Opinion | Leafs mailbag: There’s reason for optimism, even if the song remains the same

When the Maple Leafs lost not one but two defencemen in the first period of an exhibition game, it caused somewhat of a sensation that forwards Alex Kerfoot and Calle Järnkrok filled in for the final two periods, and performed well.

But the bigger question — as outside the box as it may sound — is why? Why couldn’t the Leafs simply go back to the training room and grab a couple of Marlies to keep the lines and pairs balanced. I mean, what did it really matter? It is in the best interests of everybody, including the opponents, for teams to run at optimal roster strength in the pre-season.

I’m not advocating this for the regular season, just exhibition games when coaches are trying to look for chemistry and players are trying to make a name for themselves.

I posed the question afterwards to Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, and he wondered the same thing.

“That’s something I had thought once our bench started to get short,” he said. “We have a lot of players that were in suits that would have loved an opportunity to compete in a game like this. And they didn’t have that chance.”

It’s not the worst idea in the world for teams in the pre-season to have a couple of extra players on standby for just such situations.

As always if you have a question, email me at [email protected] and I’ll answer it in the next Mailbag.

Now to this one, where we fret about goaltending, wonder about fun, worry about the salary cap and injuries and wonder how MLSE’s game ops keep getting it wrong.

Hi Kev. What do you think the Leafs will do to get under the cap before the season starts? And if the Leafs were Santa Claus, what would Lewis Gross be getting as a Christmas present this year?

Bill L.

The Leafs have a hefty list of injured players. One of them at least, Timothy Liljegren, will be on long-term injured reserve. That’s an average annual value of $1.4 million (U.S.) that might save most of two contracts at the minimum salary ($750,000). If any of the injured players can join Liljegren on LTIR — even guys like Joe Woll ($766,667) and Mikhail Abramov ($810,000) — the Leafs will be swimming in cap space and can probably avoid or at least delay putting players on waivers.

Maybe the Leafs will send Gross a card with an appointment to come in to start talking extension for William Nylander. Like Auston Matthews, he’s eligible to sign one on July 1, 2023.

As a lifelong Leaf fan, I have wisely learned to manage my expectations and enjoy whatever excitement the team provides and temper my disappointment for their playoff failures. This year, I sense that the Leafs have reached a critical point with regard to playoff success, with so many variables to contend with. Nevertheless, is it reasonable to be somewhat optimistic about this year’s team?

Gary A.

Since when do fans have ever needed to be reasonable with their optimism. Be optimistic, even if it’s unreasonable. The Leafs are a dynamic and extremely talented group of young men with Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews promising to reach peaks unheard of in team history. How will they fare in the playoffs? Well, that’s a little bit of luck and a lot of goaltending. They’ve had the second-best goalie in pretty much every series they’ve played since 2017.

Someone save us from whoever the “entertainment” crew is at MLSE. Watching the pre-season, it appears we’re wrapping our goal celebrations around Hall and Oates for another year. I’m assuming we’re carrying that into the regular season and all the other lame attempts at making a party out of a Leafs game. Does this crew read your Mailbag? Are they deaf to the complaints about how boring Scotiabank Arena is? Have they been to a Vegas game, Rangers game, Islanders game? (OK, bad example, they’re nuts on the Island). There’s way more crowd participation at those arenas. We’re lucky if we can get a “Go Leafs Go” to last more than five seconds. Star column after the first pre-season game: “great crowd … there was even a wave.” Pretty pathetic when a wave at a Leaf game is news. Someone please fire some people and get some fun into a live game.

Ron From Australia

Amen, brother. First, don’t take your cues from the pre-season. If the game ops crew is planning changes, they won’t preview them in exhibition games. But you can take your cues from previous seasons, so it will probably be more of the same. My issue is the game-ops crew tends to drown out whatever noise the fans want to make. A “Go Leafs Go” chant may start organically but soon enough it’s time to give away a T-shirt, or play Stompin’ Tom or the Tragically Hip, or have the host yell into his microphone. The crowd has been beaten into submission by a game-ops crew that doesn’t trust the crowd to be loud, or a game-ops crew that is trying to justify its existence. Dial the volume to 11 and pretend that it’s atmosphere.

Years ago I would regularly head down to Florida to watch Blue Jays spring training games. A couple of times, after a game had wrapped up, the grounds crew would drag out the batting cage and the coaches would take turns hitting, just for fun. Do hockey coaches ever do anything like that? A quick three-on-three (no risies!)? Penalty shot contests? Shooting at targets?

Steve W.

I don’t think any coach in any sport has nearly as much fun as baseball coaches. Hockey coaches really take themselves seriously. They are incredibly focused, shall we say, on game day.

In your column about the Leafs’ goalie tandem you state (again) “And the defensive structure is strong enough that they won’t face a lot of high-danger scoring chances.” Really? Which fancy new-age metrics are you basing this on? The eye test, over the past few years, shows that Leaf goalies always face high-danger scoring chances. The Leafs’ defensive core is not scary for any possible playoff opponents. Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin are nice, young players and may become NHL regulars but they will be buried by playoff hockey. And I really wish people would stop considering Sandin a likely “top four” defenceman. He’s no Cale Makar or Adam Fox.

People also seem to want to talk about the possibility of a Patrick Kane trade but the Leafs don’t need Kane. If Chicago is going to have a sell-off, then we should be talking about Seth Jones. I am sure he did not sign there to be part of a rebuild. I know there would be the need for no-trade waivers and a deal would have to include his brother and some salary retention by the Hawks, but that’s the bold move Kyle Dubas needs to make. (By the way, can teams retain salary for two or three seasons instead of the full length of the contract?)At the very least Dubas should be talking to teams like Calgary with their excess of defencemen.

And, one more question: Denis Malgin — why? Does Kyle owe his father money?

Colin, London, Ont.

First off, the Leafs managed 881 high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5 last year, the third most. They allowed 701, the 10th fewest. But they scored on 112 of their chances. The problem is, they allowed 109 goals on high-danger chances. Their high-danger save percentage was terrible, 78.54 per cent. Only the Devils were worse, and other teams near them also missed the playoffs (Montreal, Chicago). They had to play a style of defence that limited high-danger chances (they did). And they had to outscore bad goaltending (they did). So as I wrote, if Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov can stop the pucks they’re supposed to stop, they’ll be fine.

No one is comparing Sandin to Makar of Fox. They’re Norris defencemen. “Top four” refers to defencemen who play the top four defensive minutes on each team. Those include reliable minute-munchers, penalty killers and/or power-play pivots. To be among the top 128 defencemen in the league is not an unreasonable expectation for Sandin.

I’m not sure Seth Jones is available, but I’m curious about his future, too. (And salary retention is for the entirety of the remainder of the contract. You can’t pick and choose years.)

I believe Malgin was brought back as insurance. He did have a contract to fulfil. But he’s looked pretty good in the early going.


Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of Conduct. The Star does not endorse these opinions.

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