With the NHL season currently on pause, TSN’s Kristen Shilton and Mark Masters discuss the top three unanswered questions from the Toronto Maple Leafs season in a special self-isolation edition of Leafs 3-in-3.
Q: How much of a difference would a healthy defence make for the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Kristen Shilton: Not just a healthy defence, but a healthy Morgan Rielly would have made a really big difference for the Leafs. He missed eight weeks with that broken foot, got back in for just one game, that last win over Tampa before the pause. You could see that, yeah, he wasn’t right back to the highest level that he can play at, but Rielly was a difference maker already and he really is the heartbeat of that defence. They look to him for guidance, for leadership, he takes some of the pressure off of guys like Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci. While Ceci did miss some time with an injury, when he came back, you could tell he was trying to fill that void that Rielly had left. The difference that a healthy Morgan Rielly could’ve made for the Leafs during the two months that he was absent and the difference he would’ve made going forward without a pause, I think would’ve been absolutely huge.
Mark Masters: How about a healthy Morgan Rielly with a healthy Jake Muzzin, who was due to come back from a broken finger in late March. We know he brings that physical element to the team, he’s a leader with that Stanley Cup ring. We never really saw the top-6 of the Leafs defence together all season, it’s an imperfect group for sure, but Muzzin comes back and that pushes rookie Rasmus Sandin out of the lineup and I think it gives them the best chance to really take a step forward on the defensive side of the puck.
Q: Was goaltender Frederik Andersen about to get hot down the stretch?
Masters: He had been the model of consistency in his Leafs career, .918 save percentage, .918 save percentage, he dipped to .917 last season and now this year .909, so what was going on? When he came back from a neck injury in mid-February, he admitted that his focus was not where it needed to be. He vowed he would change that and I think he had. He was 5-1-1 with a .931 save percentage in his last seven starts before the pause. It’s hard to predict goaltending, but I think Freddie Andersen was about to get hot.
Shilton: I think a good backup would have helped Andersen in that as well and you look at Jack Campbell coming in that trade, 3-2-1 with the Leafs, compared to Michael Hutchinson who was 4-9-1 on the season with Toronto, before he moved on to Colorado. It just seemed like Campbell came in and, as I mentioned before with taking the pressure of the defence with Rielly, it seemed like he was able to take some of the pressure off of Andersen and really give the Leafs a true No. 2 goaltender. Andersen didn’t have to walk around with the weight of knowing if I’m not in the net, we’re probably not going to win the game. Campbell not only fit in great with the group, he was also a terrific complement to Andersen and you could just see the two of them potentially working really well together down the stretch.
Q: Leafs GM Kyle Dubas labelled his team ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, so who were they, Jekyll or Hyde?
Shilton: This is a tough one for me, but I have to go with Hyde. Only because it seems like there aren’t any answers from the players, the coach themselves about why the inconsistency was there. I mean we just heard from Sheldon Keefe the other day, we heard from Morgan Rielly last week and inconsistency, the term, came up again and again from both guys when discussing the team this year. It seems like, if you can’t answer for it, if you can’t explain it away, maybe it’s because that is who you are. When you’re a team that goes through the California road trip in early March and gets no wins, that’s pretty telling about where you’re at in terms of your consistency. While there were some definite bright spots, it just seemed that there were too many low points for the Leafs and they were at a loss to explain why.
Masters: I will go with Dr. Jekyll, I believe injuries were a big issue for the team this season, they were getting healthy at the right time. I look at what they did once Sheldon Keefe came in after November 20, they had the eighth-best points percentage in the league from that point on. I think they were in a good position to upset the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team they had beaten two out of three times in the regular season. I think they had a real chance to get out of the first round for the first time since 2004.