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Toronto Maple Leafs Training Camp Questions, Part 2

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In Part 1 of my training camp series, we addressed the following questions:

  1. Who will flank Auston Matthews (and by process of elimination, Tavares after that)?
  2. How do Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie look together?
  3. Who wins the final two spots on the Leafs defense?
  4. How will the top prospects be managed?
  5. Who are the third and fourth line centers?

Now, let’s get into the final five questions facing the Leafs heading into training camp and the start of the 2021 regular season.

6.  Who rounds out the bottom six at forward?

I’d argue the Leafs‘ bottom six hasn’t received enough attention if we look at the options at the team’s disposal (and what they are likely capable of producing in 2021).

They aren’t particularly stout defensively or explosive offensively, and they lack speed (Pierre Engvall and Robertson are fast, but I am guessing they enter camp on the outside looking in). If Ilya Mikheyev rounds out the top six – which is absolutely not a guarantee – the rest of the forward group is Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Alexander Kerfoot, Jimmy Vesey, Jason Spezza, Joey Anderson, Alexander Barabanov, Travis Boyd, Pierre Engvall, and Nick Robertson.

The team has to pick six from there. Thornton, Kerfoot, and Simmonds are obvious starters. It’s plausible — even likely — that Thornton and Simmonds are given some breaks throughout the season to preserve them for the playoffs. Jason Spezza will likely be in this boat as well. That really leaves Vesey, Anderson, Barbanov, Boyd, Engvall, and Robertson competing for two-to-three spots.

Engvall showed quite well on the penalty kill last year, so that might give him a leg up on the others in certain spots, while Vesey has some level of experience and success in the league but struggled last season. The organization seems excited about the addition, but he’s turning 28 in May — he likely is what he is at this point (a depth scorer at best). Barabanov is a wildcard, as is Robertson at this point.

My best early guess at this point would be, in no particular order: Thornton, Kerfoot, Simmonds, Spezza, Vesey, and one of Engvall/Anderson.

7. Who makes up the penalty-killing units?

The main penalty killers for the Leafs last season, particularly in the playoffs, were Jake Muzzin, Justin Holl, Morgan Rielly, and Cody Ceci, as well as Martin Marincin whenever he played. At forward, it was Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, Ilya Mikheyev when healthy (and even a bit in the playoffs), Kasperi Kapanen, and Alex Kerfoot, as well as quite a bit of ice time for Pierre Engvall and Trevor Moore when the latter was on the team.

Now, the Leafs basically have all these players returning save for Kapanen. They can easily build two units consisting of Marner, Hyman, Mikheyev, and Kerfoot, and call it a day. I’m also inclined to think that if Engvall has a good camp, he should get a further look on the penalty kill because his speed and reach cause serious issues for opposing power plays.

Joey Anderson played nearly two minutes per game on the penalty kill for the Devils last season when he played, while Vesey played nearly a minute per game there. If Anderson has a good camp, I’d guess he’ll play on the penalty kill when/if he plays games, but generally speaking, I don’t think they’ll shake it up too much at forward on the penalty kill.

On defense, the Leafs will need to replace Cody Ceci’s minutes, and TJ Brodie makes sense there. I’ll also be interested to see if they look to save Rielly’s minutes for 5v5 and the power play, perhaps giving shorthanded time to Dermott or Zach Bogosian whenever he plays. Preserving Rielly for those minutes would make a ton of sense, in theory.

8. How do the power-play units shake out (and how are they deployed)?

When Sheldon Keefe took over and loaded up the top power-play unit, the Leafs enjoyed the second most productive man-advantage unit through the rest of the season.

While that sounds great, they benefitted greatly from a big run after Babcock was fired, and they were a middle-of-the-pack power play (14th) from January 1 onward. The unit consisted of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and Tyson Barrie.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

I’d be surprised if they mixed up the units the way Babcock did, so I’d guess that Rielly will slide in on the top unit. The bigger question is whether the full-two-minute power plays for the top unit will continue.

Wayne Simmonds has always made his money on the power play (he struggles at 5v5, if anything). Is he going to sit on the bench for one minute and 45 seconds of each power play? Is Joe Thornton? Will Mikheyev get a long look there? Hyman? Kerfoot? There is a time and a place to load up the top guns, but if they plan to do it all season, I think you risk alienating the rest of the roster a little bit and lose out on empowering other offensive players to score and contribute.

It will also be interesting to see who will quarterback the second power-play unit. The Leafs have a number of defensemen that could in theory, but no real slam-dunk option: Jake Muzzin, TJ Brodie, and Travis Dermott have all quarterbacked second units, to varying levels of success, and there is also Rasmus Sandin. This could be the biggest opportunity for Lehtonen to crack the team and make a notable impact.

At forward, it would be shocking to see Thornton and Simmonds not there. From there, we could take our pick of almost any player. I’d guess Mikheyev is there, and the last spot is wide open.

9.  Style of play changes

We saw the Leafs adopt a number of changes under Sheldon Keefe: Pulling a forward high in the offensive zone up to the blue line to create offense, a lot more regrouping in the neutral zone, and opening it up a bit more off the rush, to name a few.

Keefe also loaded up top players with ice time — at 5v5 and with power-play time — and played them all together (I’d argue these were done to varied results and often hurt them as much as they helped them).

Now, with a full training camp for Keefe to get things in order and presumably a bit more comfortable and familiar in the role in general, what other kinds of changes will we see? I won’t speculate too much here, but I’ll take notes and outline them as they unfold in front of us this season.

10.  Will Frederik Andersen rebound?

At the end of the day, this may be the biggest question as it pertains to the Leafs’ 2021 outlook.

Andersen struggled in the 2019-20 regular season, posting the worst save percentage of his career and consequently giving up the most goals per game of his career. At one point, there was serious debate as to whether Andersen or backup Jack Campbell should start games with the Leafs in a playoff race.  And this wasn’t only radio fodder – it was a legitimate question to ask.

In the playoffs, Andersen was generally solid, but he has had a habit of letting in bad goals in big games, and the pattern held true again versus Columbus. This season, at least the Leafs have real insurance should he struggle in Campbell and possibly even Aaron Dell, but really, Andersen needs to step up.

The Leafs might survive an average Andersen in the regular season (or even slightly below average), but they will absolutely need him at his best for the playoffs if they want to go deep.

 

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Why George Armstrong was the best captain the Maple Leafs ever had – Sportsnet.ca

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George Armstrong would stand in front of the full-length mirror in the locker room, his arms skinny like broomsticks, teeth in his hand and belly puffed out.

“You’re beautiful, Chiefy-cat,” he’d say, flexing his muscles as his teammates roared with laughter.

This was the ‘Chief’: the Toronto Maple Leafs captain who doubled as locker-room joker.

“George always kept things light,” recalled fellow Hall of Famer and former teammate Red Kelly back in 2013, chuckling. “Toronto was lucky to have him, in good times and bad.”

Armstrong, nicknamed Chief because of his Iroquois heritage, died at the age of 90. The team announced his passing on Sunday.

One of the first players of Indigenous descent to play professional hockey and the longest-serving captain in Maple Leafs history, Armstrong played his first full season for the Blue and White in 1952. He was named captain six years later by team owner Conn Smythe and wore the “C” for 12 seasons, leading the Leafs to four Stanley Cups. During the unlikely run in 1967 against the Montreal Canadiens, it was the Chief who scored the Cup-clinching goal on an empty net.

“He got over centre and he shot the puck, straight as an arrow,” Kelly said.

It’s a moment burned in the memory of many a Leafs fan; the last time Toronto hoisted Lord Stanley’s mug.

Despite all of Armstrong’s accomplishments, he long remained one of the game’s most underrated leaders. The big right winger wasn’t a fast skater and he didn’t have a great shot; critics didn’t even think he’d crack the NHL. But he was a hard worker and in his 21 seasons in Toronto, he tallied 296 goals and 417 assists in 1,187 games.

Smythe called No. 10 “the best captain the Leafs have ever had.” Coach Punch Imlach thought so much of Armstrong’s leadership that when the Chief retired for a short time after the 1967 season, Imlach left the captain position open in case he came back (he did).

“Some people thought I was nuts to hold the job open, but I never thought so,” Imlach later wrote. “George Armstrong did more for the Maple Leafs than any other hockey player who played for me. He always felt that he had a responsibility to the game, that it gave him a lot and he was always trying to put some of it back.”

Armstrong wasn’t the type to give speeches. He led by example, the last guy off the ice after practice. When Jim McKenny joined the Leafs as a rookie, Armstrong taught him to work the corners and boards, told him to stay out of league politics, even tried to make sure he made curfew. He treated everyone with the same respect, from first-liners to players who rode the bench. And he used his off-ice antics to help his teammates keep loose before big games.

“He’d always come up with something at the spur of the moment,” Kelly said. “It was just like, boom, out of nowhere, he’d hit the target and he’d have us all laughing.”

Armstrong went on to coach the Ontario Hockey Association’s Toronto Marlboros for three seasons, leading them to a Memorial Cup championship in 1975, the same year he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame. He even reluctantly took over behind the bench for the Leafs during the 1988–89 season, a short stint before starting a job as a scout for the Toronto club.

The Chief was a private guy who didn’t do interviews or make many appearances, which McKenny said was a shame, since Armstrong was such a great personality.

“He always [took] it upon himself to entertain,” said McKenny, chuckling.

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George Armstrong, Maple Leafs legend and long-time captain, dead at 90 – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO — George Armstrong, who captained the Toronto Maple Leafs to four Stanley Cups in the ’60s and wore the blue and white his entire career, has died.

He was 90.

The Maple Leafs confirmed the death Sunday on Twitter.

Armstrong played a record 1,187 games with 296 goals and 417 assists over 21 seasons for the Leafs, including 13 seasons as team captain. The right-winger added another 26 goals and 34 assists in 110 playoff games.

Known as the Chief, Armstrong was one of the first players of Indigenous descent to play professional hockey.

Armstrong was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975. Some 41 years later, Armstrong was voted No. 12 on the franchise’s list of 100 greatest Maple Leafs in its centennial season.

“George is part of the very fabric of the Toronto Maple Leaf organization and will be deeply missed,” Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said in a statement. “A proud yet humble man, he loved being a Maple Leaf but never sought the spotlight even though no player played more games for Toronto or captained the team longer. Always one to celebrate his teammates rather than himself, George couldn’t even bring himself to deliver his speech the day he was immortalized on Legends Row.”

A young Armstrong met Syl Apps when the Maple Leafs star came to his bantam team’s annual banquet. Armstrong would go on to wear No. 10, the first Leaf to do so after the retirement of talismanic Cup-winning captain Apps.

Armstrong would also become one of a select number of Leafs honoured with a banner at Scotiabank Arena and his number was officially retired in October 2016 at the team’s centennial anniversary home opener.

In 2015, Armstrong and Apps were added to the Leafs’ Legends Row.

The Leafs released a statement on Sunday with the words from Armstrong’s unread speech that night.

“Hockey is a great game and I love it. I am part of a fading generation that you will never have again. Every one of us is one of a kind, that will never be repeated. To all of my friends and acquaintances, thank you for your advice and direction, that helped make me who I am today ? a very, very happy person.”

After hanging up his skates in 1971, Armstrong coached the Toronto Marlboros to Memorial Cup victories in 1972-73 and 1974-75 before accepting a scouting position with the Quebec Nordiques in 1978.

He spent nine years with Quebec before returning to the Toronto fold as assistant general manager and scout in 1988. Armstrong served as interim coach for the final 47 games of the 1988-89 season after John Brophy was fired after an 11-20-2 start.

The next year, Armstrong returned to his role as a scout for the Leafs.

Armstrong scored 20 goals four times during his career but was better known for his leadership and work ethic, helping restore the franchise’s winning touch. A smart player and talented backchecker, he worked the angles to get the best shot at his opponent and formed a formidable penalty-killing tandem with Dave Keon.

A humble man, Armstrong was quick to deflect praise. He credited his players for his Memorial Cup wins as coach.

“It wasn’t because I was a great coach, it was because I had some great players,” he said in a 1989 interview, listing off the likes of the Howe brothers, John Tonelli, Mark Napier and Mike Palmateer.

And he offered a typical response when inducted into the Leaside Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.

“I don’t know whether I deserve it or not but I sure am happy to get it,” said Armstrong, who lived in several areas of the city before making Leaside his Toronto home.

Born in Bowland’s Bay, Ont., to an Irish father and an Iroquois mother, a young Armstrong honed his hockey skills in Falconbridge near the Sudbury nickel mines where his father worked.

The Boston Bruins were interested but Armstrong waited until the Leafs put him on their protected list while he was playing with the Copper Cliff Jr. Redmen of the NOHA in 1946-47. After winning the Eddie Powers Memorial Trophy as the OHA’s leading scorer with Stratford next season, the Leafs sent him to their main junior affiliate, the Toronto Marlboros.

He was elevated to the senior Marlies for the 1949 Allan Cup playoffs and helped the team win the title over Calgary the next year.

It was during the Allan Cup tournament, specifically a visit to the Stoney Indian Reserve in Alberta, that he got his nickname. When the band heard of Armstrong’s ancestral background, they made him an honorary member with the name “Chief Shoot-the-Puck” and presented him with a ceremonial headdress.

It was a different era and “The Chief” nickname stuck. Armstrong, who was proud of his mother’s heritage, would become the first player of Indigenous descent to score in the NHL.

He spent most of two seasons in Pittsburgh with the Leafs’ American Hockey League farm team before making the big league. He made his NHL debut in December 1949 and became a full-time member of the Leafs in time for the start of the 1952-53 season.

“It looks as if he’s going to be here for quite a long time the way he handled that puck,” legendary broadcaster Foster Hewitt said after Armstrong scored his first NHL goal in a 3-2 win over Montreal.

Taking a pass from future Hall of Famer Max Bentley, Armstrong beat defenceman Butch Bouchard and beat goaltender Gerry McNeil.

“I did a little war dance that night and I think everybody in Maple Leaf Gardens was pretty happy about it as well,” Armstrong recalled 15 years later.

Toronto owner and GM Conn Smythe named Armstrong his captain before the 1957-58 season. Smythe would later call Armstrong “the best captain, as a captain, the Leafs have ever had.”

The Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1962, the first of three straight championships.

Armstrong was 36 when the veteran Leafs won the franchise’s last championship in 1967. His insurance empty-net goal with 47 seconds remaining in the clinching 3-1 Game 6 win proved to be the final goal of the Original Six era.

The six-foot-one, 204-pounder played a few more seasons, but suffered a knee injury during the 1969-70 campaign that forced him to retire. Armstrong was convinced to come back for the 1970-71 season before quitting for good at age 40.

At the time, Armstrong had played more seasons and more games as a Maple Leaf than any other player, and was second in career points.

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After UFC 257 triumph, Dustin Poirier guarantees ‘I won’t be fighting Michael Chandler’ next – MMA Fighting

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The easiest matchup to make after UFC 257 appeared to be Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler, after both emerged from Saturday’s pay-per-view event with impressive knockout victories.

But Poirier doesn’t believe they’re in the same category, and he’s not keen on fighting the former Bellator champ after stopping Conor McGregor in the pay-per-view headliner.

“I can guarantee I won’t be fighting Michael Chandler,” Poirier told reporters, including MMA Fighting, at the UFC 257 post-fight press conference. “They can do whatever they want with the division. I don’t really care. If something makes sense, then we’ll do it.”

UFC 257 was initially framed by UFC President Dana White as something of an audition for the top lightweights, with Poirier vs. McGregor and Chandler vs. Dan Hooker competing to impress current UFC lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Chandler certainly did his part, stopping Hooker in the first round with a ferocious display of striking. But with Nurmagomedov looking less and less likely to reverse a decision to retire from the sport, Poirier thinks he should be considered the champ.

Of course, Poirier doesn’t actually hold the belt. But he should be fighting for it very soon, and if the UFC is doing things the way he believes they should be done, he said, then the person standing across from him next will be someone who’s earned the opportunity.

“I’ve just been putting in work,” he said. “That’s why I’m sitting here feeling like I can talk about it, because I’ve been in the division and the UFC for a long time, fighting the best of the best of the best.

“No disrespect to [Chandler], he seems like a good husband, a good father, he speaks well, has a lot of respect, carries himself very well. It’s not a knock against him. It’s just my feelings toward the division and the sport. I lost to Khabib, I came out and put on a ‘Fight of the Year’ for you guys, got my hand raised against a top-five opponent after that. Then I come in there and Khabib doesn’t want to come back, then I knock out one of the biggest fights you can get. I knock this guy out, too.

“Khabib reiterates he doesn’t want to fight any more – dude, I’m the champ. I’m not going to fight, some – and like I said, respect to Chandler – a new guy to the UFC who just beat a guy that’s coming off a loss that I just beat for the belt. That’s not exciting to me.”

This past June, Poirier bested Hooker by decision to rebound after a loss to Nurmagomedov in a title-unifier. A candidate more appealing to him was Charles Oliveira, who’s won his past eight fights and most recently outpointed ex-interim champ Tony Ferguson in a commanding performance.

“I think he has more [of a case for the title shot],” Poirier said. “I’ve been watching that guy for 10 years in the UFC, two different weight classes. He’s fought the best of the best, over and over again. And, he’s been knocked down and gotten up, and he’s proven what MMA and perseverance is. I respect that. Not that I don’t respect Michael Chandler. I just think there’s more work for him to do than beat a guy I just beat.”

Oliveira was one of two names broached for the title shot, the other being Justin Gaethje, who, like Poirier, lost a bid to unify the belts. Before that, however, Gaethje was stopped by “The Diamond” in a brutal bout.

Asked whether Oliveira or Gaethje had a better claim to the title shot, Poirier chose the Brazilian.

“Just because he’s never had the opportunity,” Poirier said. “Gaethje just came out here and got beat, as I did. Not a knock on Gaethje, but he lost. I think Oliviera, probably, or let them fight to see who gets it.”

Poirier will ultimately see what the UFC has in store for him after getting some rest and relaxation. He put a huge feather in his cap by beating McGregor, the UFC’s biggest box office star and a former two-division champion. The next fight he takes has to be one he can justify as a veteran who’s earned his keep.

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