On Saturday night, in the last game of preseason, the Maple Leafs blew away the Red Wings 5-0. The game-wining goal was scored 29 seconds into the action, and that was it. Game over.
Of course the point of a preseason game, beyond ticket sales, is not to win, but to decide who is going to be playing on your team. The Red Wings, who chose a punishing schedule of six games in seven days to end training camp, had already sent most of the juniors and young players with any spark of life off to other teams. They were left with Dylan Larkin and his uncles to play a beer league game where they were shocked when Ilya Mikheyev checked one of the remaining youngsters in a clean, not very hard, open-ice hit that was not dangerous, dirty, suspect or even much of a play. I’m reminded that it was the Red Wings two years ago that told William Nylander not to try so hard in preseason. They have a different culture there, not yet turning the corner on a tough and long-lasting decline and rebuild.
Egor Korshkov looked like he could be a top six player on the Red Wings.
Leaving aside that some of the guys they just cut to the Grand Rapids Griffins could be top six players if the Wings weren’t trying to tank, that’s still saying something about Korshkov’s ability to play at the lower end of the Leafs lineup.
Egor Korshkov is two years younger than Ilya Mikheyev, who seems to have locked down a job on the third line. Mikheyev, who was never drafted and didn’t really look all that hot by his boxcars back when he was younger, has been playing in the KHL since 2015. Korshkov, taken in the second round, has been playing in the KHL since 2014, albeit splitting that first year half-and-half with time in junior. Neither of them need to learn how to play pro hockey, and both of them have figured out the shooting angles and neutral zone pressure of NHL ice by now.
Korshkov had his KHL career interrupted twice by serious injuries which left him playing part seasons without proper training and not impressing anyone with his scoring stats. But he has a set of skills that can translate to the Leafs very easily. He’s tall, yes, but he’s kept the bulking up to a minimum, so he’s still agile around the net, which is where he likes to play. He’s a net-front screen in human form crossed with enough of a scoring threat to make him worth using on the power play in that spot. He’s tough along the wall, dogged on the puck, and he carries the puck beautifully. He’s got a move where he cycles around the net until a passing lane opens up that looks like William Nylander’s moves. I don’t think he’s much of a shot, but he’s good on the rush, and in the KHL, he played both special teams a lot.
You know what the Leafs have been scratching their heads over a little? Who should be the net-front guy on the second power play unit. It looks like Kasperi Kapanen will end up there, but while he’s got the will, he’s not got the immovable object thing down like Korshkov has.
In Saturday’s game, Korshkov, getting his second look with the mostly NHL team, started out on the fourth line with Nick Shore and Frederik Gauthier. He played five minutes at five-on-five with those two players. He also played over four minutes with Alexander Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev, primarily in the third period, when the game was so in the bag, the Red Wings bus was idling outside the door ready to flee the scene the second the horn blew. But that sure looked like more than just a chance to let the two Russians relax and play with each other for a while. Korshkov also played some on the first power-play unit, while starting the game on the second.
He has a huge hill to climb with most fans to get noticed. There is a large group of Leafs fans who are endlessly willing to tell you how they really don’t like that Korshkov was drafted. They wanted that zippy little winger, and the Leafs are particularly at fault for not drafting him, as opposed to all the other teams. None of which has anything to do with evaluation of Korshkov, but it explains the perception and the somewhat dogged insistence that the guy’s no good. I don’t think it helps that the usual suspects are unpleasantly slavering over the poor man for being larger than average. It’s natural to recoil from that in distaste.
When Korshkov came back from his injury last season, he played a few weeks in the KHL and then the playoffs were on him, where the totally expected result was that his team, a good yet never great team, got swept in the first round. He joined the Marlies, and look, I’m just going to say this bluntly. He was playing, as instructed, a very simple, stripped-down game, and there were many sniffs of disdain as evaluations were made that wilfully ignored that fact. It’s true that he didn’t look very impressive aside from the fact he couldn’t be bullied out from in front of the net, and he hit guys some of the time, and sniff we don’t like that, do we.
Well. I mean. I do.
A nice power forward never hurt any team. Let me digress for a second. There’s this truism that is attributed to a coach about how if you’re hitting a guy, you don’t have the puck, so if you’re hitting all the time, you’re bad, and it all sounds so right. Not just right, but righteous. No Hitting!!! It’s bad. Never hit, always have the puck, and just play zippy winger style all game long and forget that every team fails to have the puck somewhere north of 45% of the time. The constant possession, nothing but skill version of hockey is a pretty fantasy that’s not all that hard to understand, if you enjoy the speed and finesse of a player like Nylander or Marner or Bracco or Kapanen or Moore or Mikheyev or Timashov or Johnsson or... you know, I don’t think a little more oomph and a little less oooooh ahhh is going to poison the well of the Leafs. I think it’s okay if Korshkov plays hockey while big.
And on the very superficial evidence of a couple of preseason games played with real linemates, and some obvious improvement in his English skills, I think he could be on the Leafs fourth line and play that net-front annoyance role on the power play.
It’s a simple matter to slot him in with Jason Spezza, Gauthier, Nic Petan, or really any other options, and run a 22-man roster which is plenty of players to open the season with. Rasmus Sandin fits, Korshkov fits, and the team is just waiting for Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott to be better.
There’s no reason to worry about nine games with Korshkov, his ELC can’t slide, so it expires in 2021, no matter what anyone does. Forty games played giving him a year towards UFA status isn’t an issue because he’s already 23. The only issue to consider with his games played is that he loses his waiver exemption after 60.
The real problem is that Korshkov’s $925,000 ELC means that a long-term plan that includes him and Sandin has to be a permanent 20-man roster. And that’s pretty hard to justify just to get one guy getting on the ice if all he is is another Trevor Moore.
But there’s a special plus to Korshkov on the team. He is waiver exempt and on the bottom end of the depth chart, and if you want to switch out a guy to allow a goalie or a defender to come in for a few games because someone has a minor injury, you can pop Korshkov off the roster and call up anyone you need. The flexibility of having a forward (other than Mikheyev) who doesn’t need waivers is a big argument in favour of keeping him up. And keeping Korshkov’s games on the NHL roster below 60 is exactly what the Leafs should do to maintain maximum flexibility, so a little time riding the elevator to the Marlies and back is to be expected.
Of course, he’d need to look like a hockey player, not a guy who needed some AHL time. But my take on this team after watching that very large group of depth signings compete for a job is that I’d take Matt Read over most of them, Nic Petan over all of them, and Korshkov over Petan, at least to start. Korshkov’s game is a better fit for the role the team has open. His skillset is more like Moore’s, and he played on the third line against the moribund Red Wings and didn’t look out of place.
I don’t want to get into this, because I believe in recognizing what’s done is done and getting over it. But .93 million per year in extra cap space sure would come in handy right now. Sandin comes first when making these decisions, that’s without question. And if what’s right for him and the team is that he stays in the NHL, he should. If Korshkov ends up back in the AHL when he could be in the NHL because of how tight the cap space is, so be it. But it pisses me off.
He’s a pro. He’s a pro who knows he needs to keep working on English, the pedal to the metal Leafs style of play, and every other thing that living in Toronto will bring. He’s not going to blow off a year in the AHL. So it’s not going to really hurt him, but it feels like the door to him really earning his way onto the Leafs is barred, and that’s never what you want for any prospect.
I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.