TORONTO – Another off-season goaltending shakeup?
Is the coach’s constant tinkering driving the players bonkers?
Where does Ryan O’Reilly line up? And does he re-sign?
Yep, Leafs Nation comes correct with some excellent questions as minds buzz about the upcoming playoffs and their implications for what will doubtlessly be another newsy summer.
Let’s get right to it and dig into the Maple Leafs mailbag.
If the Petr Mrazek era taught us anything, it’s that the Maple Leafs will pay to correct a mistake — and that injury-prone goaltenders may, indeed, be prone to injury.
Let’s see how the goalies perform in the spring first, but there will be options.
Murray could be traded to a team trying to reach the cap floor, or even bought out at a not-awful price. Because the Ottawa Senators are paying freight too, a Murray buyout would cost the Leafs $687,500 against their cap in 2023-24 and $2 million in 2024-25, when the ceiling should spike.
Samsonov is a restricted free agent. No doubt, his performance in the first round against Tampa will factor into his next raise, whether that’s with the Leafs or someone else.
Regardless where Murray and Samsonov end up, we feel comfortable writing Woll’s name in pen for the Leafs’ 2023 opening-night roster.
The 24-year-old’s cap hit ($766,667 through 2024-25) is a godsend for a cap-tight franchise (nice work by GM Kyle Dubas to buy low last summer), and Woll, called up on an emergency basis on Tuesday, has proven his worth at the AHL level and in short NHL bursts.
“Not (a) surprise for anybody. He skates with us. He’s working hard. It’s like a gift for him,” Samsonov said of the prospect’s strong callup performances. “If you’re working hard and if you’re in a good mental spot, you play good games.”
Most important here: Woll will require waivers to start in the AHL next fall, and there is no chance the Maple Leafs let their cheap, homegrown goalie get scooped for nothing from a competitor.
Coach Sheldon Keefe is high on Woll, too: “We feel really good about where we’re at there with our depth.”
Do you think the players are getting sick of Keefe’s constant line changes and coaching style? —@OnIceDylan
Certainly, the head coach has been in full-blown tinker mode, upping his “experimentations per 60” since the trade deadline. By nature, he’s restless with his combinations, and his penchant for fidgeting has only been amplified by the Maple Leafs’ lack of regular-season urgency.
The club already has home ice in Round 1 97.9 per cent locked up, and Keefe is taking a page from his general manager’s book of wisdom: If you’ve got time, use it.
The athletes should be smart enough to realize the roster is in a working-out-kinks phase.
Does that mean new-contract-hunting forwards William Nylander and Michael Bunting are ecstatic with occasional time spent in the bottom six? Or Morgan Rielly enjoys having T.J. Brodie slip away from his right side? Of course not.
But Keefe’s sparkling regular-season record — 161-71-29 (.672 points percentage) — has earned him leeway to do things his way and shows that he’s getting buy-in from the room.
That said, with the calendar flipping to April, it’s time to put away the beakers and test tubes.
When Ryan O’Reilly returns this week, bet on Keefe to start rolling a more consistent lineup and begin dress-rehearsing for Game 83.
If you had to let one of the Leafs plan your birthday party, who would you want to do it? And what do you think they would plan? —@Khyla_WM
First, I’d politely ask Jake Muzzin to pull strings and get our party into the finest golf course in the area.
I’d ask Wayne Simmonds to plan the main menu since we share a love for Jamaican food and assign Noel Acciari to find the best cookies in the city for dessert.
DJ Bunting can be responsible for the aux cord, provided he avoids all songs Nickelback, and Mitchell Marner can be in charge of bringing life to the gathering.
Luke Schenn can be in charge of security.
Your thoughts on O’Reilly centring his own line or staying with one of two top lines? —@SBellinger14
Man, how great did that Ontario Line look in Buffalo?
I’d be tempted to stack Toronto’s top six in Games 1 and 2 at home, when the Leafs have the benefit of last change over the Lightning. That would give the home team its best shot at seizing an early lead and dictating the series. Don’t wait to counterpunch.
On the road, however, when Lightning coach Jon Cooper has a chance to dictate matchups and sic Anthony Cirelli on Auston Matthews, the best strategy would be to spread the weapons across the top nine and have O’Reilly centre his own group.
Who’s a guy on the Leafs who doesn’t get a lot of media attention but has a great personality? —@Duster1315
Great question, Duster.
Let’s give some love to Justin Holl, who spends an unfair amount of time as a whipping boy for a vocal portion of the fan base.
Holl has a wonderful sense of humour, is always available for questions and has more than paid his dues to get where he’s at.
He’s also self-deprecating, honest about his own game, and will give you a straight answer on an uncomfortable question. No ego.
Mitch Marner will flip a puck to a fan for a bag of Skittles. If you were an NHL player, what would it take for you to do likewise? —@LeafsRag
Reese’s Pieces. I can gobble those up like E.T.
If Toronto makes it past the first round, do you think that will give them the belief they need to go all the way to the final? —@Callista Macdonald
There is a serious psychological hurdle to clear with this talented core.
Matthews, Marner, Rielly, and Nylander have zero combined postseason series victories. Captain John Tavares, now in his 14th season, has but one — and that was seven years ago.
I can’t help but keep going back to then-assistant coach Paul MacLean’s series-stealing speech in the “All for Nothing” doc: “They’ve got demons in their heads. They’ve got them in their car. They’ve got them under their (expletive) beds. Everywhere they turn, there’s a (expletive) demon.
“The biggest obstacle this team has is themselves.”
The Maple Leafs are good enough to trump Tampa in a seven-game showdown. Yes, even with Andrei Vasilevskiy and Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point on the other side.
Finally bucking the money off their back could inject the momentum and confidence to propel them deep.
Now, the Boston Bruins — who are merely enjoying one of the greatest seasons in the history of hockey — may have something to say about that in Round 2. But the Metropolitan contenders have their weaknesses, and the Western Conference is the weaker half of the bracket.
The optimist would liken these Leafs to the 2022 Colorado Avalanche, who became an unstoppable force once they finally triumphed over their second-round demons after three consecutive Round 2 exits.
What is your official guess of how far the Leafs will make it in the playoffs? —@Duster1315
Back in October, I predicted Patrick Kane’s New York Rangers to win the Stanley Cup, so I won’t deviate now.
My guess: The Maple Leafs defeat the Lightning and stun the Presidents’ Trophy–winning Bruins, only to get goalied by Igor Shesterkin in the conference final.
Such a run is so refreshing, so electric, Kyle Dubas gets offered a contract extension and the core gets yet another shot at running it back in 2023-24.
Is the ocean just a big seafood soup? —@InsiderLyle
Is the land just a big mixed grill?
Do you see either Acciari or O’Reilly returning next season? —@CTEGronk
Great question, and I’m throwing a dart at the answer because I do believe post-season performance will determine the fate of the Maple Leafs’ 11(!) impending UFAs — and which executive gets the pleasure of negotiating those deals.
Although there is certainly appreciation for Acciari — welcome sandpaper for the bottom six — my guess is he gets an offer more suitable to his liking south of the border, and that Dubas figures he can find a comparable role player at a better price point.
Hope for O’Reilly sticking around is higher. There are emotional and familial ties to Ontario here, but he’ll have options and St. Louis is keeping the door open for a return.
I’m squinting but I can’t see both Bunting and O’Reilly returning.
Let’s go on a limb and say O’Reilly — who has the comfort of a championship ring and $76.7 million in career earnings — takes a slight hometown discount and re-signs for four years, while Bunting follows the path laid by Ilya Mikheyev and Zach Hyman and gets his overdue payday elsewhere.