Leafs mailbag: Be optimistic, even if the song remains the same

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

But the bigger question – as off the beaten path as it may seem – is why? Why can’t the Leafs just go back to the practice room and grab a few Marlies to keep the lines and pairs balanced. I mean, what did it really matter? It’s in everyone’s best interest, including opponents, that teams operate at optimal roster in pre-season.

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

I then asked Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe the question and he asked himself the same question.

“It was something I had thought about once our bench started to get short,” he said. “We have a lot of players in suits who would have loved the opportunity to be in a game like this. And they weren’t so lucky.

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

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

Now on to this one, where we worry about the goalkeeper, we wonder about the fun, we worry about the salary cap and injuries, and we wonder how MLSE game operations keep getting it wrong.

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

Bill L.

The Leafs have a long list of injured players. At least one of them, Timothy Liljegren, will be on the long-term injured list. That’s an average annual value of $1.4 million (US) that could save most two minimum wage contracts ($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 swim in cap space and likely be able to avoid or at least delay players’ wager on derogations.

Maybe the Leafs will send Gross a card with a date to start talking about overtime for William Nylander. Like Auston Matthews, he is eligible to sign one on July 1, 2023.

As a lifelong Leafs fan, I learned wisely to manage my expectations and enjoy the excitement the team provides and temper my disappointment for their playoff failures. This year, I feel like the Leafs have hit a tipping point when it comes to playoff success, with so many variables to contend with. Still, is it reasonable to be a bit optimistic about this year’s squad?

Gary A.

Since when do fans need 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 heights unprecedented in team history. How will they fare in the playoffs? Well, it’s a bit of luck and a lot of goalies. They’ve had the second-best goaltender in nearly every series they’ve played in since 2017.

Someone save us from the MLSE “entertainment” team. Looking back at pre-season, it looks like we’re ending our goal celebrations around Hall and Oates for another year. I guess we apply that to the regular season and every other lame attempt to party out of a Leafs game. Does this crew read your Mailbag? Are they deaf to complaints about Scotiabank Arena boredom? Have they been to a Vegas game, a Rangers game, an Islanders game? (OK, bad example, they are crazy on the island). There is a lot more crowd participation in these arenas. We’re lucky if we can make a “Go Leafs Go” last longer than five seconds. Star chronicle 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 people and have fun in a live game.

Ron from Australia

Amen, my brother. First of all, don’t be fooled by the pre-season. If the game operations team is planning changes, they will not preview them in exhibition games. But you can take inspiration from previous seasons, so it’s probably going to be more of the same. My problem is that the game team tends to drown out the noise the fans want to make. A “Go Leafs Go” chant may start naturally, but soon enough it’s time to give a t-shirt, or play Stompin’ Tom or the Tragically Hip, or have the host shout into his microphone. The crowd has been beaten by a gaming team that doesn’t trust the crowd to be loud, or a gaming team that tries to justify its existence. Set the volume to 11 and pretend that’s the vibe.

Years ago, I regularly traveled to Florida to watch Blue Jays spring training games. A few times after a game was over, the fielding team would drag the batting cage and the coaches would take turns hitting, just for fun. Do hockey coaches do something like that? A quick three-on-three (no laughs!)? Penalty shootout contest? Shoot at targets?

Steve W.

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

In your column on the Leafs’ goaltending tandem, you state (again), “And the defensive structure is solid enough that they don’t have a lot of high-risk scoring chances.” Oh good? What fancy new-age metrics are you basing it on? The eyesight test, over the past few years, shows that Leafs goaltenders still face high-risk scoring chances. The Leafs’ defensive core isn’t scary for potential playoff opponents. Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin are nice young players and could become NHL regulars, but they will be buried by playoff hockey. And I really wish people would stop thinking of Sandin as a likely ‘top four’ defender. It’s not Cale Makar or Adam Fox.

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

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

Colin, London, Ont.

First, the Leafs had 881 high-risk 5-on-5 scoring chances last year, the third most. They allowed 701, the 10th least. But they scored on 112 of their chances. The problem is that they allowed 109 goals on very dangerous occasions. Their high risk save percentage was terrible, 78.54%. Only the Devils were worse, and other teams close to them also missed the playoffs (Montreal, Chicago). They had to play a style of defense that limited the chances of high danger (they did). And they had to outplay bad goalkeepers (they did). So, as I wrote, if Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov can stop the pucks they’re supposed to stop, you’ll be fine.

No one compares Sandin to Fox’s Makar. They are defenders of Norris. “Top four” refers to the defenders who play the best four defensive minutes for each team. These include reliable minute-munchers, penalty killers and/or power-play pivots. Being among the top 128 defensemen in the league isn’t an unreasonable expectation for Sandin.

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

I believe Malgin was brought in as insurance. He had a contract to fulfill. But he looked pretty good at first.


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