Maple Leafs Mailbag: Surprises in store for Toronto’s playoff lineup?

Kyle Dubas joins Tim & Sid to discuss the return of the NHL, how the cup winner will be perceived, and how the Toronto Maple Leafs' roster will stack up.

The NHL’s return-to-play plans have rejuvenated our Maple Leafs Mailbag with questions about taxi squad hopefuls, the value of fringe forwards like Denis Malgin and Frederik Gauthier, and Frederik Andersen’s problem with slow starts after months of no hockey.

Plus, a close look at pinged posts and cranked crossbars adds to Auston Matthews’ lack of luck when it comes to missing out on a Rocket Richard Trophy.

Let’s dig in.

Q: With Nick Robertson getting his shot to make the club, who else from the black aces could you see get a look at playoff training camp?

Despite being the Leafs’ only Phase 2 and 3 training camp invitee without a single game of pro experience, Robertson has the best chance of cracking the Game 1 lineup versus Columbus. The struggle to spark enough offence from the third line gives the left winger a chance, even at age 18.

Beyond that, it will likely take an injury or a regular showing up with horrendous conditioning for another taxi squad player to leap into the mix.

Let’s look at this positionally. In goal, Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell are etched in stone, but with the NHL allowing teams to work out with an unlimited number of goalies, expect Marlies Kasimir Kaskisuo and Joseph Woll to both work out as black aces.

With a fully healthy blueline (finally!), even Rasmus Sandin will be in tough to see minutes against a nasty, grinding Blue Jackets squad. But he, Martin Marincin, Calle Rosen and Timothy Liljegren should be ready in case of emergency — or if a third-pairing defender like Travis Dermott or Cody Ceci is having a rough go.

Up front, a healthy Ilya Mikheyev (or, just maybe, Robertson) should have a crack at the injured Andreas Johnsson’s spot in the top six and make for some steep internal competition on the fourth line.

NHL regulars like Frederik Gauthier and Denis Malgin will have a difficult enough time getting in the lineup. So we’d expect a solid squad of black-ace forwards like Adam Brooks, Kenny Agostino, Nic Petan and Egor Korshkov to keep the pace competitive in camp and be ready for the inevitable roster juggling the comes with a long run.

Dubas said Robertson is invited to the small-group and team training. Anything beyond that, he’ll have to earn. I don’t think the GM would dangle that carrot if he’s not serious. So, sure, I can see Robertson playing higher up the lineup than Jason Spezza, Frederik Gauthier and Pierre Engvall.

Spezza’s experience and face-off prowess should keep him on the fourth line, as should Engvall’s penalty-killing ability. With no travel in the return-to-play plan and the NHL not ruling out the possibility of some back-to-back games, perhaps Spezza and Gauthier could platoon some games early on.

Robertson is Leafs Nation’s shiny new obsession. A couple losses or a failure to generate offence with him on the sidelines will no doubt rile the masses. With Sheldon Keefe at the helm, however, fans should expect more line-combo flexibility both within games and between games.

Q: How many goals were called back by review on Auston Matthews this past year?

I see where you’re going with this.

Matthews finishing one goal shy of the Rocket Richard Trophy — shared by David Pastrnak and Alex Ovechkin, who scored 48 apiece — and three short of 50 is a heartbreaker.

But of the three snipers, only Pastrnak had a goal overturned to “no goal” this season. (On Oct. 22 versus the Leafs, Pasta’s first-period marker was waved off due to offside.)

Pastrnak also did this. Maybe Ovi should send him a gift basket:

If you want to agonize about how painfully close Matthews came to claiming the goal race, I got something for you: Matthews hit three crossbars and 10 posts, hitting iron an unlucky 13 times.

In comparison, Pastrnak hit eight posts and Ovechkin just three in 2019-20. Neither lost a shot to the crossbar.

Q: How good can this team be fully healthy and with Freddie rested?

Good enough to win the Stanley Cup and bring joy to Mudville.

Bad enough to lose the play-in round to Columbus — arguably the group that will most benefit from full health — and miss the playoffs for the first time in four years.

Such is the wild beauty of an unpredictable 24-team tournament where home ice and momentum and injuries and all those typical factors that help us handicap elimination rounds suddenly don’t apply.

“As you usually get close to the playoffs or the post-season, traditionally there’s always nicks and bruises and things guys are dealing with. Not just us, but around the league. Obviously, every team is going to be pretty much at full strength,” captain John Tavares says. “That will definitely be a really good strength for us — to add everyone healthy and ready to go and have that depth.”

Q: With Freddie usually having cold starts to the season, which Freddie should we expect in Game 1 against CBJ?

In speaking with Andersen just once during lockdown, he sounded as determined and driven as ever: working out with roommate Matthews, studying video, plugging into virtual development sessions with goalie coach Steve Briere and teammate Jack Campbell, while also getting some deserved R&R.

The worry, of course, is that you’re absolutely correct. Andersen has been a slow starter since he joined Toronto.

I asked Sportsnet Stats guru Steve Fellin to run the numbers, and they should give Leafs fans pause.

Frederik Andersen as a Maple Leaf (regular season)

October Rest of Season
Record 20-13-5 116-53-28
Save Percentage .900 .919
Goals-Against Average 3.14 2.70
Shutouts 1 12

On the flip side, it should give Jackets fans pause that neither of their goaltenders, Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlinkins, has played a minute of NHL playoff hockey.

Q: Is it likely we will see the Leafs bring back pending RFAs Denis Malgin and Frederik Gauthier? What could those contracts look like?

Great question.

As mentioned above, Malgin, 23, and Gauthier, 25, are bubble players on this roster when all forwards are healthy. Both have a niche, in large part, because of their affordability. Malgin is a $700,000 cap hit. Gauthier is $675,000.

For the first time in their careers, they will have arbitration rights this off-season. Malgin is a minus player still searching for his first point as a Leaf, but Gauthier’s career-high seven goals gives him the leverage to fight for a modest raise should he choose.

With so many forwards already under contract for 2020-21 at less than $1 million — Brooks, Robertson, Korshkov, Petan, Agostino, Alexander Barabanov — and Dubas better off shifting payroll to the back end, I can’t see Malgin re-signing unless he’s willing to take a two-way deal for the minimum.

Gauthier continues to improve each season, and he’s well-liked by his teammates. His skating has developed to the point where he can make a decent living as a fourth-line centre in Toronto or elsewhere. If the Goat is amenable to a modest raise and a one-year extension, we can see him sticking around for depth.

Q: Do you think there’s any chance Dubas could pick up Judd Brackett or Mike Futa this off-season?

The chance is small, but it exists. Dubas is the type to explore all options to improve the organization and has the financial backing to outbid competitors. Selling free agents on the Leafs’ program is a speciality, and it’s not restricted to just players.

That said, does the fit make sense?

Brackett’s expertise as an amateur talent spotter might be better put to use in Seattle, where GM Ron Francis is still building his group. Or in Buffalo, where there is pressure to shake things up and make splash (and the GM and coach have already been endorsed for 2020-21). Or in New Jersey, where everything is in flux.

As for Futa, a Toronto native, we’d guess his first choice would be a GM role, should one open up. After 13 years and two Cups with the Kings, he’s paid the kind of dues that readies a guy for more responsibility. In recent off-seasons, Futa interviewed for the GM role in Buffalo and Carolina.

But vacant GM gigs are scarce, and the Leafs’ current management group is quite full.

Futa strikes me as the patient type (he reportedly turned down the Hurricanes job), but a hockey lifer with his resume won’t be unemployed long.

“He can do so many different things and work at so many levels,” former Kings coach Darryl Sutter told The Athletic. “He’s such a good scout at the pro and amateur level, and he’s a team guy, so he’ll be back.”


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