Can John Tavares be Toronto’s first 50-goal scorer since Andreychuk?

John Tavares notched four more goals against Florida moving him into second-place in the NHL and putting the question in Leafs Nation’s minds: Can Tavares be a 50 goal scorer?

Good Company

Should Tavares find the back of the net five more times this season, he’ll join a small, elite list of Maple Leafs players.

First up is the three-time 50+goal scorer, Rick Vaive. The 20th best Maple Leaf, as ranked by the team last season, is the only three-time 50+ goal scorer in the team’s history. He did so from 1981-1984 with 54, 51, and 52 goals in that time period.

Next is Gary Leeman, the junior defenseman turned pro right-winger. He only reached the 50-goal mark once, 51 in ’89-’90, but etched himself in the annals of Maple Leafs history as the first since the great Rick Vaive.

Lastly, you have the great Dave Andreychuk, who is the most recent Maple Leafs to nab 50 goals. Andreychuk did so on two occasions, 54 in the ’92-’93 season, and 53 in ’93-’94. Pivotal in the early 90s’ playoff runs, Andreychuk is a shining example for Tavares to follow.

The Outlook

With just 6 games remaining in the season, Tavares will have a tough task getting those five goals that he’s gunning for. That being said, his opposition does show some weak points.

The two games to circle are the next two up: Philadelphia and Ottawa. Phili has a solid D-core, but they are very young and prone to valuing offense over defense. That leaves Tavares to contend with a revolving door of “just okay” (thank you Randy Carlisle) to contend with.

Ottawa is up and down. They showed in their shellacking of the Maple Leafs earlier this month that they can plan, but if Tavares is clicking like he was last night, there’s no reason he can’t pot against them, too.

Outside of those two games, the Leafs play the Islanders, Hurricanes, Lightning, and Habs. All of these teams are vying for playoff positioning (outside of the Lightning), and all will challenge the Leafs in their perspective playoff tune-ups.

Final Thoughts

Good thing Tavares has a propensity to score against any opponent, anyway! For me the perfect way this plays out is two against Phili, two against Ottawa, and his fiftieth against the Islanders.

It’ll be tough, but I have all the faith in the world that John Tavares will continue to raise his level of play and accomplish this feat.

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Ron Hainsey – The Hero Toronto Deserves

The Leafs had a points night as they welcomed the Florida Panthers to the Scotia Bank Center. While Tavares headlined the scoresheet, it was Ron Hainsey’s toughness that stole the show.

“Toronto needs an enforcer”

“Who’s going to stand up for the star players”

“This team needs to be more physical”

Hush yourselves, critics. Ron Hainsey is here and he’s had enough of people taking runs at Leaf players. Yup, the senior-most defender on the team walloped Florida’s Jayce Hawryluk, rag-dolling the high flying youngster after he took a run at Toronto’s four-goal man.

If that doesn’t get you amped up, I don’t know what will. Immediately, Hainsey came flying in to punish Hawryluk for a vicious (missed) elbow he tried to nail Tavares with.

It’s the kind of intensity you see from playoff hockey that gets all of up Leaf fans fired up and ready to go for the post season.

This team isn’t built to crush their opposition with physicality, but Hainsey has reminded the opposition that there are still players in Toronto that will punish you for taking runs at their superstars.

Oh, and he doesn’t care for your explanation…

Can we agree that resting Hainsey by giving him nights off is a bad idea now? Do we really think Marincin or Holl would come in there to set the tone in his absence? No and No. Move him down the lineup, manage his minutes, and make sure this leader remains with the team as we hurdle towards to playoffs.

Jake Gardiner MUST be laughing in the face of the Maple Leafs right now

A few injuries and boom, the Maple Leafs don’t look the contender we all thought they were. Often the target for fan criticism, Jake Gardiner has been missed on the back end and has to be laughing at his struggling team right now.

Hand up – I am a Jake Gardiner critic. I think he plays with one hand on his stick too much, is unreliable in his own end, lacks hockey sense, and is a mess trying to keep the puck in on the opponent’s blue line.

I am also of the opinion that without him in the line up right now the Leafs are getting continually embarrassed due to brutal defensive zone coverage. Travis Dermott’s injury has compounded the issues, but missing Gardiner, the Leaf’s second best defenseman, has caused massive problems for Babcock’s Buds.

Also, Jake Gardiner has to be kicking back and laughing in the face of his team. Maybe not the players, but the fans certainly. All the boo’s (which I think he’s earned and then some), all of the criticism, being dropped to the bottom pair, all of it is now laughing material for Gardiner.

Despite comments about keeping Jake Gardiner, there has to be little to no way he sticks around. He’s due for a substantial pay raise as he hurdles towards free agency, regardless of his current injury, and Toronto would need him to take a haircut to stay.

No, instead of sticking around the most watched and over-analyzed team in the league, Gardiner should ship out, collect his, oh let’s say $2 million raise, and coast for the rest of his career.

We deserve better than Gardiner as a defender (please note I said defender, not referencing his obvious offensive upside), and I believe it will be addressed this offseason. But, as for now, Gardiner has to be laughing in the face of the circus surrounding a wallowing Toronto Maple Leafs team right now.

He’s back on the ice with Dermott which, despite what you think about Gardiner, is a good thing for the Maple Leafs. He’s better than Marincin, Holl, and Ozhiganov, and the Leafs will be counting the days until he’s back again in game shape.

As for now, Gardiner can take some solace in the fact the Toronto has struggled defensively in his absence. It’s the most criticized aspect of his game, and even though the Leafs looked good against Buffalo… it’s just Buffalo. Gardiner will be back soon, and he’ll bring with him the knowledge that he offers more than a lot of people think defensively.

“Load Management” for Bumbling Maple Leafs a Nonsensical Idea

Load management, a term NBA fans and specifically Raptors fans, hate to hear is now present in the NHL. The idea of implementing it on the Leafs, however, is shallow and ridiculous.

To clarify, the buzz term “load management” refers to strategic player resting against lesser opponents or on back to backs to stay healthy and fresh. The three candidates proposed for load management on Toronto are Frederick Andersen, Ron Hainsey, and Patrick Marleau.

Frederick Andersen – the Outlier

He’s the only candidate that load management is viable for. That being said, introducing late-season starting goalie rest is hardly a novel idea. Instead, it’s a concept and strategy elite teams have used for years for they’re most important players.

For Toronto, the idea seems for foreign due to the volume of starts Andersen has had while with the Leafs. As well, Garret Sparks has not instilled the greatest level of trust in his teammates or fans this season.

Sparks has looked solid as of late, stepping in extremely well in two relief appearances for Andersen and earning a win against Buffalo. He called out his team (himself included) for not playing with emotion and backed it up well.

With Sparks putting together some solid performances it’s a win-win for him to split the remaining games with Andersen. Enough to keep Freddie warm but enough to also build Sparks’ confidence.

Andersen will have his “load managed” but like I said before, obviously he would. This isn’t a symptom of the NBA’s worst phenomenon creeping into the NHL.

Ron Hainsey – The Indispensable

If you think the Leafs can afford to give Ron Hainsey nights off then I honestly doubt your hockey knowledge. Toronto has leaned on their veteran defenseman much more than I’m sure either side believed would be necessary when he initially signed on the team.

He’s been a top-4 D-man for Toronto all season, playing alongside Morgan Rielly for the majority of the season. With Rielly, Muzzin, and Zaitsev all getting leaned on even more in the absence of Gardiner and Dermott, Hainsey is a back-end lynch pin the Leafs cannot afford to rest.

He can have his minutes lowered, deservedly so, by shifting him to the bottom-pairing and having him work as a penalty kill specialist. This should help to bring Hainsey well under 20-minutes, as he is currently playing simply too much (24:21 against Buffalo).

Patrick Marleau – The Candidate

I’d actually manage his work load if it were a viable option right now. Marleau is extremely valuable as a locker-room guy and team leader, but on the ice he is lacking as a third-line player.

Rather than managing his minutes Mike Babcock could re-purpose his winger as a depth winger/center. Frederik Gauthier is out injured with only Nic Petan as back up right now, Marleau could be a solid choice as a fourth-line center.

This would also open up space for wingers like Nic Petan, Tyler Ennis, Connor Brown, and Trevor Moore to step up with increased minutes. So, if Marleau is going to be rested it shouldn’t be out of the lineup all together, but rather recast as a fourth-line option.

Put your money where your mouth is, Garret Sparks

Garret Sparks called out his teammates for being emotionless after an embarrassing loss to Ottawa on Saturday. Now slated to start against Buffalo, can Sparks show up in this could-be statement game?

I’ve teeter-tottered on Garret Sparks being the Leafs backup. My interest was peaked in him as he quickly outgrew the talent of the ECHL with the Solar Bears. I then watched him crush it with solid consistency in the AHL with the Marlies. Now, it’s been a white knuckle ride as he’s struggled for that ECHL success and that AHL consistency.

To the Sparks haters I ask this: what do you get out of constantly berating him with offside comments about his play? What good does that do? Why does it have to be all criticism without any constructive? I understand he’s had some howlers this season, but no credit when he plays well?

Actually, in his last three appearances, Sparks has been playing well! He’s also had to relieved Andersen twice, which is something he hasn’t had to do too much in his Maple Leafs career. He came in cold and came up with saves where his team needed him.

(Relief) Tampa Game: 2 GA, 21 saves, .913 save percentage
(Relief) Chicago Game: 1 GA, 24 saves, .960 save percentage
(Start) Ottawa Game: 6 GA, 38 saves, .864 save percentage

Not bad up until that Ottawa game, right? Agreed, although in the Sens debacle Sparks was a revelation in the first period. Sparks played so well, making Andersen-esque saves time after time in an attempt to build up some momentum for his team. Instead, the Leafs continued to allow a rookie-laden Sens team pen them in and eventually break down Sparks.

Life after losing to Ottawa

After that awful team performance Sparks had this to say:

Who says the Leafs don’t need a captain? Why is Sparks getting interviewed post game? Who on this team takes the brunt of the media when the team plays poorly? Lately, it’s been a rotating door of different players forced into answering questions that they don’t really know how to answer as Sparks exemplified above.

Either way, he’s called out his teammates for playing without emotion and now needs to show up against the Sabres. Buffalo has a fast, skilled, and under-performing team that can put up goals at will. It will be a tough test for Sparks tonight who needs to back up his comments and lead from the crease.

Is “getting better” good enough for the Leafs right now?

The Leafs lost what ended up being a lot closer of a game than the score line suggests. 3-0 to Nashville isn’t flattering, but they did look better. Is that enough of a consolation prize at this point in the season?

It was a tale of three periods as Toronto fell to the heavily equipped Nashville predators. One period of bad play, one period of good defensive play, and one period of solid offensive play. The problem? The Maple Leafs can’t seem to put together a full 60 minute game.

The Usual First Period

Can this team start on time please? Even with the start time pushed an hour, the Leafs failed to get the memo that the first period is still required to be played.

What would a Toronto goal against be without poor defensive play, right? Jake Muzzin, the man under fire since Gardiner’s injury, committed a brutal turnover in his own zone that saw Nashville jump out to an early lead.

It’s getting increasingly difficult to defend Muzzin’s recent play, that being said the injuries that have impacted the back end cannot be ignored here. As well, it’s clear Babcock isn’t trusting his bottom pairing, as they played just over 13 minutes with the top-four defensemen playing 22:00+ minutes each.

This could be seen as a coaching issue as it relates to preparedness and motivation for the team, but what could Babcock say to his team to change this sudden drop off in early performance? The players need to start taking ownership of their poor first periods.

A Strong Second

No goals against, and extremely tight defensive play in the second completely shut down the Nashville offense. Barring a shot that hit the post from Ryan Johansen, Toronto kept the Preds to the outside in the second, restricting them to just two shots on goal in the frame.

It showed what the Leafs can do against some elite competition. Sure, Nashville are a defense-first team, but their D also contribute a lot offensively. Also, Johansen, Forsberg, Simmonds, Arvidsson, and Smith are more than capable of pelting the net consistently.

The Leafs kept Nashville to just 17 shots on goal in this game which should be celebrated as a silver lining, but that is something we should expect from a Cup contender.

Flurry in the Third… like Usual

This team always seems motivated to get back into the game in the third, but unfortunately this time it was too late. It worked against Philadelphia, blasting the doors off Brian Elliot, but Pekka Rinne put on a show in this one. Toronto out-shot Nashville in this game, but only marginally (22-17) which simply isn’t enough.

There was improved possession, better offensive pressure, and more shots on goal, but no end result. If the Leafs brought a similar effort in the first period this game could have been much different. Wear out the goalie early, then continue to raise the speed and pressure with more shots and scoring chances.

Nashville’s elite D did bail out their goalie, but it was a symbiotic relationship in this one. It was too little too late for the Leafs.

Upon Further Review…

To me, the Leafs ‘showing improvement’ and getting back on track right now is something we really shouldn’t be seeing from a team with so much talent. Of course, injuries slow things down and change the course, but good teams take those challenges and persevere – Toronto has not done that.

Maybe the transgressions of this season are akin to those of Tampa Bay’s two seasons ago when they missed the playoffs. A hard lesson to learn but one the young core needs to pay attention to nonetheless.

Nic Petan gets an extended tryout to earn his pending 2-year contract extension

Frederik Gauthier, the mainstay on the fourth line as of late, will miss a minimum of Toronto’s next two games, giving deadline acquisition Nic Petan a chance to impress in the Blue and White.

Nic Petan offers some solid usability as a gadget forward, playing both wings and center in his young career. For Toronto, that means he’s the de facto center as he was brought in for the Leafs backup option at center Par Lindholm.

Skill Over Size

Petan is certainly an upgrade on skill over Gauthier, but Toronto has to sacrifice size with the Gaut injured. It’s a bit of a loss as Gauthier has impressed with his forechecking and net-front presence this season.

It’s no secret that Toronto’s fourth line, which saw a surge in productivity through January and February, has been slumping in March. An injury is never a good thing to a team (see Toronto’s struggles with the polarizing Gardiner out), but a shake up was certainly needed on the bottom-6.

Statistically speaking, Petan is a bit up and down in his three games with Toronto this season. He’s scored one goal, which was a no-doubt laser beam in front of the net, but he’s also got a -3 rating. Gauthier’s injury will give him a chance to show he’s got some defensive prowess as well.

Silver lining?

Where one injury subtracts from the team, it seems like another will add to the team as Kasperi Kapanen is back in practice. Kapanen, who initially missed time due to illness, was then diagnoses with a concussion and has missed the last four games.

With his reassertion into the team, the likes of Connor Brown gets pushed down to the bottom unit and Ennis is the odd man out. Ennis, who has looked good since his return from injury, has blown cold in recent weeks. Like Gauthier’s absence, Ennis’ pushing out of the lineup could refresh and remotivate the tenacious forward.

Hyman has also returned, so Kapanen’s return makes it s 2-for-1 swap of injured players. Of course, having no injuries would be better but Kapanen and Hyman provide that front end depth Toronto has been missing. Hopefully Petan can capture lightning in a bottle with his extended tryout and prove he has what it takes to contribute!