The Leafs ended the 2010s on a positive note, beating the Minnesota Wild by a score of 4-1 on New Year’s Eve. Sheldon Keefe’s team will head into the 2020s sitting in second place in the Atlantic Division with the surging Tampa Bay Lightning right behind them.
After three months of play, the Atlantic is finally looking normal. The Boston Bruins sit at the top of the pack with a healthy lead in the standings while the Leafs and Lightning, the two other teams who were expected to form the division’s Big Three, are in second and third respectively. While the Panthers, and, to a lesser extent, the Sabres and Habs, are in the mix, it seems like the second half of the season will be a fight between Toronto and Tampa for home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
Tampa is three points back but they have three games in hand on the Leafs. The teams will also play each other three more times before the end of the season. Despite a slower-than-expected start, the Lightning are looking more like last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners as of late, as they’re currently riding a season-high four-game winning streak. The Leafs, of course, are also rolling, having won seven of eight.
The Leafs are 13-4-1 since firing Mike Babcock and promoting Keefe and are on pace to put up 98 points. The 13-4-1 stretch under Keefe is good for a 123-point pace over the course of a full season.
A lot of things are clicking for the Leafs right now. At the top of the list is William Nylander, who’s playing some of the best hockey of his career as of late. Nylander scored the game-winner in Toronto’s win over Minnesota, giving him a GWG in three-consecutive games.
William Nylander is the third player in @MapleLeafs franchise history to score a winning goal in three straight road games, joining Mats Sundin (Nov. 30 – Dec. 13, 2001) and Alexander Steen (Jan. 4-16, 2007). #NHLStats pic.twitter.com/DgMsZijret
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) January 1, 2020
Nylander has found chemistry alongside captain John Tavares. The duo was formed back on Dec. 23 in the wild comeback win against Carolina and Nylander has four goals and eight points since. As Kevin McGran over at the Toronto Star points out, Tavares seems to be bringing the best out of Nylander. Beyond producing offensively, Nylander has played a much more consistent game alongside the captain than we’ve seen in the past.
Defenceman Justin Holl has signed a three-year contract extension!
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) December 31, 2019
Justin Holl got himself a nice late Christmas gift this year, as the defender inked a three-year contract extension worth $2 million on Tuesday.
It’s amazing how much things can change in just a few weeks. Holl was infamously Mike Babcock’s pressbox staple, making his way into just 11 games over the course of the 2018-19 season while spending the rest watching from the sidelines. Due to injuries on the Leafs’ blueline at the start of the season, Holl found himself an opportunity to prove himself at the NHL level. Still, under Babcock, Holl played only 14:35 game despite showing quite a bit of promise.
With Keefe behind the bench, everything has changed for Holl. He’s now playing nearly 19 minutes per game and he’s emerged as a legitimate top-four defenceman. There was so much talk all summer about finding Toronto a solid, right-handed defenceman, and it seems there was one waiting in the dog house all along. Getting Holl locked up to a deal worth $2 million is a tidy piece of business as the impending UFA’s value was only going to rise as time went along and he played more.
Jake Muzzin, Tyson Barrie, and Cody Ceci are all eligible to become free agents this summer, so it’s nice that the Leafs added some stability to their blueline ahead of the off-season.
Speaking of mid-season extensions, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Ilya Mikheyev. Players on one-year deals are eligible to sign extensions now, so we could see the Leafs try to work out another discount deal with a solid depth player like they did with Holl. Though he’s currently on the Injured Reserve, Mikheyev has been a good contributor for the Leafs this season, scoring eight goals and 23 points in 39 games. He can become an RFA this summer.
It’s interesting we haven’t seen Jeremy Bracco get a shot with the Leafs in Mikheyev’s absence. With Mikheyev, along with Andreas Johnsson and Trevor Moore, currently on the shelf, it seems like the perfect time to see what Bracco can do at the NHL level. He led the Marlies in scoring last season and he’s second on the team in points this season, so there isn’t much left for him to prove at the AHL level.
Per Elliotte Friedman, Bracco has requested the Leafs look to see if there’s an opportunity elsewhere…
I went to Game 7 of the Calder Cup Final in 2018 (Toronto beat Texas that night for the championship in a packed, crazed rink — was a fun night). During one of the intermissions, I ran into the great Rich Clune, who was not dressed for the game. He pointed to the person standing next to him and asked, “Have you ever met Jeremy Bracco?” I hadn’t. He said, “You’re going to see plenty of him.” Bracco only dressed for four games in that run, but finished second in the AHL in scoring last season and is fifth in assists this year.
His path to the Maple Leafs is blocked by some elite, elite skill and he wants to see if there’s a better opportunity somewhere else. Toronto is willing to accommodate, but have not been shy in their asks, apparently. I’m curious to see what the market is. I’m also curious to see if this could be part of a bigger deal. Ben Harpur and Dmytro Timashov have also asked Toronto to see what’s out there for them. – Elliotte Friedman, 31 Thoughts
If Dubas decides to go in at the trade deadline, Bracco would surely be one of his best trade chips. The team doesn’t have a first-round pick this year and giving up the 2021 first would be difficult to swallow. That makes Bracco prime for a trade if the Leafs are looking for an upgrade right now. But, given their cap crunch, can they afford to trade away a high-upside player on an entry-level deal?