Monday Mailbag: Home Stretch

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The good news? The season is almost over. All that’s left to go is a game against the red-hot Columbus Blue Jackets and the always hateable Montreal Canadiens, and then we can move on to better things. Like watching elite hockey teams in the playoffs, or, if misery is your thing, keeping tabs on one of the other Toronto sports squadrons.

Or, you can keep reading the mailbag. Because the bad news? I’m not going anywhere. Here are the best questions from this week!

@conin79 asked a question that was so good, I actually took it out of the mailbag and gave it a post of it’s own yesterday. 

@Bastulon asked: Do the Marlies have a rival? I considered Hamilton one, but they’re moving to St. John’s now.

There is no doubt that the Hamilton Bulldogs were the primary rival of the Toronto Marlies. They faced each other an average of 12-13 times per year, were the closest teams to each other, and were the AHL affiliates of the Leafs and Habs. It was a match made in heaven, almost to a fault. But, as you point out, that’s going away. What now?

The league has made a point to try to turn the Marlies and IceCaps into a rivalry. The two teams play each other more often than their distance apart and the fact that they’re in different conferences would imply as feasible, but the Leafs organization is probably one of the few that are okay with spending a bunch of money on flights to and from St. John’s. If anything, they probably see it as a positive; it gives the players a taste of the type of travel they’ll see if they reach the NHL, and honestly, a long flight beats a longer bus ride. I expect this to continue, if not strengthen.

Rochester and Grand Rapids are two other teams that I’d consider rivals. The Griffins aren’t in Toronto’s division in any more, but they were for quite some time and the two teams faced each other in the 2013/14 playoffs. The Amerks take this concept and amplify it; they’re still in the division, and faced the Marlies in both the 11/12 and 12/13 postseasons. Both are also affiliates of division rivals (Buffalo and Detroit), adding another layer to it all.

@matthew_gooding asked: Besides William Nylander, who is Toronto’s best U20 prospect?

I’m by no means an expert when it comes to Toronto’s junior talent; to be honest, I don’t think it’s fair for me to talk about guys I haven’t seen much of. I will rely on the wisdom of this site’s crowd, however. We did our Midterm Prospect Rankings in February, and had four U20’s make it in. Of those, Carter Verhaeghe (11th) and Rinat Valiev (10th) were the highest ranked; so I’d probably default to one of those two depending on what position you prefer your prospects to play.

I’ve seen both of them play in person, and Valiev was the more impressive one. With that said, I haven’t seen enough for it to be a meaningful sample, and Valiev’s games were against boys (World Juniors), while Verhaeghe’s were against men (Marlies, after finishing his OHL season last year).

@ldsooner asked: Greg McKegg appears to have a decent skill level but always gets lost in the shuffle. What are his chances of being resigned?

Unless he decides he wants a massive raise or mysteriously retires, it’s a sure thing. The only way he doesn’t get re-signed is if the Leafs don’t give him a qualifying offer, and given that he’s a 22 year old putting up pretty solid numbers on an AHL team (including a career high in goals) where ice time and roles are pretty evenly split, there’s no reason not to.

Plus, he’s been called up by the team as recently as two weeks ago. He may not be super high in the team prospect rankings anymore, but you can bet that he hasn’t run out of opportunities yet.

@cameron_rennie asked: Why is no one in the media talking about how good Jake Gardiner has been lately?

There are two things that are issues here.

The first is the underlying issue that has always trailed Gardiner, and that’s cognitive bias. Basically, while Gardiner is a rush defenseman, he’s not an elite point producer, so he doesn’t get the benefit of highlight reel goals. At the same time, his occasional mistakes are very easy to remember, because turnovers that aren’t “dumped the puck in and the other team won the race” are very obvious to the eyes. If you only have mistakes to remember, you’ll be seen as bad, even when you’re a net positive to the team, which Gardiner has been of late.

At the same time, it’s not a good story to run with given the climate. The Leafs are awful right now, and any attempt to say a core player is playing well is going to be scoffed at; its easier to critique. We’ve seen some limited exception to this in Morgan Rielly and David Booth, but in those you have a prospect-aged player and a pending UFA who is effectively fighting for his career at the moment.

I think that the positives should be outlined a bit better, no doubt, but the media will put out what sells, and “that guy your eyes tell you isn’t great is actually a hidden gem on this awful team” will get a lot of eye-rolls from the casual fan who comprises a large amount of their content consumption.

    • TGT23

      Jake has to bring it all year. It was the same story last year. He gets better after New Years. l believe it when I see it next year from him. I don’t know what he projects to be. He can skate the puck out, and skate around in the O zone, but it rarily ends up in a goal or even a scoring attempt.

      Reilly on the other hand, started out well, and has gotten better. He has a much higher hockey IQ and skill set in my pinion.

  • STAN

    Just to add to what @Greg wrote… Gardiner takes far too long to make passes. He should be forced to watch video of Chicago’s Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, both of whom are smart with the puck and not overly physical.

    I thought Gardiner took a page from Dion Phaneuf’s playbook and stopped moving his feet this season. Perhaps he assumed that leafs management was prone to hand out $49M contracts to slugs… so why not?

    But seriously, if he’d return to those long strides… and work some give-and-goes… he might be in the conversation for elite NHL defensemen.

  • STAN

    One thing I’ve noticed is that reilly seems to producing a lot more as of late, he didn’t get too many points in his first year or even early this year… but now that he’s getting more opportunities, he starting to put up points pretty consistently…. can’t wait to see what he does next year!