Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Matthews, Lehtonen, Keefe & Tortorella

If history repeats, things don’t look good for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Last season the Columbus Blue Jackets played giant-killer during the first round of the playoffs when they swept the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in four straight games. Similarly, last season the Maple Leafs lost their first playoff round for the third straight season.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Nick Robertson: His Progress, Problems & Potential

In fact, the team hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004 when it beat the Ottawa Senators with Jason Spezza on its roster. The Maple Leafs are known for early playoff exits, but is this a different team? Can they change history and get past the Blue Jackets into the playoffs?

Jason Spezza Toronto Maple Leafs
Jason Spezza, now with the Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll explore some of the team’s news as it’s headed into the first game of that series later tonight.

Item One: Auston Matthews Shows No Ill Effect of the COVID-19

Last night, TSN’s Mark Masters reported that conditioning is not an issue for Auston Matthews. Although Matthews missed about two weeks of ice time after a positive COVID-19 test, he’s showing no issues with his speed, stamina, or recovery times. And, because the coronavirus impacts the respiratory system, that’s a good sign.

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What it means for head coach Sheldon Keefe is that he won’t be changing anything about Matthews’ ice time during Game 1 of the best-of-five series on Sunday night. Keefe noted during a Zoom media session that;

“Auston’s fine in that regard. I think he’s right there with everyone else both on our team and I suspect around the league. He hasn’t missed a beat since we’ve opened camp. He hasn’t missed a rep. He hasn’t missed a day. He’s been doing all the work like everybody else. I believe he’s ready and I’m not planning on holding back on him or any of our other guys.”

Auston Matthews John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews celebrates with teammate John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

One thing Keefe immediately changed when he took over the team from former head coach Mike Babcock is that he started to play his stars more. Whereas Babcock seldom gave Matthews more than 18 minutes of ice time per game, Keefe played Matthews for an average of just under 21 minutes per game. He’ll likely continue that deployment during the postseason.

As Matthews reported, “I feel good. Tuesday (during the exhibition), physically, for me I felt good and that was probably the most important thing for me. Your touch and timing and feel and everything kind of comes back as you play more games, but I think physically I felt solid and throughout the week I’ve continued to feel better and better throughout practices and hopefully [I can] start out on the right foot tomorrow.”

Item Two: Maple Leafs Loan Defenseman Mikko Lehtonen Back to KHL’s Jokerit

Maple Leafs PR announced on Saturday that they had loaned recently-signed defenseman Mikko Lehtonen back to his former KHL team Jokerit as that team prepares to start its KHL season. The condition is that he would become available to the Maple Leafs whenever Toronto wants him back.

Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas previously noted that his team would be happy to loan European players back to their former teams if it would allow them to play sooner than NHL or AHL seasons allow. In this case, it’s a win-win for both the KHL and for the Maple Leafs. It doesn’t burn any bridges between leagues and allows players to continue in their individual development.

Mikko Lehtonen
Mikko Lehtonen (Oleg Bkhambri (Voltmetro) / CC BY-SA – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Lehtonen played a single KHL season and was hugely successful with Jokerit — no doubt the team is pleased to have him back. Last week there was a rumor (actually it was widely reported) that Egor Korshkov had been loaned back to the KHL’s Lokomotiv; however, there’s been no confirmation of that loan. Still, given Lehtonen’s situation, it would make sense.

As far as the KHL season, the news is that KHL executives met a few days ago and will release their 2020-21 schedule soon. KHL teams have been playing preseason games for about a week and the season is expected to start in early September.

Item Three: John Tortorella Respected Sheldon Keefe As a Player

Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella has had four NHL coaching stops. He began with the Tampa Bay Lightning (2001-2008), went to the New York Rangers (2009-2013), coached with the Vancouver Canucks (2013-2014), and started with the Blue Jackets in 2015. Interestingly, although Maple Leafs coach Keefe only played 125 NHL games in total, 93 of those games were for coach Tortorella when both were with the Lightning.

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As the 62-year-old Tortorella said yesterday about the 39-year-old Keefe, “I have a tremendous amount of respect for (Keefe). He’s one of the most competitive players I’ve coached. I didn’t coach him a lot of games. But when he played, he knew one way, and that was to play hard.”

Keefe wasn’t with the Lightning when that team won the Stanley Cup under Tortorella in 2004 (which was the last season the Maple Leafs won a playoff series).

John Tortorella Blue Jackets bench (2)
John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets coach (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Keefe was honest in his assessment of himself as an NHL player: “I was there through the process of that team growing from one year to the next to the next, eventually to the point that it was too good for me.”

Keefe also had good things to say about Tortorella: “Seeing how he put all that together to eventually build it to a champion is something that, frankly, has really been the foundation of my coaching.”

It’s interesting that Tortorella named Keefe as “one of the most competitive players I’ve coached.” Perhaps it’s in contrast to what seems like the almost sullen competitive nature of Babcock, but it’s easy to miss that aspect of Keefe’s personality. If he was driven as a player, he’s also driven as a coach. Assuming he has a long career with the Maple Leafs, it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?

The Maple Leafs and the Blue Jackets play contrasting styles. The Blue Jackets emphasize a grinding, structured, defensive approach. The Maple Leafs push offensively whenever they can. Can the Maple Leafs adapt to that style, or do they have to?

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Tavares, Nylander, Statistics & Elynuik

We know that Keefe has done his homework — he reported that he had “watched more than enough video, looking at the job they did last year.”

Keefe noted that, although stars Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Sergei Bobrovsky are no longer with the team, “the core of their team, the players who make up who they are and how they want to play, remain and their leadership is clearly there.”

We will see later tonight what that might look like.

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