What a great time of the season for hockey fans. Not only are the Toronto Maple Leafs on television, but the roster is filled with players trying to either hone their skills or just hang on for one more day. Coaches are trying to test new players at the same time as they allow the stars to create chemistry with their newly-created line pairings.
By the way, the Andreas Johnsson-Auston Matthews-William Nylander line combined for five points as the team scored a 3-0 shutout over the Buffalo Sabres.
It’s a fun time of the season. In this post, I want to review the team’s first victory as well as to begin to analyze what this game might mean in the bigger picture as the Maple Leafs work to pull together its roster.
It’s the Start of the Year, and Nylander’s Here
Last season at this time, Nylander was nowhere in sight. However, during the Sept. 20t game against the Buffalo Sabres, he couldn’t be missed. He was front and center, all over the ice. He didn’t score, but head coach Mike Babcock certainly noticed and commented:
“Willie might have had the puck tonight as much as he had last year. I’m not kidding. He’s got to be feeling good about himself.”
Babcock was right. I noticed Nylander more in Friday’s game than I recall seeing him all last season. He simply was everywhere – breaking up plays, assisting behind-the-net goals, and firing on net himself. He was robbed at least twice. And, he simply seemed to be a step ahead of everyone.
In my memory, Nylander never looked as good any time last season as he looked in this game. He might just be able to back up his swagger entering the preseason; perhaps he is ready to dominate. He looked fast and had great chemistry with Matthews.
I’m wondering how many hockey pools are being started up all over Maple Leaf Land guessing in what game of the season he’ll equal the seven goals, 27 points, and 34 points he had all last season. For anyone starting such a pool, put me down for game #38. He might even earn his salary this season because I have to remind no one that he didn’t last season.
“Our line was skating well,” Nylander said. He’s right. Both Matthews and Nylander looked as if they were in mid-season form, but they were not the only players who stood out.
The goalies for both the Sabres and the Maple Leafs played well. Goalie Frederik Andersen stopped all 24 shots he faced and never looked rattled or out of position all night. Linus Ullmark looked good in the Sabres goal as well.
There Are Spots Left to Win
on the Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs, for all their star power, are a curious team and the NHL is morphing into a different league than it used to be. For example, this season’s Maple Leafs have an upstairs/downstairs roster structure, where a small handful of elite players earn about half the team’s entire upper limit of the salary cap and the remainder of the players earn the “bottom” half of the team’s salary cap.
Specifically, on this team, more than $40 million of the team’s $81.5 million salary cap is paid to Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and Nylander. The remainder of the 23 eventual roster spots must necessarily include a large number of players on “bargain” contracts of around $1 million each.
That means there will be some battles to decide who the Maple Leafs keep in those final roster spots. There are, for example, positions to fill in the bottom four defensemen, deciding who will play on the bottom-six forward unit, and perhaps debates about who should be the backup goalie when the season starts.
I noticed 27-year-old Kenny Agostino’s nifty backhand pass to Johnsson for an assist. He played well in this game. Agostino has been everywhere, it seems, and the Maple Leafs are his sixth NHL team in seven seasons. Interesting that the Maple Leafs have two Ivy Leaguers in Agostino (who played at Yale University) and Alexander Kerfoot (who played at Harvard University).
As well, how can fans not root for 33-year-old Matt Read who, after some solid seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers, sort of fell off hockey’s radar and is probably in a fight to see if his NHL career might be extended? He scored a nice goal.
Matthews Line Mirror the Tavares Line?
There’s no doubt that Babcock has a “way” he sees the game, and that was evident in this win. He seems to like two skill players and a mucker who can get them the puck. That’s why the hard-checking Zach Hyman has become one of Babcock’s favorites. In a recent post, I noted that Kasperi Kapanen had challenged himself to become “nasty,” and he will likely assume Hyman’s fore-checking role on the Tavares and Marner line.
The Matthews line has begun to mirror that look. Johnsson played a more physical game, which is what Babcock asked him to do last season. And, if he can do that on a regular basis, Matthews and Nylander could dominate the open ice. Matthews seemed to float to the right spot on the ice all night, and his teammates got him the puck. (from: “Maple Leafs break the ice with first pre-season win on a big night for the Matthews line, Mark Zwolinski, The Star, 9/20/19)
Sports fans who like college basketball in the United States would understand why, after spending five years at the University of Kentucky, I would also be such a Toronto Raptors fan. This preseason game was the first sporting event at Scotiabank Arena in since Game 5 of the NBA Finals almost four months ago on June 10. It was good to see the lights back on and realize that, as a fan, this time of the year is so great for all sports.
Toronto sports fans should be in for some riveting entertainment.
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