Maple Leafs notebook: Door opens for Galchenyuk, Simmonds nears return

Chris Johnston and Shawn McKenzie look at the arrival of Alex Galchenyuk to the Maple Leafs, Wayne Simmonds' status, and if the team is looking ahead to the trade deadline or not.

TORONTO — As one door closed, another opened.

Alex Galchenyuk stepped on the ice wearing a regular Toronto Maple Leafs practice sweater on Wednesday at basically the exact moment NHL Central Registry confirmed Jimmy Vesey had been claimed off waivers by the Vancouver Canucks.

This was the first true indication Galchenyuk would get an NHL chance in Toronto. He’d been kept at arm’s length since arriving in a Feb. 15 trade from Carolina and had even seen the first American Hockey League action of his career – scoring two goals and eight points in six games for the Marlies.

The Leafs figured the best chance to maximize Galchenyuk as an asset was to build him up slowly, so it was notable that he skated in the revolving second-line left-wing position alongside John Tavares and William Nylander .

That was where Vesey started the season before sliding down the lineup and eventually losing his roster spot altogether. Alex Kerfoot, Zach Hyman, Wayne Simmonds, Ilya Mikheyev and Joe Thornton are among the others who have taken a spin through the second line, which speaks to the vacancy general manager Kyle Dubas is most likely to address via a trade.

Until then it’s a logical place to try Galchenyuk even though he’s six years and six organizations removed from his 30-goal season in Montreal. He hasn’t forgotten how to shoot and since arriving in Toronto he’s worked with the development staff on improving his skating.

"With him and his skillset, we think it’s a guy that can produce offence," said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. "If he gets an opportunity to score, he can do that. He can also make plays."

Like Vesey, Galchenyuk is a buy-low reclamation project that won’t place a drag on the organization’s cap situation if he’s unable to secure a full-time spot with the Leafs. His $1.05-million salary can be buried entirely on the taxi squad or in the AHL and so it’s really about figuring out if he’s able to contribute to the best version of this roster.

As an added bonus, the Hurricanes passed Galchenyuk through waivers before trading him to Toronto for minor-leaguers David Warsofsky and Egor Korshkov on Feb. 15.

That comes with much-needed flexibility since Toronto can freely move him between its AHL, taxi squad and NHL rosters – at least until he plays 10 games for the Leafs.

While Vesey was the one off-season signing that didn’t really pan out with just five goals and seven points in 30 games, the organization didn’t want to lose him for nothing. They placed him on waivers to try and gain the kind of flexibility they have with Galchenyuk but saw Vancouver put in a claim.

Once Simmonds is activated from long-term injured reserve, the Leafs will likely carry just 12 forwards on the roster. They already have one open spot that can be rotated between Galchenyuk, Alexander Barabanov, Nic Petan or Nick Robertson and could create another by passing Travis Boyd and/or Jason Spezza through waivers.

That they lacked the ability to do that while playing four games in six days last week didn’t sit well with Keefe.

"There’s a bit of a misconception that because you have the taxi squad guys you can move players in and out all the time," he said. "You just can’t, especially with the salary cap and things like that. So your lineup is pretty much set. So you need to create some flexibility and to do that you have to expose some players."

The reports on Galchenyuk have been overwhelmingly positive since he arrived in Toronto for what could be his final chance at re-establishing his NHL career. He welcomed the chance to play for the Marlies, saying: "It was a great opportunity for me to go there and prepare for what’s ahead of me here."

He’s basically found money for the Leafs.

Included as a throw-in to the Feb. 13 deal that saw Ottawa and Carolina swap Cedric Paquette for Ryan Dzingel, he never even officially reported to the Hurricanes. Instead he remained in Canada until the Leafs took a chance on him mainly because he wasn’t subject to a 14-day federal quarantine.

"It was just really convenient that we could have him drive from Ottawa, test a couple times and be a part of our group," said Dubas. "He was obviously a player that had a great stretch in his early 20s and has now bounced around for a few teams. So what we wanted to do was stabilize him, get him working with our development staff and then get him in and rolling with games with the Marlies.

"It was just really fortunate how it all worked out."


Here are a couple other news from a newsy day at Leafs practice.

The Wayne Train is close to returning to Union Station.

This was the first full practice for Wayne Simmonds since breaking his wrist on Feb. 6, and it was encouraging to see him skating alongside Jason Spezza and Pierre Engvall on the fourth line.

But the veteran winger sounded a cautious tone when asked if he might be ready to return for either Friday’s or Saturday’s games against the Calgary Flames.

"When you come back from a wrist injury, you want to be cognizant that you can make every single movement that’s required and not jump into it too quick," said Simmonds. "Because if not, you’re going to leave the team shorthanded with a guy who is not necessarily being able to be used the way he should be. For me it’s just making sure I can handle my own area, whether that be shooting or playing with pucks on the wall with confidence and especially in front of the net. …

"If they allow me to go, maybe I’ll be able to go. For now we’re just playing it by ear."

He was riding a hot streak with five goals in six games when he got hurt on an innocuous play. The puck struck his wrist on a clearing attempt in the third period of a game against Vancouver and required him to wear a cast.

"It sucks when you get hurt," said Simmonds. "I felt like I was starting to get into a little bit of a groove there."

Somewhat lost in the discussion about the Leafs goaltending struggles is the fact backup Jack Campbell has only been healthy enough to play three games so far this season.

It counts as a significant development that he’s currently being pencilled in to start the back half of the back-to-back with Calgary.

Campbell’s been terrific when he’s played with a 3-0 record and .951 save percentage, but he’s been listed as day-to-day with a lower-body injury since delivering a 30-save shutout in Edmonton on Feb. 27. That was his first start since a Jan. 24 game in Calgary where he suffered the original injury late in regulation.

"It’s just a reaggravation of the injury that he missed a great deal of time from," said Keefe. "And then he came back in Edmonton there and reaggravated it there and it’s been one of those things that I think they thought just a few days off might do the trick to kind of get him back, but it’s just lingered and hasn’t healed.

"He’s been good enough to be able to skate and do different things to stay sharp, but in terms of being ready to play games it’s been kind of lingering. That’s why we’ve been non-committal and unsure virtually every day.

"It’s just been kind of waiting for that to settle a bit and it seems like it has, but he’s got some days to get through here still."

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The scene: Tuesday afternoon, with the Maple Leafs in the midst of a five losses in six games slide, and the general manager is conducting a virtual media availability on a day otherwise off for his players.

As Dubas answers a question, there is the distinct sound of hooting, hollering and exuberance coming from somewhere in the unseen background. Turns out it was from Joe Thornton, the oldest member of the team. Just a big kid lifting spirits around the office when he doesn’t have to.

"I don’t know if you could hear Joe in the hallway, but he doesn’t really take many days off," said Dubas. "His attitude and disposition doesn’t change day to day. He’s sort of seen it all in his time in the league and I think [he and the other veteran additions have] brought a lot of spirit to the group. …

"Unlike in previous seasons where you go through a bit of a stretch where it’s not going well and you feel the group start to sag, I haven’t felt that right now."

This is part of the narrative being purposely constructed around this version of the Leafs, but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit. They’ve added big personalities in Thornton, Simmonds and Zach Bogosian, and the value of those signings should be most apparent when times are tough.

Consider them the lifting spirits squad.

Dubas has shown himself to be a decisive decision-maker. He’s not one to wait for a market to be established before pulling the trigger.

We saw it with the Kasperi Kapanen trade to Pittsburgh in late August – a move that yielded a much better return (2020 first-round pick, plus prospect Filip Hallander) than those coming after it – and we’ve seen it with his previous two trade deadline deals of consequence:

• Feb. 6, 2020 – 18 days before the deadline – he acquired Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford from Los Angeles for Trevor Moore and two third-round picks.

• Jan. 28, 2019 – 28 days before the deadline – he acquired Jake Muzzin from Los Angeles for Carl Grundstrom, Sean Durzi and a 2019 first-round pick.

Today is March 17, and we’re 27 days from the deadline.

No wonder Dubas is so eager to get the trading started.

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