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Toronto Maple Leafs Offseason: Joe Thornton signing, the odd man out, and the next steps – Maple Leafs Hot Stove

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What an active week — and offseason overall — it’s been for Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

In: T.J. Brodie (RD), Wayne Simmonds (RW), Zach Bogosian (RD), Joe Thornton (C), Jimmy Vesey (LW), Joey Anderson (RW), Travis Boyd (C/LW), Aaron Dell (G), Fillip Hallander (C/LW), David Warsofsky (LD)

Out: Kasperi Kapanen (RW), Andreas Johnsson (LW), Cody Ceci (RD), Tyson Barrie (RD), Frederik Gauthier (C), Jeremy Bracco (RW), Kasimir Kaskisuo (G), Jesper Lindgren (RD), Pontus Aberg (LW/RW)

To say nothing of the 12 draft selections or the Alexander Barabanov and Mikko Lehtonen signings out of the KHL back in the Spring.

Let’s jump right into the musings.

The Joe Thornton Signing


Photo: Mark Blinch. Getty Images

Frederik Gauthier was Toronto’s fourth-line center for 61 games last season and 70 the year before. Even if Joe Thornton looks like a shell of his former self, at the very least, he should be able to replace Gauthier as Toronto’s big left-handed faceoff specialist plus all the intangible value he brings. At the league minimum salary, there’s very little risk here, and it’s tough to hate this signing as a result.

Thornton is one of the best playmakers of all time. He should help Toronto’s second power-play unit, and he’ll certainly bring some veteran leadership to the locker room. Like Wayne Simmonds and Jason Spezza, it’s going to be really cool to watch him play at home in Toronto. A strong play-driver in the 2018-2019 season, he still looked like a perfectly respectable NHL player last season. If he has a bounce-back season at the age of 41, the Leafs have themselves a good third-line center. If he doesn’t, they should still have a perfectly fine fourth-line player at the league-minimum salary.

If you evaluate each individual signing in a vacuum, there is little risk in signing Thornton, Spezza, or Simmonds. However, there is at least some risk here collectively, as Toronto’s bottom six is going to be quite slow, and it’s not going to be easy to scratch any of them even if they end up struggling. Ideally, all three of them should be the slowest player on their line, but it seems like two of them are bound to play together.

It’s not perfect, and if it’s not working, you’re trusting your coach to make a difficult decision. I still think Thornton and Spezza are valuable NHL contributors — and I also think there’s a reasonable chance for Simmonds to have a bounce-back season — but it’s worth acknowledging that there’s at least a chance that this doesn’t work out perfectly.

It sure seems like we’re going to see plenty of back-to-backs next season, as the league will likely look to minimize travel as much as possible. As a result, don’t be surprised if they give Thornton, Spezza, or Simmonds the occasional night off. Rotating 13 forwards and 7 defensemen in and out of the lineup should not be a major problem. I’d rather give these players a breather now and then rather than have a 2018-19 Justin Holl situation, where someone lives in the press box and plays only 11 games. As long as the coaching staff is up front with the players and emphasizes the importance of keeping them fresh for the playoffs, I don’t see it being a major problem if they come out of the lineup once every 10 or 15 games.

Leafs fans saw Patrick Marleau take a pretty significant step back following his first season in Toronto. He’s still a fine skater to this day, but I do think he lost a step. It’s trickier to evaluate when Thornton will decline further; like Spezza, he was never a great skater to begin with. He’s still big, strong, and a wicked passer. As I said above, I’ll certainly take my chances that he can at least improve on Gauthier’s value.

I also wonder if Thornton could end up on the wing, where played there during the World Cup of Hockey back in 2016. Given his lack of speed, this could help him to extend his career as a top-nine player. The Sharks weren’t going to do this in 2018-19, as he still graded out as a terrific play-driver at center. They weren’t going to do this last season when they had their fair share of injuries and were limited in terms of depth.

Thornton can still take faceoffs if he plays on the wing, and while I don’t think he’s a great fit with the pass-first Kerfoot, I wouldn’t mind experimenting early on. Since Thornton never shoots the puck, look for him to play with good shooters.

I mentioned the Thornton rumours in my last article, where I stated that he was worth a shot for a bottom-six role. I get that having a 37-year old Spezza as the team’s second-oldest forward is not for everyone, but I think both players have enough left in the tank.

I like this addition and I’m pumped to watch Thornton play for the Leafs.

The Odd Man Out


Denis Malgin, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

The Leafs have five clear top-six forwards: Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Zach Hyman. Alex Kerfoot can either be a solid third-line center, or the third-best player on the second line. Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, Ilya Mikheyev, and Wayne Simmonds are all locks to be in the lineup as well, so that’s 10 spots accounted for.

I fully expect Jimmy Vesey to be on the roster. He’s a decent bet to score 15 goals, and he could fit with either Kerfoot or Thornton. There’s at least a chance that he’s the 13th forward, but he’ll be on the roster in some capacity.

The remaining two spots are up for grabs. Alexander Barabanov is likely a favourite for an NHL job, but he scored under half-a-point per game in the KHL last season, a threshold he’s only surpassed once. I think the Leafs will give him an opportunity to make the team, but he’s going to have to earn his spot in the lineup. Vadim Shipachyov was the biggest thing since sliced bread a few years back, and he only ended up playing three NHL games. In Toronto, Calle Rosen, Andreas Borgman, and Igor Ozhiganov also never fully stuck in the NHL after coming overseas. While I think they’ll give Barabanov a good chance to play, he’s going to have to earn a spot in the lineup.

Pierre Engvall can be sent to the Marlies without going through waivers. Nick Robertson, barring an unexpected rule change, is not eligible to play in the AHL. Faced with a similar decision during their play-in series, the Leafs ended up playing Robertson in game one over Engvall. Of course, Robertson ended up being scratched in Game 5 when Andreas Johnsson returned and Engvall took over Gauthier’s spot, so this lineup decision is far from a lock.

Adding another layer of uncertainty, we don’t know if there’s going to be an OHL season at this point or what one will look like. Assuming the old rules are intact, you either play Robertson in the NHL all year, or you don’t play him in the NHL at all. If the Leafs think he can make an impact come playoff time, they’ll keep him in the NHL. If they don’t think he’s ready, they’ll send him down. He would certainly be a great fit with the past-first Thornton. If anything, I think that signing Thornton helps more than hurts Robertson’s chances. Ultimately, he’ll control his own destiny. If looks good enough in preseason (assuming there is a preseason), the Leafs will make a spot for him.

I think Engvall is a bit underrated right now, as he’s good in transition and good defensively. He played well at center in the play-in series against Columbus, and he covers a ton of ice. He’s not amazing offensively, but the Leafs could use another good two-way forward, and he’s certainly good on the penalty kill. I’d send him to the Marlies before I traded him for nothing. That being said, I’m not sure that he fully controls his own destiny — if Robertson and Barabanov both look like solid NHL players, I think they’ll both stay on the roster. They can always call Engvall up if needed, but as mentioned, barring a rule change for this year, they can’t do that with Robertson.

All of Denis Malgin, Travis Boyd, Nic Petan, Adam Brooks, and Yegor Korshkov will be in tough to make the team. Kenny Agostino played in 63 NHL games in 2018-19 and scored at close to a point-per-game with the Marlies last season, but he is a major long-shot. It doesn’t hurt to have depth, but I’d consider trading a player or two at some point, as I’d like to see someone like Agostino given a better chance of making an NHL team. I think Joey Anderson is also likely on the outside looking in considering he fits best on the right side, where Simmonds and probably Spezza have the final right-wing spots locked down.

The Next Steps For Toronto’s Offseason


Kyle Dubas
Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The Leafs look pretty much set. Unless something falls into their lap, I don’t see many more moves happening. Their forward depth is matched on the back-end: One of Mikko Lehtonen or Zach Bogosian will be their seventh defenseman, and then there’s Calle Rosen, Rasmus Sandin, and Timothy Liljegren behind them. Half the outrage I see on Twitter these days is basically “this player shouldn’t be scratched!” That’s probably a good sign. Between injuries and back-to-backs, who gets scratched is the least of my concerns at this point.

Other than maybe Engvall, the two players that seem like they could potentially be dealt are Alex Kerfoot and Justin Holl. I don’t think it’s overly likely that either player is traded, but if one does get moved, you need to get a player who is just as good if not better in return. The Muzzin-Holl pairing was the lone bright spot on Toronto’s blue-line last season, and I’ve been dying to see Morgan Rielly play with a partner like TJ Brodie for years, so I don’t know why you’d break that up. I think Travis Dermott could potentially play in the top four, but I’d rather keep him on the third-pairing to start and ensure that I have great depth. Unless someone like MacKenzie Weegar is added, I doubt Holl is going anywhere.

You also can’t trade Alex Kerfoot without getting another quality center back in the deal. He was one of Toronto’s better players in the play-in series, and the third line was terrible when he wasn’t there. You could play him on the wing and give Thornton a chance to start the season as the third-line center, but you certainly need a backup plan ready in case Thornton’s play declines further. Having too much center depth is always a good problem to have. It’s not having enough that becomes a major issue.

While I didn’t want to trade the first-round pick they acquired in the Kasperi Kapanen trade — having the 15th pick in a deep draft class is tough to pass up — I’m more open to the team trading its 2021 first-round pick. Rather than trade for a rental, I’d rather do what the Tampa Bay Lightning did and trade for cheap players with control. For example, I know he’s small, but I’d give up a good haul for Conor Garland, who carries just a $775k cap hit this season.

I’m not expecting much else to happen with the Leafs for the remainder of the offseason, but they have some flexibility if something does come up, and Kyle Dubas has stated his desire to keep enough maneuverability under the cap to be able to add mid-season or at the deadline.

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Pandemic World Series draws smallest crowd in over century – Sportsnet.ca

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Julie and Lance Smith walked through the mostly empty concourse of Globe Life Field.

Tampa Bay infielder Joey Wendle is married to one of their cousins, and they weren’t going to miss his World Series debut.

“It’s so weird,” said Julie Smith, 38, from Gadsden, Alabama.

“It’s kind of nice in a way, too,” Lance, 39, said before they headed to their seats in the first deck behind home plate.

They wore masks, but many fans ignored the requirement for facial coverings except while eating or drinking at their ticketed seats.

A crowd of 11,388 attended the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ 8-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in Tuesday night’s World Series opener, spread in groups of up to four, mostly in alternate rows and none directly behind each other among the forest green seats.

That was the smallest Series crowd since 10,535 attended Game 6 in 1909 between the Tigers and Pittsburgh at Detroit’s Bennett Park, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Major League Baseball planned to make about 28% available of the 40,518 capacity at the retractable-roof stadium of the Texas Rangers. The new $1.2 billion venue opened this year and replaced Globe Life Park, the team’s open-air home from 1994 through 2019. During batting practice, through the new stadium’s glass walls, the sun glistened off the red brick of the old stadium across the street beyond left field, a field now used for high school football.

Behind home plate, the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium gleamed like a spaceship.

World Series games are usually festive, packed early with fans celebrating the dual accomplishments of their team making it to baseball’s ultimate stage and of their snagging hard-to-find tickets, usually displayed in plastic hanging from lanyard draped around their necks.

But this World Series had a surreal, at times sombre feel caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic. The small crowd was supplemented with fan audio from stadium speakers.

No fans were allowed into any of the 898 regular-season games this season, which were played in mostly empty ballparks due to governmental health restrictions.

Players’ families were allowed starting for the 18 first-round playoff games, the 15 Division Series games and the AL Championship Series between Tampa Bay and Houston in San Diego, with fans added for the Dodgers’ matchup against Atlanta in the NL Championship Series in Arlington, an average of 10,835 for the seven games. Roughly the same amount of tickets were sold for each World Series game.

Behind third base, a group of fans in Dodgers gear watched after flying in.

Brian Casey, a 29-year-old from Glendale, California, booked a plane ticket ahead of Sunday night’s win over the Braves, knowing he had 24 hours to cancel without penalty, then made a decision after the Dodgers rallied for a 4-3 win. He was in attendance when they last won the World Series in 1988 as a kid and was at Dodger Stadium when they played Boston in 2018. He watched Tuesday with Ryan Radenbaugh, 37, from Burbank.

“We just went to buy souvenirs and it was all Rangers stuff,” Radenbaugh said.

Noah Garden, MLB’s chief revenue officer, said the pandemic made it difficult to get gear shipped in the short time after teams won pennants last weekend.

MLB made the decision to play with the roof open. It was closed until the Dodgers started to warm up about 3 1/2 hours ahead of first pitch, then slid open as the public address system played Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarasuthra,” known to many as the opening music from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The usual pregame introductions of teams were dispensed with. When the a cappella group Pentatonix sang a recorded version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played on the 58×150-foot video board in right field and the 40-x111-foot board in the left-field corner, about 18 Dodgers were in front of the first base dugout and on the right field line, and roughly a dozen Rays were by the third base dugout and on the left-field line.

A live flyover of four jets followed, and ceremonial first pitches were thrown by medical personnel who assisted during the pandemic: Brittney Burns, a nurse practitioner from San Antonio; Erika Combs, an oncology and kidney transplant nurse at a Dallas hospital; and Jamie Edens and Ryan Ward, nurses from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who are a married couple.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who was on hand, yelled “Play Ball!” into a microphone and retired Dodgers announcer Vin Scully delivered by video recording: “It’s time for Dodger baseball!” just before Clayton Kershaw walked to the mound.

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FOLLOW LIVE: Dodgers blowing out Rays in Game 1 – TSN

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It all comes down to this. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays are just four wins away from a championship as they meet in Game 1 of the World Series. Clayton Kershaw makes his fifth World Series start, while Tyler Glasnow makes his Fall Classic debut. Keep up with the action all game long with TSN.ca’s Game 1 live blog.

Rays – 3

Dodgers – 8

Final


11:14pm – Pedro Baez enters the game for the Dodgers in the eighth inning and gets a 1-2-3 inning of his own. Dodgers lead 8-3 going into the bottom of the eighth.  

11:04pm – Josh Fleming gives the Rays exactly what they need with a 1-2-3 inning in the bottom of the seventh to hold the Dodgers at eight runs and Tampa Bay remains fives runs back with two innings to play.

10:58pm – Mike Zunino fires a 105.6 mph line drive right up the middle of the field, but Gonzalez snags it and turns to double off Brosseau at second base and escape the jam.

10:54pm – Kevin Kiermaier follows up the Brosseau single with a single of his own to score Wendle from third, the Rays now trail by five.

10:52pm – Brosseau singles on a 3-2 slider to cut the Dodgers lead to six.

10:49pm – More gamesmanship from the Rays, as Mike Brosseau will now hit for Choi.

10:46pm – Joey Wendle doubles to give the Rays a runner of second and third with one out. Ji-Man Choi enters the game to pinch hit with the Rays down seven, and the Dodgers counter with brining in lefty Victor Gonzalez.

10:40pm – Dylan Floro takes the mound for the Dodgers to start the seventh inning, meaning Clayton Kershaw‘s night is over. Kershaw finishes the night with eight strikeouts and gives up just one run on two hits.

10:32pm – Justin Turner and Max Muncy hit back-to-back doubles to extend the Dodgers lead to 8-1.

10:30pm – MOOKIE NUKE – In the fifth Mookie Betts did it with his legs, in the sixth he leads off the inning with a home run to right field.

10:26pm – The long wait between innings means nothing for Kershaw as he comes out for the sixth inning and needs just nine pitches to retire the Rays in order.

10:18pm – Los Angeles adds two more runs before Austin Barnes flies out to end the inning. The Dodgers score four in the fifth to extend their lead to five runs.

10:07pm – DODGERS CHASE GLASNOW – Will Smith singles in another run and Tyler Glasnow‘s night has come to an end. He leaves with one out in the fifth, two runners on base and trailing 4-1.

10:00pm  – MOOKIE MAGIC – Mookie Betts walks to lead off the fifth inning, steals second and third and scores from third on a ground ball hit to the first baseman. The Dodgers regain their two-run and now are up 3-1.

9:43pm – KIERMAIER GOES DEEP – Kevin Kiermaier cuts the Dodgers lead in half with a home run to right field.

9:38pm – Glasnow walked the next batter following the Bellinger home run, but limits the damage by striking out the final two batters of the inning. The Dodgers lead 2-0 heading to the fifth inning.

9:25pm – BELLI BOMB – Cody Bellinger opens the scoring with a two-run home run to right field. It’s his second in two games.

9:18pm – Another three up-three down inning for Kershaw. He now has six strikeouts after four innings and has not given up a hit since the leadoff single to start the game.

9:09pm – GLASNOW ANSWERS – Tyler Glasnow gives up a walk to Corey Seager but strikes out the side. The 26-year-old now has five strikeouts after three innings.

8:57pm – KERSHAW CRUISING- Clayton Kershaw has retired eight-straight Rays players and picks up his third and fourth strikeouts. The 32-year-old has given up just two base runners through three innings.

8:51pm – Glasnow gives up his first hit of the night, but nothing more and we’re headed to the third inning tied 0-0.

8:40pm – ABC, easy as an 1-2-3 inning for Kershaw. The southpaw needed just 11 pitches to get through his second inning of work.

8:34pm – Glasnow gives up a walk to Corey Seager and nothing more. Off to the second inning we go.

8:26pm – Just like his Kershaw, Glasnow opens his night with a first-pitch fastball for a strike.

8:23pm – Díaz leads off the game with a single and Randy Arozarena reaches on a walk, but the Rays fail to capitalize and we’re headed to the bottom of the first tied 0-0.

8:11pm – We are underway, Clayton Kershaw fires a first pitch strike to Yandy Díaz to begin the World Series.

*All times EST*


Over his six World Series appearances, Kershaw is 1-2 with a 5.40 ERA in 26.2 innings. The southpaw has made three starts in the 2020 playoffs, picking up wins over the Milwaukee Brewers and San Diego Padres. But he struggled in his only start of the NLCS, giving up four runs in five innings to the Atlanta Braves, getting tagged with the loss.

Glasnow, 26, starts the first World Series game for the Rays since 2008. Like his counterpart, Glasnow picked up a win in the opening two rounds of the playoffs, shutting down the Toronto Blue Jays, and holding the New York Yankees to four runs through 7.1 innings. The righty was tagged with the loss in his only ALCS start when he tossed six innings, giving up eight hits and four earned runs.

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Behind Ilya Mikheyev’s last-minute RFA contract with Maple Leafs – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO – Fewer than 24 hours before Wednesday’s scheduled arbitration case, restricted free agent Ilya Mikheyev and the Toronto Maple Leafs found common ground Tuesday night — although it did mean a last-minute financial concession on the player’s part.

The Russian winger and the club agreed to a two-year contract worth an average annual value of $1.645 million that will see Mikheyev in blue and white through the 2021-22 season and walk him to unrestricted free agency at age 27.

“Ilya decided to step off a little bit from an already agreed number to help the team fit under the cap,” Mikheyev’s agent, Dan Milstein, told Sportsnet after tweeting news of the signing.

“For Ilya, it was less about the money, but more about the role in the organization. He wishes to win the Stanley Cup. It’s been a lifelong dream.”

Mikheyev’s two-year pact carries a $1.1 million salary in 2020-21 and $2.19 million in 2021-22.

According to Milstein, the sides had initially agreed to a cap hit slightly higher than $1.645 million.

The agent was on the phone explaining the bridge deal’s terms to Mikheyev when the Maple Leafs quickly called back requesting the forward take slightly less so they could be cap compliant for 2021’s opening night.

The Leafs and Mikheyev discussed the sophomore’s position in a winger-loaded roster “extensively” during the negotiations, which had been ongoing for weeks.

“We know what they have going. We know what the goals are. Toronto and both camps communicated very clearly,” Milstein said. “We feel very comfortable about the next season, and Ilya is very excited about the next season as well.”

The 26-year-old Mikheyev — fast a fan favourite — appeared in only 39 games as a rookie with the Maple Leafs in 2019-20, scoring eight goals and adding 15 assists.

Returning for post-season action after suffering a gruesome wrist injury in late December, Mikheyev failed to register a point during the club’s five-game playoff qualification series versus Columbus.

“He would’ve liked to help the team get past Columbus, but overall this was a good first-year experience for him,” Milstein said. “He’s adjusted. He’s adapted. And I expect him to have a better season next year.”

He elected to file for salary arbitration to buy time, and a deadline, for amicable negotiations.

Mikheyev filed for one year at $2.7 million; the Leafs requested two years at $1 million.

But, Milstein maintains, the strongest efforts on both sides have long been directed at striking a two-year pact that worked to provide Mikheyev and his family a little more certainty in uncertain times.

The player affectionately known as “Mickey” to his teammates and “Souperman” to fans stayed up to the wee hours in Russia, where he’s training, in order to sign the paperwork.

“The first season didn’t go as well as planned, due to the injury, but it was never a question of whether he was coming back or not,” Milstein said. “He stayed up through the night, and we took care of business.”

Milstein has a tight working relationship with general manager Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs.

The agent is quick to note that 12 of his players have been welcomed into the Toronto system over the past three years, including winger Egor Korshkov (currently on loan to Yaroslav Lokomotiv of the KHL), 2020 first-round pick Rodion Amirov and new KHL import Alexander Barabanov.

“While we were negotiating (Mikheyev’s contract) and perhaps disagreeing a little bit, I had to stop and talk to (the Leafs) about another player,” Milstein said. “We try to have good relationships with everybody, but a client comes first.”

Barabanov, 26, will join Mikheyev in trying to secure ice time from coach Sheldon Keefe in a competitive forward group that has added Wayne Simmonds, Joe Thornton, Jimmy Vesey, Joey Anderson and Travis Boyd to the mix since free agency opened.

Barabanov flew to Toronto in early September and is preparing for his first North American campaign on this side of the pond.

Make no mistake: Like Mikheyev before him, Barabanov has his sights in the NHL, not the AHL.

“I feel good about his prospects. He’s a world-class player,” Milstein said. “I’m not a coach. I’m not going to make any predictions. But I feel good about it. You can quote me on that. I feel good about it. Barabanov is an Olympic champion.

“He is a phenomenal player, and I expect him to do well here in North America.”

With Mikheyev signed, the Maple Leafs only need to reach agreements with RFAs Travis Dermott and Anderson.

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