pitching: Joe Thornton, Derick Brassard, Nate Thomspon, Brad Richardson, and Greg McKegg.

Pulling 55-goal-scoring second-rounders in consecutive seasons is certainly a tall (impossible?) order, but Dubas has done it on his late initial picks in his short tenure.

While we highly doubt another Robertson (53rd overall) is in the cards, here are a few prospects who could still be on the board when the Maple Leafs make their first pick (around 50th overall): Daemon Hunt, D, Moose Jaw; Topi Niemela, D, Karpat; Ty Foerster, RW, Barrie; Michael Benning, D, Sherwood Park; Ty Smilanic, C, USNTDP; William Villeneuve, D, Saint John; and Ridly Greig, C, Brandon.

While I recognize that a select few elite draftees could be caught in this hockey purgatory — too good for juniors, not quite ready to excel in the NHL — I wouldn’t forecast a trend of North Americans flying to Europe to turn pro early, especially in today’s climate.

This is a very viable option for guys already from Europe, however. Austria’s Marco Rossi, a projected top-10 pick, said just last week that he has mentally moved beyond juniors, at age 18. If he doesn’t crack his NHL lineup next season, his preference is to play professionally closer to home.

In Robertson’s case, he’ll be given a legitimate shot to make the show. If he falls short, my guess is the Maple Leafs’ development team would prefer he run the opponents’ show in Peterborough. It’s much easier to keep tabs on the player, and Toronto has a strong relationship with the Petes.

Paliafito, the Leafs’ senior director of player evaluation, has been integral in helping the club recruit and sign free agents out of Europe (Mikko Lehtonen, Ilya Mikheyev, Nikita Zaitsev) and on this side of the pond (Trevor Moore).

Dubas, Mike Babcock and Keefe have not been shy about giving Paliafito credit publicly for his work, and a couple good longer pieces, from Lance Hornby of the Toronto Sun and Jonas Sigel of The Athletic, have been written about this not-so-secret weapon.

Upon the Lehtonon signing, Dubas spoke in detail about Paliafito’s process.

“Jim really gets to know the player, and Jim will report back whether the player is a fit in terms of personality and character, watch him play and file his reports and get a sense for what’s important to the player, and whether that’s in alignment with what we need. I think, rather than bringing over a lot of different guys and taking flyers on them, we want them to be able to come over and be successful. I think that’s what creates an attraction for others down the road,” Dubas said. “If you go back to Jim’s track record, we don’t have many guys in there that I think were overly disappointed in the year.

“By and large, the players have all come over, they’ve all developed, and I think it just speaks to the job that Jim does ensuring that the players are a good fit for the organization and then educating the players and their representatives and their families on what we’re about as an organization. So, we’re thrilled to have Jim on our staff and a key part of our management group.”

Dipping sauce is the most overrated condiment since mayonnaise.

There is actually logic to such an earth-rattling deal.

Since Artemi Panarin’s departure, the Blue Jackets have been desperate for scoring talent, and Columbus would be in better position cap-wise to offer Rielly the lucrative extension he’s earned when he becomes a UFA in 2022.

Power forward Anderson would bring an element of ruggedness Toronto is low on, and Jones is already one of the best defencemen — period — at age 25. That he’s a right shot would uncomplicate the blue-line imbalance. And the removal of Nylander’s money would make re-signing Anderson (RFA 2020) a breeze while alleviating some cap pressure.

I love this type of dream-world blockbuster thinking, but NHL teams love their own talent too much to even entertain such a transaction. Also, Jones and Rielly are such massive favourites in their own markets. The trade would probably enrage two fan bases at once.

When Toronto was in the mix to be one of the NHL’s return-to-play hub cities, I had this ironic vision of the Stanley Cup being hoisted in a Toronto rink for the first time in 53 years… by some guy wearing a Vegas Golden Knights sweater.

Imagine the cruel irony of long-suffering Leafs Nation having to wait months (years?) for a proper sloppy celebration.

You thought Trinity Bellwoods was congested? The Raptors parade was the polar opposite of social distancing.


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