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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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New York Rangers get OK to interview Gerard Gallant for coaching job

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The New York Rangers plan to interview Gerard Gallant for their head coaching job, TSN reported.

The Vegas Golden Knights, who fired Gallant during the 2019-20 season, reportedly have granted permission.

A first conversation between the Rangers and Gallant was expected to take place quickly, before Gallant heads to Latvia to coach Team Canada at the IIHF World Championship, which runs from May 21-June 6.

Gallant, 57, was the first coach of the expansion Golden Knights and led them to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season in 2017-18. The Washington Capitals won in five games.

He was fired 49 games into his third season when the team was 24-19-6, and he had an overall record of 118-75-20 with Vegas.

He also coached the Columbus Blue Jackets (2003-07) and Florida Panthers (2014-17) and has a career record of 270-216-4-51 in 541 career games as a head coach.

The Rangers are in the midst of an overhaul. They fired head coach David Quinn and three assistant coaches on Wednesday, following the dismissal last week of team president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton.

The Rangers failed to qualify for the playoffs for the fourth straight season after posting a 27-23-6 record in 2020-21. They finished in fifth place in the East Division.

Quinn, 54, compiled a 96-87-25 record during his three seasons as coach of the Rangers after taking over for Alain Vigneault on May 23, 2018.

–Field Level Media

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NHL wants answer on Canada border crossing soon

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The NHL has asked the Canadian government for a decision by June 1 about U.S. teams crossing the border during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, ESPN reported Friday.

 

The Canadian teams played only each other during the 2020-21 season in a revamped North Division because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that will continue during the first two rounds of the playoffs. It’s what happens after that — in the semifinals and finals — that is up in the air.

 

“The conversations are ongoing. We’ve told them we really do need to know by the end of the first round, and that’s around June 1,” Steve Mayer, the league’s chief content officer, told ESPN. “That’s pretty much the date that we’ve talked to them about, saying we have to know one way or another.”

 

Last season, the playoffs were held in bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto.

 

Under current rules, American-based teams couldn’t play in Canada without mandatory quarantines, which would make travel for home-and-away games impossible under the playoff calendar.

 

The NHL and government representatives last talked a week ago, and the Canadian officials submitted a variety of questions for the league’s response.

 

In the interim, Mayer said, the league has discussed the possibility of the Canadian team that advances from the North Division being based in the U.S. for the duration of the postseason. Talks have occurred with officials at NHL arenas where teams didn’t qualify for the playoffs.

 

An NHL source told ESPN this week that the league expects “a positive resolution” to the issue, however.

 

–Field Level Media

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Canada to play 2 more home World Cup qualifiers in U.S.

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As Canada continues to wrestle with the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s national soccer team will play two more of its home World Cup qualifying matches south of the border in June.

Canada will face Aruba in Bradenton, Fla., on June 5, and will take on Suriname in suburban Chicago on June 8, Canada Soccer confirmed Monday.

The games are Canada‘s last two of four matches in CONCACAF Group B. A March 26 Canadian home match against Bermuda was held in Orlando, Fla., which Canada won 5-1. Also, the Caymen Islands were the host team on March 29, when Canada rolled, 11-0.

Only one national team advances to the next round, and Canada and Suriname top the group and the game against Suriname in Bridgeview, Ill., figures to be the deciding match in both teams’ efforts to advance.

Thirty nations from Central and North America are competing in this first round with six group winners advancing to a second round of head-to-head knockout matches for the right to compete in the CONCACAF final round of eight teams competing for four places in the 2022 World Cup. A fifth team from CONCACAF advances to an intercontinental play-in round.

As was executed in Orlando, the match in Chicago will be staged in accordance with the FIFA International Match Protocols supported by the relevant public health requirements.

“We had hoped to play these matches at home with Canadian fans providing the support and momentum to play a tough nation like Suriname in FIFA World Cup Qualifiers,” said John Herdman, coach of the Canadian men’s national team. “The reality of the global pandemic and the priority to keep our communities in Canada safe means the match will be played at a neutral site in Chicago with no home advantage, but we will embrace that challenge.

“Whatever comes at us, we will take it on and do whatever we need to do to advance to the next round.”

-Field Level Media

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