The 2019-20 NHL regular season is now four games old, which means there are four games of Toronto Maple Leafs hockey upon which to draw hard, definitive conclusions.
Naturally, some players have greatly impressed — either by meeting their already-lofty expectations or simply not being the abject disasters most projected them to be. Others, however, have been less enticing.
In the spirit of positivity, though, let’s first take a look at the Maple Leafs who look pretty darn good.
1. Ilya Mikheyev
Adam Dunn retired from the MLB after 14 seasons with a whopping 462 home runs. He also rode into the sunset with a .237 batting average, failing to crack the .220-mark in each of his final four years at the plate. In fact, when Dunn wasn’t hitting for power, Dunn wasn’t really hitting at all. The vaunted slugger led the Majors in strikeouts on four separate occasions — three of which were consecutive from 2004-2006 — and ended his career averaging roughly 1.20 whiffs per game. That’s pretty bad! Yet when Dunn stepped back from the spotlight and took a final bow, he did so while making sure none of his $112,745,000 in career earnings tumbled out of his pockets.
Why am I telling you this? Well, because Dunn helps show that not every swing must be a hit. You’d certainly like them all to be, of course. But, to cash in, all one needs is the occasional homer.
And despite how poorly the Leafs have batted in the European free agent pool as of late, Ilya Mikheyev is that one, sweet dinger.
Heading into training camp, it was hard not to cloak Mikheyev’s arrival in scepticism, what with the near-constant praise from Mike Babcock and the litany of failed imports from years past. That scepticism, however, has quickly turned to unadulterated love. The people can’t get enough of Mikheyev, and who can blame them? It’s probably safe to say he’s met every expectation to this point — and then some.
The more this guy plays, the harder I fall.
I'm starting an Ilya Mikheyev fan club pic.twitter.com/dM09q89nIH
— Leafs ALL Day (@LeafsAllDayy) September 29, 2019
What really strikes me about Mikheyev is just how instant his acclimation to North American ice appears to have been. He barely even had a rough period in the preseason. Now, what once took Calle Rosen almost two full years to accomplish, Mikheyev has done in roughly a month. He’s offensively crafty; he’s tenacious; he wants us to eat (drink?) more soup.
Miraculously, too, is the soup-erb chemistry Mikheyev has developed with linemates he’s spent all of four games getting to know. It’s early, yes, but the Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Moore trio has looked gooood, man. So good, in fact, that we’re now having legitimate discussions about whether sending Kasperi Kapanen (we’ll get to him later) to the fourth line once Zach Hyman gets back is the best move just to keep these three together.
Doesn’t get more soup-er than that.
2. Trevor Moore
You knew this was coming.
Trevor Moore has been downright phenomenal. Everything you loved about the little guy with the big butt last season has now been cranked to 11, with Moore appearing even more comfortable at hockey’s highest level and racking up the numbers to prove it. Sure, he’s scoring more, throwing the body, and killing penalties in a way that makes you forget Connor Brown even existed, but Moore’s value can be found in areas outside of the box score.
I mean, just look at this sequence.
Alexander Kerfoot! His first as a Leaf. What a play by Moore. 2-1 Leafs. pic.twitter.com/8ulUYrkI5G
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) October 5, 2019
Look at it.
This dude went undrafted, folks. Every single team in the NHL passed on him seven different times during the 2013 draft — including, if you’ll recall, the Toronto Maple Leafs. But that didn’t stop Moore from getting where he is today; swaying games on a contending roster and earning a league-minimum wage for his effort — both this season and next.
3. Frederik Gauthier
Our relationship has now reached the point of total honesty, right? In that case, don’t lie to me: you thought Frederik Gauthier was a goner this summer.
How could you not? After the Leafs spent July 1st scooping up every depth centre under the sun and followed it up by signing seven fringe players at once, I was convinced that Gauthier’s next destination would be to the waiver wire. Or to Montreal via trade. I dunno, I wasn’t picky.
Nope. We know nothing.
The Goat stuck around. Not only that, he’s earned a roster spot, defeated all who dared challenge him, and sits one goal away from matching his entire total from last season. Does Gauthier’s 33% shooting percentage have something to do with that? Sure. But who cares? Ride that wave, baby.
In all seriousness, Gauthier really does look like a different player this season, namely when it comes to his footspeed. Once thought to be the NHL’s first spokesperson for Concrete Skates™, the 2019-20 version of Gauthier is far more agile, able to keep up (to a degree) with the waterbug linemates that surround him. Gauthier will never be confused with Kapanen in that department, of course. But after entering an offseason in which the choices were to get faster or get unemployed, he seemingly chose the former and it probably saved his career.
Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t to suggest that Gauthier has become anything more than a borderline fourth-liner. At age-24, that’s likely his ultimate ceiling. In fact, a number of the usual Goat criticisms have re-surfaced thus far; his hesitation to throw around his monster body, his lack of creativity on offensive, his tendency to revert into a passenger on his own line. They didn’t just vanish. But they aren’t as glaring, either.
Gauthier has still vastly exceeded my preseason expectations. He’s brought his career back from the brink, evolved when it seemed like that was impossible, and has since been playing solid minutes on a team that really only needs him to do just that.
What more do you want?
4. Rasmus Sandin
At age 19, my days were typically spent working on the freshmen 15 with greasy residence food or arguing with my friends about why Ben Affleck would be the perfect Batman (I still say he wasn’t given a fair shot at making the role his own). Most of the time, both happened simultaneously.
19-year-old Rasmus Sandin, on the other hand, has opted for a different approach, instead becoming one of the four best defencemen on the deepest roster the Maple Leafs have iced in years. Something tells me his parents are prouder than mine.
This is real, folks. In a market often criticized for doling out undue hype, Sandin is one of the rare gems who has been exactly as advertised. His rotating cast of defence partners hasn’t even slowed him down, either. In fact, Sandin has taken what some might classify as a hurdle in stride, appearing just as comfortable alongside any of the running mates the coaching staff saddle him with while continuing to play the same calm, controlled hockey that got him here.
Frankly, I don’t see how you send Sandin down. Not when he’s playing like this, at least. There’s a real case to be made now that the Leafs should burn one of Sandin’s ELC years just to keep him on the roster, even if it means handicapping their reinforcement depth to do it. He’s earned it, after all. And while some may argue that averaging 30 minutes on the Marlies would be better for Sandin’s development than the 10 he logs for the Leafs, rewarding young players when they deserve it carries merit, too.
If Rasmus Sandin gives your hockey team its best chance at winning games, then Rasmus Sandin should stay on your hockey team. It’s that simple. Don’t overthink it. Sandin has been great. Let the good times roll.