You don’t have to be a Toronto Maple Leafs fan to wonder what’s happening with the 2019-20 season. Will there be a resumption of the regular season? Will we jump right into a Stanley Cup playoff format? Will games be played in empty arenas? Will NHL hockey players think the medical risk too high and decide not to play? What’s likely to happen?
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On Sunday morning May 17, Mark Norman of Leafs Nation reported that ideas of a 22 or 24-team Stanley Cup Playoffs to complete the 2019-20 season have been fueled by hockey insiders on social media and hockey talk shows for weeks. Indeed, NHL administration is listening to any “crazy idea” because the bottom line is the league desperately hopes to finish the 2019-20 season.
COVID-19 has hit the world of sports hard. Norman rightly pointed out that last season, between March 12 and May 15, 200 regular season and 76 playoff games were played. Translating that to a loss of revenue, drastic change seems likely. The physical image that comes into my mind is cleaning up the devastation after a hurricane.
Both the long-run and likely the immediate short-run are impacted. Specifically, it now seems likely that hockey fans must prepare to reshape what’s been normal for many seasons. If hockey continues in 2019-20, it might not be 16 teams vying for the Stanley Cup and 15 teams vying for the number one choice in the draft lottery.
What we know is that the NHL continues to explore ideas, regardless of how crazy they might seem. A decision must eventually be made and fans are anxious to hear what that decision will be.
As we wait, in this post, I will try to help Maple Leafs fans stay up-to-date with news and rumors surrounding the team.
Item One: Is There any Chance the Maple Leafs Could Sign Alex Pietrangelo?
Yesterday my The Hockey Writers colleagues Andrew Forbes and Peter Baracchini wrote a thoughtful post about the possibility of the Maple Leafs targeting Alex Pietrangelo. I encourage fans to read it. Really, as most hockey commentators ask: Who wouldn’t want Pietrangelo on their team? He’s an amazing player and, as far as the Maple Leafs go, he fits the team’s needs perfectly.
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That said, my head tells me two things.
First, for Maple Leafs fans to wish for a Pietrangelo signing seems like a 10-year-old hoping for a second Christmas in July. Everything points against it – the likely downward movement of the salary cap’s upper limit in response to the loss of revenue brought on by game cancellations and the Maple Leafs own salary-cap situation are only two reasons that militate against the team signing him.
Second, however, if any team in the NHL has the financial resources and the savvy to utilize CBA rules to the team’s benefit, it’s general manager Kyle Dubas and his team of salary-cap geeks. It’s one smart group that seems able to creatively figure out ways to build a winning roster. So, although my head tells me it’s a pipe dream, part of me simply wouldn’t be surprised.
So, to answer my own rhetorical question: Is there any chance the Maple Leafs could sign Alex Pietrangelo? I’m thinking “probably not” but “still…”
Item Two: Candidates for Maple Leafs Assistant Coaching Vacancy
Last week, the Leafs Nation’s Scott Maxwell speculated about possible candidates to fill the Maple Leafs assistant coaching vacancy that occurred when current assistant coach Paul McFarland announced he’d be leaving the organization to become head coach of the Kingston Frontenacs.
That means that when the 2019-20 season concludes, whether (as the great poet T.S. Elliot phrased it in his 1925 poem “The Hollow Men”) with a bang or a whimper, the team needs a new assistant coach to run the team’s power play. Being a Maple Leafs’ assistant coach is a good job, but it’s not for everyone. McFarland, who wanted to become an NHL head coach, saw his goal derailed when Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock as head coach. That said, someone would see this job as a step upward.
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Who will Dubas hire to work with Keefe? That person needs to share their philosophy of being both creative and loving a puck-control, possession-oriented offense. Who are the candidates?
Maxwell first suggests including former long-term NHL head coach Bruce Boudreau, but suggests hiring him would be a “pipe dream.” Obviously, NHL fans know Boudreau’s body of work with the Washington Capitals, Anaheim Ducks, and Minnesota Wild. True, he’s experienced success and I believe he’s a motivational coach, but when I’ve watched his teams, they’ve seemed disorganized. That doesn’t bode well for a power play coach. So, it’s a no for me.
A more likely candidate is current Toronto Marlies’ assistant coach A.J. MacLean. Keefe knows MacLean well and has coached with him most of his coaching career. He started with Keefe with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in 2013 and then came with him to the Marlies in 2015. He’s already had success as the Marlies’ power play coach and is a Keefe loyalist who’s likely on the same page. Those qualities seem crucial. Furthermore, why not promote within the organization and build an organizational reputation as rewarding loyalty and longevity?
Item Three: Revisiting Jake Gardiner’s Season
If you’re a Jake Gardiner fan, which I am, it’s sad to see the downward spiral of this once-gifted young defenseman. Last season in Toronto, he was a focus for fans’ ire. It wasn’t pretty. So, Gardiner signed with the Carolina Hurricanes.
For one reason or another, his play hasn’t been as good as either Gardiner or the Hurricanes might have hoped. He hasn’t played poorly, but he hasn’t scored as much as the team wants and he hasn’t ramped up the Hurricanes’ power play. Because Brady Skjei was added to the roster at the trade deadline, Gardiner must wonder what his place is on the team’s defense.
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What is already a strong defensive group got stronger with Skjei. So, the question has to be asked: Is Gardiner and his $4 million salary each season on his way out? If you’re a Maple Leafs fan who follows the team’s former players, it will be interesting to see what happens with Gardiner.
What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?
General manager Dubas must be looking ahead toward the near future. The team has three key players — goalie Frederik Andersen, defenseman Morgan Rielly, and forward Zach Hyman — who need to be re-signed (or not) when their current contracts end. Andersen and Hyman are slated to become unrestricted free agents after the 2020-21 season, and Rielly a year later.
Watching Dubas work, I’m wondering if he’ll try to sign all three. That’s a ways ahead, but still on the foreseeable horizon.