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Miscellaneous Leaf Thoughts: Last Week of the Season Edition

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Stakes, depth battles, etc.

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Toronto Maple Leafs Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

1. This is it. I respect my readers too much to waste their time with preamble or introductory points (please do not produce any evidence proving me wrong.) So let’s get to it: this is the best chance the Toronto Maple Leafs have had at a Cup since at least the 2005 lockout. This is certainly the best Leafs team in that period, given that the Leafs sucked butt for most of that time frame, and it ought to be the easiest path they get, since no matter how the draw works out they shouldn’t have to play a top-five team until at least the third round. That is a pretty rare opportunity.

It also might be their best chance for some years to come. Toronto’s draw is likely to get tougher next year once they return to the Atlantic, where Tampa Bay, Boston, and a resurgent Florida await. The team might also have some difficulty sustaining its current level; Zach Hyman is going to get paid, and whether he does it here or elsewhere, that’s going to tighten the financial strain on this always cap-strapped team. John Tavares isn’t getting any younger, and we’d probably expect that William Nylander and Mitch Marner are now about as good as they’re going to get.

This is a scary proposition, because the Leafs could easily faceplant R1 and lose in four games to the Montreal fucking Canadiens, and then we’re just going to close down the blog and the entire website will be those ads about moms who discover home remedies that earn them the hatred of doctors. The “perpetual rebuild” mentality, where there’s always a reason why next year will be better than this year, is comforting to avoid that prospect. It doesn’t apply for us. The time is now. There is no better future.

That doesn’t mean the future is dark, either; the Leafs still have plenty of good players who are young, and they ought to have several bites at the apple. But this is a real opportunity. No more fucking around.

2. No asterisks. Whoever wins, but especially if that team is miraculously the Leafs, a bunch of joyless losers will scream that it doesn’t count. This is nonsense. Whoever gets the Cup this year will have to win four rounds against good hockey teams in tough circumstances. They will have earned it. Unfortunately this also applies even if a team I don’t like wins it. Unless I retroactively delete this blog once the Islanders make the finals.

3. What’s the deal with that third line? Sheldon Keefe is experimenting with the novel combination of Ilya Mikheyev, Riley Nash, and Alex Kerfoot as a third line. Because he’s Sheldon Keefe he’ll change that grouping six times by the end of the first period, but it’s an interesting mix that—at first blush—seems like an odd mix. Mikheyev is a solid penalty-killer—which I suspect is why he’s still in the lineup—and a rush monster who scores on exactly 0.1% of his chances. Riley Nash, new to the team, is a solid defensive fourth-liner but does not much score. Alex Kerfoot is a complementary playmaker who always seems to do better when he’s not the best player on the line.

My problem with this line is not so much whether it’s offensive or defensive (though it seems clear it’s meant to be the latter) as that it seems like such a bizarre mix of skillsets. It feels like it’ll leave Alex Kerfoot passing into the void. It could still work, but it does feel a little bit like this was left over after the world-stomping Matthews line, the now-dominant Tavares line, and the extremely old Spezza line were in place. There will always be injuries, slumps, rebound games and so on, but I can’t help wondering if second-line reclamation project Alex Galchenyuk or heroic giraffe Pierre Engvall ought to get in to make more coherent combos. I think I’d move Foligno to the third line, put Galchenyuk with Tavares, and at least try to squeeze Engvall in there on occasion, depending on how Nash is playing.

4. Foligno vs. Hall. Let’s run through this one quick. The Leafs seemingly had little serious interest in Taylor Hall. Hall liked the idea of going to Boston, but it’s not clear whether he would have taken a trade to go elsewhere or not (and no, I don’t take his statement that he was eager to go where he’d gotten as proof of much.) The cost on Foligno was high, and on Hall it was surprisingly modest. Foligno has been neat and extremely likeable since coming to Toronto. Hall has been very, very good for the Bruins.

All of this seems pretty clear. Hall isn’t a toxic loser who can no longer play. Foligno might have been an overpay, but he might also fit well. We’ll see how the playoffs go in both cases, and in both cases it’ll involve a lot of luck and narratives. I don’t think we need to belabour that one further.

5. Goalie stuff. This one will be short since it’s obvious. I thought Freddie Andersen might get the start in Game 1 based on the hockey adage that you don’t lose a job due to injury. I didn’t like the idea, but I expected it. I’m hopeful that I was wrong, and now I think Keefe is going to make the obvious choice. Jack Campbell has been better this year and should start in the playoffs. The end.

6. Depth battles. It feels telling that young phenom Nick Robertson was parachuted in for the qualifying round last year, and this year he’s not even being seriously discussed for the playoff roster. The Leafs have bought about as much depth as they possibly can, and they now have a glut at every roster spot. This is a good problem to have. The playoffs tend to be a war of attrition.

At forward, I’ve already talked about the volume of players squeezing out Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre Engvall, to say nothing of Adam Brooks, who impressed late in the season as a playmaking 4C. Even Denis Malgin is around now just in case the Leafs need someone who did, after all, torch the Swiss league this year. We’re hoping the Leafs don’t have to dig too deep into their bag of tricks, but you never know who will have to step up when the time comes.

On defence, Rasmus Sandin, Travis Dermott, and Ben Hutton are all cycling for jobs until Zach Bogosian gets healthy. Dermott seems like the most secure of the three, so it comes down to Sandin and Hutton. Sandin is very good, and by far the more gifted talent...but I wouldn’t be surprised if Hutton gets by on the standard Quiet Veteran Penalty Killer role that all coaches seem to like. Sandin had a brutal giveaway against the Habs in an otherwise pleasant Leaf evening that really feels like the sort of Big Mistake that gets young players sat down in favour of older ones, and while it’s unfair to reduce Sandin’s mostly-great showing to one blunder...I could see it happening. Sandin is going to play a big part on this team next year. We’ll see if he plays a big one before then.

Oh, and in net it’s Campbell, then Andersen, then David Rittich, then Michael Hutchinson. Michael Hutchinson will be the eventual goalie in Game 7 of the Finals. It is known.

7. Let’s get to the point. The latter part of the season drags when you’re a perennial playoff team. Once you get reasonably confident the team will make it, there’s no real joy for you, you’re just waiting. We’re finally closing in. Let’s hope it’s for a long run.