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Maple Leafs Notebook: Five major storylines entering the 2022-23 season

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Entering the offseason, the Maple Leafs’ needs were not particularly extensive, but they did have some holes and question marks, as every team does.

In net, the whole position was obviously an unknown. Jack Campbell was an unrestricted free agent and Petr Mrazek was coming off of a nightmare first season in Toronto. Both are in the other conference now.

Logically, betting on any two goalies in the league that have flashed ability/shown some form of extended success in their careers to better the Leafs’ 27th-ranked 5v5 save percentage last season seems reasonable. They aren’t exactly asking their new tandem to be great – only decent, or dare we say it, solid. Worse bets have been made.

That said, question marks about Matt Murray don’t only surround his play but his ability to stay healthy. Ilya Samsonov, meanwhile, has not sustained strong play since his rookie season in 2019-20.

Goalies are magic beans at the best of times. To acquire certainty in net, a team has to pay up – and it’s quite possible we look back and say the Leafs should have – but in lieu of that, this is the type of situation a team will find itself in. At the very least, the Leafs have two credible NHL netminders, so the responsibilities won’t fall squarely on one goalie’s shoulders.

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The defense was more or less set on paper, and once Mark Giordano took a sweetheart deal, it was essentially complete. Our one question was whether they’d look to add a top-of-the-lineup defender – another difference maker – to the group and whether they’d continue to trust Jake Muzzin to stay healthy in their top four. Complicating matters there is Muzzin’s no-trade clause.

The Leafs have decided to run it back on defense with a group that is solid on paper – albeit aging – provided Muzzin can return to form (or someone emerges to reduce his minutes and responsibilities). If Muzzin struggles again with form and/or health, it could lead to questions about whether the Leafs need to acquire another defenseman.

Will Rasmus Sandin and/or Timothy Liljegren continue to ascend? How will Mark Giordano hold up at 39+? Will Justin Holl rebound in a contract year? TJ Brodie is 32 – how much longer is he going to sustain his play in a borderline top-pairing role?

There are enough quality defensemen on the roster that they should be able to sort out the defense internally. Without question, they have seven above-average NHL blueliners (with various capacities and skill sets), so it’s probably going to be about evaluating and moving them around to find the best fits unless a player or two really falls off in his play or gets hurt.

At forward, there were really three questions of sorts: How would they fill out the bottom six? Would they move a core player, and if it happened, what would be the domino effect? If they didn’t move a core player, the top six contains five locked-in players, so could they add a player of quality to round out the group?

The bottom six has been rounded out largely by role players (which has been a subtle shift over the years in Kyle Dubas’ tenure). Nicolas Aube-Kubel was added as an energy/forechecker type of player. Zach Aston-Reese, another professional role player, has a clear fit. Calle Jarnkrok has more utility and scoring ability than those two, but again, he is an effective penalty killer, he’s good defensively, and he’s a swiss-army knife type of player who gives the Leafs options.

None of these players is better than the departed Ilya Mikheyev. I’d even argue that if Ondrej Kase could stay healthy, he’s better than all of them, too. But the newcomers fit the bottom six roles a lot better than the Jason Spezzas, Wayne Simmonds, and Kyle Cliffords of last season. They are all also plus defensive players.

There has been a slight shift in his area philosophically over the years. None of these players are even remotely similar to some of the names the Leafs have filled out the roster with in previous seasons: Jimmy Vesey, Dmytro Timashov, Tyler Ennis, Par Lindholm, Joe Thornton (when he wasn’t playing on the top line), and all the other players we just mentioned. The new additions are largely defensive and energy-role players, which I think is a welcome change.

At the top of the lineup, no core player was moved but no established needle mover was added. At this time, the options are essentially Denis Malgin – who is getting the first crack at it – calling up Nick Robertson, or bumping up Alex Kerfoot or Calle Jarnkrok. Realistically, the latter two would be playing higher in the lineup than they probably should if they went that route.

If someone pops among the above-mentioned group, the roster (not including goalies) is about as complete as it gets. The question, yet again, is whether they can deliver when it counts. If nobody stakes a claim to the top-six spot, the conversation will shift to who Kyle Dubas should acquire at the trade deadline.

Notes


Photo: Valerie Wutti / Freestyle Photography

–  I mentioned a few weeks ago that the Marlies have quietly been trending down since Sheldon Keefe was promoted. It’s always a big year for your development-league team, but this one, in particular, is quite important.

Nick Robertson made a big push to make the Leafs and probably deserved to make it, all things being equal. He will surely return to the Leafs at some point. He has been promising since the Leafs drafted him as a high pick and has been in and out with the Marlies; I’m sure the reps in the AHL have helped, but I don’t think he’s really a product of their system per se. The only other young player who really pushed to make the team was Pontus Holmberg, who has played all of six games with the Marlies.

In camp, Keefe made a point of noting that Jordie Benn and Victor Mete were a clear step ahead of all the other depth defensemen in the organization, and neither is a world-beater exactly.

There have been some decent young players sent down to the Marlies in the past week. They need to develop and make something out of at least a few of them. It would make Dubas’ life a lot easier if he had more of them knocking on the door sooner rather than later.

There was a lot of disagreement when I wrote about this originally, but here we are going into the season and David Kampf is centering the team’s “fourth” line. I think this has always been the setup the Leafs have wanted ever since they acquired Riley Nash a few years ago. The fourth line is the defensive-zone start/checking line, the top line is the do-everything line, and the middle two lines are used situationally.

Even if we consider Kampf the proverbial 4C, he’s going to play at least two and a half minutes per game shorthanded (we’ll see if that actually ticks up now). He’ll get his minutes. It wouldn’t be surprising if his line has a number of games where they play more minutes than the “third” line.

– I know people loved Jason Spezza – and it’s not a knock on him – but it was time. They couldn’t build their lineup like this with him, Wayne Simmonds, or Joe Thornton on that fourth line. They look like they have four lines that could theoretically play against anybody.

They’ve never been able to make such a claim to start a season under this regime. There has always been a few players they’ve kind of had to work around.

–  I have to give credit where it’s due: one heck of a camp for Denis Malgin. We’ll see how the regular season goes, of course, but he definitely earned an opportunity to prove himself in the real games, and he’s getting about as good of a look as he can possibly hope for.

– Similarly, both Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov looked good. Both are NHL talents and it was preseason – frankly, we should expect them to look good – but all they can do is play each game in front of them. So far, it’s been promising. Of course, Leafs preseason and goaltending have gone well before until the real games started, so that’s the most I’ll say there.

Quotes


Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Edmonton Oilers, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly
JASON FRANSON / AP

“Willy has done that before and I think has the ability to. Frankly, I wouldn’t read too much into it. If you kind of break it down, it is kind of a placeholder for John in his spot. There are those elements to it. I think it is important for Willy to get some reps through the camp and all of that. He does play center at times… It was really more that I wanted to get a look at Engvall, Kerfoot, and Jarnkrok today. It was just natural to put Willy in that spot.”

– Sheldon Keefe on moving William Nylander to center in practice

I wonder if this is the season we finally see it again. With a great top line firmly in place and a checking fourth line that’s bound to work, the Leafs can get all sorts of creative with their middle two lines.

It is always worth repeating that William Nylander was, at one point, groomed to play center on the Marlies. He looked good there. He has the tools to play the position and is at his most dangerous in the middle of the ice. The Leafs won the draft lottery and he shifted to wing full-time, but there is a pro-hockey foundation there.

“It’s a talented team. I find glory in the fact you can get that blocked shot or that big hit that will save the game or changes the momentum for the skills guys to take over.”

– Zach Aston-Reese, who turned his PTO into a one-year contract

Zach Aston-Reese is a professional role player. This is the exact type of player the Leafs need in the bottom six – role players who are able to impact games in different ways. A team can’t have 12 scoring forwards. There are all sorts of elements that go into winning, and he brings a much-needed one.

“I felt like we had a really good group. I wanted to be the best version of myself. Sometimes you put too much pressure on yourself. It is not easy. It is a tough league. There are a lot of games. Sometimes, you can get a little lost or a little confused about what makes you a good player.”

– Jake Muzzin on his struggles last season and the pressure he put on himself

I really believed Jake Muzzin struggled last season because he was unhealthy, but he seems to think it was more of a mental thing. Whatever it was, a healthy Muzzin stringing together a solid season would be a major boost to the team.

Five things I will be watching for this season


Auston Matthews scores 60th goal of 2021-22 season
Photo: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Can the Leafs win the division?

For all the talk of how good of a regular-season team the Leafs have been, the only thing they have won is the all-Canadian division. As we saw last season with the matchup against Tampa Bay, there is value in finishing higher up in the standings.

The Atlantic might be a little less strong than usual, but Tampa still looks like a great roster to me, Boston looks good once healthy, and Florida still has a number of gamebreakers.

They should be trying to win the division and be in contention for the President’s Trophy. There’s no value in the team going through the motions through the regular season and waiting for the playoffs. They should come in with a chip on their shoulder and their sights set on buzz-sawing through the league. The potential is definitely there for them to do exactly that.

Part of this is me also wondering if the team starts to feel a little stale. At its core, it’s been the same group for five seasons now, and they haven’t won anything. Are they going to be more motivated than ever and start by running over the league this regular season?

How much will Sheldon Keefe mix up the lines?

Well, the Michael BuntingAuston MatthewsMitch Marner line is back to start the season as are William NylanderJohn Tavares. Is that going to be the case all season?

Keefe did have Matthews and Nylander together briefly last season, but Matthews was still recovering from injury and definitely wasn’t himself. There is a part of me that thinks an injury of note forcing their hand to shift around the lines would benefit them long-term; it seems like they won’t shake it up otherwise.

Waiting to shake up the lines after the team is locked into a playoff spot isn’t the solution. They should experiment in games that matter to really establish a feel for what works – not when they’re playing out the regular season down the stretch. The latter leads to reverting back come playoff time when the games matter again, as they did last season.

Will the power play fall off again as the season progresses?

We won’t know about this until the spring. Under Sheldon Keefe, the Leafs’ power play has been strong to start, and then it’s fallen off a cliff in the last month or two of the regular season through to the playoffs. Their power play was flirting with the best percentage in league history last season, but it was mediocre when it mattered most yet again. It can be great all the way to March, but then what happens?

How all-in will the Leafs go at the trade deadline?

We have seen Kyle Dubas move numerous draft picks and some solid young players, but there has never been a move that we could categorize as a legitimate mortgaging of the future – i.e. trading a high-pedigree young player for a veteran in order to win now.

No, trading a first-rounder for Nick Foligno doesn’t match this definition. It would be moving a name like Nick Robertson, Rasmus Sandin, or Matthew Knies. I’m not endorsing this type of move necessarily (it would depend on the details and circumstances), but he’s a lame-duck GM, and the team hasn’t won anything. If he can acquire a massive difference-maker and it costs him a really good young player, is he going to pull the trigger?

Colorado traded Conor Timmins and a first for Darcy Kuemper before acquiring Arrturi Lehkonen for Justin Barron – who they drafted in the first round – and a second. They also acquired Josh Manson in exchange for Drew Helleson, who they drafted in the second round, and a second-round pick.

The Leafs have definitely made splashes, but I wouldn’t say they’ve gone all-in yet.

Does any young player take a step?

Look, the Leafs are a really good team. Anyone arguing otherwise is kidding themselves. But I still think they need at least one more difference-maker. If a young player were to emerge as one, it would really round out the roster nicely.

No squinting and wondering whether Alex Kerfoot is the solution on the second line. If Denis Malgin or Nick Robertson pop, the roster is about as deep and diverse as it has been in decades. Without such an emergence, I see the merit in going all in with a trade at the deadline.

This is also noteworthy on defense, too, if Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren are able to take a step. Jake Muzzin is aging, and while it isn’t talked about much, TJ Brodie is, too. We’re coming off a playoff where Morgan Rielly partnered with Ilya Lyubushkin. It’s a good, deep group, but it’s lacking a bit at the top.

Sandin did not play in the playoffs. Liljegren played two games. If even one was to emerge as a full-time top-four, it would have a really positive domino effect on the Leafs’ defense.

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Croatia coach sends Canada a stern message ahead of World Cup showdown

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Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic sent Canada a message Saturday at the World Cup. And he didn’t need the F-word to deliver it.

Dalic offered up a stern statement when asked about John Herdman’s emotional words after Canada’s 1-0 loss to Belgium on Wednesday.

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Asked in a pitchside interview what he had said to his team in a post-game huddle, the Canada coach replied: “I told them they belong here and we’re going to go and eff— Croatia. That’s as simple as it gets.”

While Herdman delivered the last line with a smile, Dalic clearly did not see the humour.

When a Canadian reporter at Saturday’s pre-game news conference asked Dalic for his team’s response to Herdman’s heat, the Croatia coach lectured his opposition ahead of Sunday’s showdown at Khlalifa International Stadium.

Dalic used the word “respect” 12 times in his answer.

“The Croatian team deserves respect from everyone … We respect everyone, equally so,” he said through an interpreter. “We expect our opposing teams to respect us. We are worthy of their respect. The Canadians must also have respect for us. This way of putting words together is not a sign of respect. We are the (2018 World Cup runners-up), not Brazil, Spain or other countries.”

“I shall not focus or comment on any other people’s comments,” he added. “We will be prepared (Sunday), we will be fit and we will demonstrate respect for Canada … and for everyone else. We expect respect just as we exercise this view”

Croatian forward Ivan Perisic then backed up his coach, saying simply: “I second the head coach and I cannot wait for the match to begin.”

Sunday may prove otherwise but it seems, motivationally speaking, Canada has taken a knife to a gunfight.

Both the 41st-ranked Canadians and No. 12 Croatia need to get points out of the match. Belgium tops Group F with three points while Croatia and Morocco both have one point after their scoreless draw.

Canada needs to secure at least a point if it hopes to have any chance of reaching the knockout round. A loss Sunday and the Canadians can finish with no more than three points while Croatia ups its total to four. And no matter what happens in Sunday’s match between No. 2 Belgium and No. 22 Morocco, one of those teams will have at least four points.

With only two teams advancing out of the group, that would render Canada’s final group game next Thursday with Morocco meaningless in terms of tournament progression.

“At the end of the day, both teams really have to win this game,” said Herdman.

Croatian reporters didn’t bother engaging Zlatko on Herdman’s inflammatory words. They had already done so, with tabloids back home having a field day.

In contrast, three of the first four questions in Herdman’s availability were about his post-game hot take. Another came later.

The Canada coach, who had already addressed the issue on Thursday, tried to laugh off the reaction he had sparked in the Croatia camp.

He insisted he was on task “and loving the experience.” And he rejected the assertion that his words were just another motivational tool.

“We’ve been waiting 36 years to get here. I’ve used all my motivation tactics in the 20-odd games it took to get here,” he said in self-deprecating fashion.

But he maintained his words to his players in the post-game huddle after Belgium were simply “to remind them that there’s another task ahead.”

And he was quick to compliment Croatia, calling it a “top top top top football team.”

“(A) hell of a test. Hell of a test for this team,” he added. “But we’re excited.”

Herdman called Sunday’s match a “defining moment for Canada in this World Cup. It’s one of those do-or-die games now that we have to perform in to stay at a World Cup.”

Dalic, meanwhile, called Canada “a tough team full of self-confidence.”

The two sides have never met before.

The Croatian roster features the likes of Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Perisic (Tottenham), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan), Mateo Kovacic (Chelsea) and Mario Pasalic (Atalanta). Only six of its 26-man roster play at home in Croatia, with four of those at Dinamo Zagreb.

Despite that talent, Croatia had its hands full with No. 22 Morocco in its tournament opener, playing to a scoreless draw in a game that saw each team put just two shots on target.

Croatia goes into Sunday’s match riding a seven-game unbeaten streak (5-0-2) dating back to a 3-0 loss to Austria in June in UEFA Nations League play. Croatia avenged that defeat with a 3-1 decision over the Austrians in September.

Croatia has outscored the opposition 9-3 over that run, which includes a win and tie against No. 4 France.

“With all due respect to Croatia, they have a very very good team. It’s going to be tough for us,” said Canadian midfielder Stephen Eustaquio. “But it’s going to be tough for them as well.”

The Canadians, who blamed traffic for showing up 41 minutes late for their news conference before the Belgium game, arrived two minutes early Saturday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2022.

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Croatian coach feels disrespected by Canadian coach’s comment at FIFA World Cup

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DOHA, Qatar — Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic said he felt disrespected by Canada head coach John Herdman for his comment in a group huddle following a loss to Belgium on Wednesday.

After the emotional 1-0 loss at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, Herdman gathered his troops on the field and gave an impassioned speech.

When asked following the game what he told his team, Herdman admitted he told his group to ‘F’ Croatia, in reference to Canada’s second game at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

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On the eve of the game Sunday (11 a.m. ET) at the Khalifa International Stadium, Croatian coach Zlatko Zlatko Dalic was again asked about the comment at the pre-match press conference here on Saturday.

“Canadians must have respect for us and this way of putting words together is not a sign of respect,” Dalic said through an interpreter. “We are the runners up (2018 World Cup), it wasn’t Brazil or Spain or any other country. We are the runners up, we were second in the world, we are worth of respect the way we played, the way we behave, the way we respect all others, is the reason we are worthy or respect.

“I shall not focus or comment on other people’s comment. We will be prepared, be fit and we will demonstrate respect from Canada and from everyone else. We expect respect just as we exercise this view.”

Croatia was a surprising World Cup finalist four years ago in Russia, beating England in the semifinal before losing to France. Along the way, Croatia also beat Argentina in the group stage.

Croatia was held to a scoreless draw in its opening match by Morocco on Wednesday. Croatia concluded the group stage against Belgium on Thursday.

“The Croatia team deserves respect from everyone; we have proven that by the way we’ve played with our conduct at the World Cup; since the very beginning we’ve deserved respect and dignity,” Dalic said. “We have two (World Cup) medals in the last 30 years and we’re up there with Germany and France and countries like that have such an achievement. We respect everyone equally so we expect our opposing teams to respect us. We are worth of their respect.”

Croatia striker Ivan Perisic was also asked for his thoughts on Herdman’s comments.

“I second the head coach,” he said. “And I cannot wait for the match to begin.”

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Canada coach Herdman jokes about Croatian tabloid

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DOHA, Qatar –

Canada had just lost its first World Cup match in 36 years, outplaying Belgium for much of a 1-0 defeat, and an emotional John Herdman revealed in the on-field interview what he had just told his players during a postgame huddle.

“I told them they belong here. And we’re going to go and F Croatia,” the coach said with a smile, using a single letter to avoid a televised profanity. “That’s as simple as it gets.”

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His words reverberated all the way to Zagreb as Sunday’s Croatia-Canada game approached.

Croatia’s 24 Sata (24 Hours) tabloid ran a fullpage photo of a naked Herdman with Maple Leaf flags over his mouth and private parts and a headline that translated to: “You have the mouth, but do you have the (guts) as well?”

Commenting Saturday on Herdman’s words, Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic used the word “respect” 13 times in a 90-second span.

“This way of putting words together is not a sign of respect,” he said through a translator. “The way we play, the way we behave and the way we respect all others are the reasons we are worthy of respect.”

Sitting next to Dalic, winger Ivan Perisic said simply: “I second the head coach and I cannot wait for the match to begin.”

Speaking before Dalic, Herdman used humour in an attempt to defuse tensions.

“When you get a text from your wife telling me you need to start working out before you get home, yeah, you think you know something’s going on,” Herdman said, noting the newspaper image was of a trimmer midsection than his own.

“My wife’s coming after you guys,” he told a reporter from that Croatian paper, laughing. “She wishes she got that guy. I’ve got a bit more of a belly than that. I’ve been eating too much.”

On Thursday, Herdman had explained what his intent was.

“You say those things in an impassioned moment trying to inspire your team in a huddle, and when you’re asked the question what you said in that huddle, yeah, it was what I said,” he said.

“It’s not massively respectful to Croatian people and the Croatian national team. I understand very well where they’re at on the world stage. But in that moment, you’ve taken your men to that next place,” he added.

Playing Croatia for the first time, Canada could be eliminated with another defeat.

Croatia, which lost the 2018 final to France, is the world’s 12th-ranked team and opened with a 0-0 draw against Morocco. Star Luka Modric, playing what is likely his last World Cup at age 37, put a first-half shot over the crossbar.

Canada has played just four World Cup games in its history and still is searching for its first goal. The Canadians outshot the Belgians 21-9 but gave up a 44th-minute goal to Michy Batshuayi from a long pass. Alphonso Davies had a chance to put Canada ahead in the 11th minute but his penalty kick was saved by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

“We know exactly what our slingshot is and we’ve got to be ready to attack that across different games now because, as I say, the cover’s off from Canada,” Herdman said. “I think people come into this game, the next games respecting us a little bit more.”

Captain Atiba Hutchinson, at 39 the only member of the current roster alive when Canada went 0-3 at the 1986 World Cup, can make his 100th international appearance Sunday — Julian de Guzman is second with 89.

Midfielder Jonathan Osorio is looking forward to facing the last World Cup’s runner-up.

“We like to play the best,” he said after the Belgium match. “We’re excited for the challenge.”

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