Jimmy Vesey finally snuffed out his 13-game point drought Saturday night, but it certainly feels like a case of too little, too late.
For his first time as a Toronto Maple Leaf, the 27-year-old winger could be a healthy scratch Monday — and it’ll be up to the player to claw his way back into the lineup he’s gradually descended.
Among the lessons rookie general manager Kyle Dubas learned the hard way in 2020 — proven defensive defencemen are worth the cap hit; better to have too many leaders in the room; depth in net is essential — was this:
When introducing new faces to your roster, put them in a place to succeed.
Memorably, that didn’t happen with 2019-20’s prized acquisition, Tyson Barrie, who suffered a confidence crisis early, and Dubas owned some of that.
So, in assembling this 2020-21 Leafs team, Dubas’s new free agent signings — Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, T.J. Brodie, Zach Bogosian, and Vesey — were handed important and specific roles. Expectations were outlined in detail by coach Sheldon Keefe.
On his third franchise in three seasons, Vesey took a pay cut ($900,000) knowing his future as an NHLer could depend on how he performed in Toronto. Dubas and Keefe did their best to give the Boston native a running start, placing him to the left of John Tavares and William Nylander in the top six.
Vesey scored on a wild opening night versus Montreal, and things looked promising. For a minute.
Despite Toronto’s injury woes, Vesey has played his way down the bench… to the point where he may not be on it.
Vesey’s glaring mistakes may be minimal but so are his impact shifts.
On the league’s No. 2-ranked offensive squad, Vesey’s two goals and two assists over 22 games rank him 16th in Leafs scoring. On nine of his past 11 outings, Vesey has registered one shot or zero shots on net. Four times in February his ice time was chopped to less than 10 minutes. And prior to assisting on Jason Spezza’s vintage goal Saturday, Vesey was mired in a 13-game point drought in which he was minus-6.
Spezza faked 'em all out. pic.twitter.com/J6dLqDZLXL
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) February 28, 2021
“He hasn't been able to make his mark and really claim his role and what he is going to be able to bring on a consistent basis,” said Keefe, who even threw Vesey on the top power-play unit last week.
“In each game he has played, we have found positives in it. At the same time, he is in a situation where we have had other guys who have come into the lineup with a lot less opportunity and have found a way to make an impact in the game positively, especially offensively.”
Queuing up players for success is part of the blueprint in Leafland, where the roster fringes will always be in flux, but that should not trump the meritocracy Keefe is trying to install.
“We’re going to play the players that give us the best opportunity to build something great,” the head coach promised at the outset of training camp.
“You may not start where you’d like, but if you stay with it and you work and stay positive and take advantage of the opportunities that you do get, you’re gonna give yourself a good chance to solidify yourself within a role within our team.”
Spezza, Nic Petan, Travis Boyd, Pierre Engvall and Alexander Barabanov have all upped their game from January. Taxi squad members Scott Sabourin and Kenny Agostino are antsy for an audition.
Meanwhile, Alex Galchenyuk and Nick Robertson are sharpening their skills with the Marlies. Wayne Simmonds (about three weeks away) and Auston Matthews (game-time decision) are on the mend.
Vesey is no doubt feeling pressure from all directions here.
“He's in a situation where he's being challenged and pushed for his ice time,” Keefe said. “We do think he has been consistent and reliable defensively. He has helped us on the penalty kill. We like him there. We have found value in his game.”
We’re not writing off Vesey just yet. Change is constant
But if the likes of Tomas Tatar, Travis Konecny and Jeff Skinner can get healthy scratched, why not him?
Should the cap-tight Maple Leafs eventually return to full health, it’s not a stretch to see Vesey end up on the waiver wire.
He arrived with something to prove. It’ll be up to him not to leave that way, too.
Barabanov better in the top six
Alexander Barabanov’s stay in the more offensive half of the lineup may be short-lived, but he’s shown some pop on Line 2.
Still in search of his first NHL point, the KHL import skated a season-high 13:31 Saturday. And despite a frightening D-zone giveaway to Connor McDavid early, he had a positive impact in the 4-0 victory.
Nearly invisible for his first month as an NHLer, Barabanov has fired nine shots in three games.
“He just looks way more confident with the puck. He's getting out of our zone and through the neutral zone a lot better,” Keefe notes. “When we look at scoring-chance generation, he's been among the leaders for us in the last couple games so we want to look to see if he can continue to build upon that.”
Matthews a possibility; Andersen not so much
Auston Matthews (wrist) was given another light workout Sunday, skating alone and not participating in the full team practice. He also took the optional morning skate Monday.
Keefe has not ruled out the top centre’s availability for tonight’s rematch in Edmonton (10 p.m. ET).
“He has progressed, compared to where he has been in the last few days,” Keefe said. “That’s positive. We’ll have to see how he is.”
Jack Campbell was given Sunday and Monday morning off after his 30-save shutout. Either he or Michael Hutchinson should start Monday, as Frederik Andersen (lower body) will be afforded more time to recuperate.
Campbell's head was clipped by an on-rushing Tyler Ennis Saturday, and analyst Kelly Hrudey noticed the goaltender stretching leg after that collision.
“Whether it’s goaltending or Auston or other situations, we’ve got a lot of question marks that probably won’t get answered until game time,” Keefe said.
Sunday’s practice lines:
The Maple Leafs did an incredible job shutting down Connor McDavid on Saturday, limiting the world’s most dangerous hockey player to one shot and a minus-3 rating in 20-plus minutes of work.
The only other occasion McDavid has been minus-3 with no points and fewer than two shots? His fourth NHL game ever: Oct. 15, 2015.
Reigning Hart Trophy champ Leon Draisaitl has been held pointless in consecutive games only once this season.
“We have to take it to them like we did in the last game and give them no option but to follow our game plan instead of letting them play theirs,” defenceman Travis Dermott said. “It’s pushing our play, pushing our pace and having confidence.”
McDavid has not failed to register a point in consecutive games since Dec. 18-20, 2019.
In other words: Prepare for terror.
“The scoreboard is going to be back to zeros, and you’ve got to be able to do it again. We didn’t come here just to get one win, so we’ve got to continue to refocus,” Keefe warned.
“We’re expecting them to be more like themselves, and we’ve got to be prepared to be even better.”