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Maple Leafs prospects thriving, the volume of the SBA, and Mitch Marner talk: Leaflets

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Photo credit:Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 month ago
Two days off in a row feels like an eternity during the playoffs. It was strange to go around living my life like the Leafs don’t exist and that my night wouldn’t be filled with the rollercoaster ride of living and dying on every goal. It has been a pleasant break from bouncing between trading Marner and planning parade routes, but that has come to an end and with the Leafs in 2-1 deficit in the series, Game Four carries a lot of importance but also signifies that last game before the intensity in the series is amplified once more.
Here are a few Leafs thoughts:

Leafs prospects dominating their playoff runs

Nikita Grebyonkin is now a Gagarin Cup champion in the KHL. That’s kind of a big deal and how he got there is noteworthy too:
Grebyonkin’s numbers and role weren’t as big in the playoffs as they were in the regular season and now I think we have an explanation why. The Leafs prospect was battling the entire time and as the quote above states, that is a big part of his character. Another positive spin on the Grebyonkin situation is that he is apparently on his way to North America:
Grebyonkin could challenge for a spot on the Leafs next season and his experience in the KHL will serve him well in that attempt, but even bringing him over for some time with the Marlies is a win for Toronto and having a 5th round pick turn out as well as Grebyonkin has is what the Leafs need.
Also in Russia, Artur Akhtyamov has not only backstopped his team to the VHL Championship, but he was also named the playoff MVP:
Presumably the Leafs prospect who is on loan will be coming to North America soon as well and the Leafs organization is better equipped with goaltending prospects than it has been in a long time.
It’s probably also worth noting that Fraser Minten (and Brandon Lisowsky) are on a collision course for meeting Easton Cowan in the Memorial Cup. The Saskatoon Blades have gone 8-1 through their first two rounds of the playoffs, and the London Knights are 8-0 through their first two rounds. The test gets tougher for Saskatoon as they face Moose Jaw, and London has a real challenge in facing Saginaw, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the Leafs top prospects will be playing the maximum amount of hockey this spring. Presently both Cowan and Minten are point per game players in the playoffs.
The future looks encouraging for the Leafs prospects, it’s just a shame that Maple Leafs and Marlies haven’t enjoyed the same level of playoff success.

The engagement level of the SBA crowd

Being on the other side of the country it is hard to gauge the intensity of the Leafs home crowd. I know from attending Leafs games in Edmonton, Calgary, and Winnipeg that Toronto fans have no trouble in taking over Western Canadian arenas and creating a home environment. The size of the crowds that show up to watch the games in Maple Leaf Square also points to the passion that exists within the fanbase, and there is no doubt in my mind that the real fans who do manage to land the opportunity to overpay for tickets to Leafs home games put in a ton of work to give some semblance of a playoff atmosphere.
Still, the Leafs will come up short and I don’t think Joe Bowen is intending to shame any of the real fans who are trying their best to create a supporting environment for the team on the ice. Making it seem as if the crowd is costing the Leafs games is a giant leap and would reflect worse on the Leafs than the fans anyway.  The problem is as it has always been with the combination of the expensive reseller market and corporate lower bowl seats. The fact that when the Leafs handed out “Passion” rally towels that most of those in attendance likely used them for lobster bibs is part of the problem.
Toronto doesn’t have the Whiteout, it doesn’t have fans handing out coordinated chants, and there is nowhere to have a proper tailgate environment. And in the regular season you don’t really miss stuff like that, but coming up short in the playoffs hurts, especially when anyone who has spent time online with Leafs fans knows there is the potential for a crowd frothing at the mouth, living and dying on every neutral zone misstep.
Toronto has to find a way to improve, and I’d argue that way they get there is through a less is better philosophy. Rip up all the lower bowl seats and replace them with unpadded replacements. Narrow everything, take a way an inch on every part of the seat and ditch a couple of inches of leg room. If you are going to hold your business meetings at the SBA, your client is practically going to be sitting on your lap, smelling your B.O. and halitosis. This also creates more seats and more opportunities for fans to get into the building so it’s win/win. Fans likely don’t care about the seats as long as you aren’t souring the sightlines, so crowd out the suits.
It probably goes without saying that it is time to ditch the Platnium Club in favour of the Molson Drunk Zone. No more sophisticated dining experiences, instead more opportunities to dump $14 beers on people in Habs jerseys. Replace every specialty dining option with Pizza Pizzas and truly make it a night where you’ve committed to going to the game to watch the game.
I’m not saying it will work and it certainly has no one of coming about in the short term, but it’s the idea I’m throwing out there. In the meantime, Maple Leafs fans will have to settle for a Scotiabank Arena crowd that looks about as excited as people inside an actual Scotiabank.

Meeting Mitch Marner where he’s at

Mitch Marner is one of my favourite topics when it comes to the Maple Leafs because there are so many things Leafs fans all agree with about him but then there are such widely held views about what people think of him and what his future should hold for the Leafs.
The we can all agree on it stuff is that the guy can throw absolutely beautiful passes like the one he sent to Matthew Knies on Wednesday night. There is also an appreciation for how he makes space for himself on the ice. His ability to read plays in the neutral zone to pick off passes and create odd man rushes out of them is unmatched in the league, and he tries his best to disrupt plays in his own zone. I think most Leafs fans will agree on that stuff and when it comes to skill and talent acknowledge that he is one of the most talented forwards the Leafs have ever had.
After that there is a lot of stuff that gets raised.
“Marner isn’t mentally tough.”
“Marner won’t take a hit to make a play or go into the tough parts of the ice.”
“Mitch overcomplicates things instead of going for the easy play.”
“Everyone on the ice knows he’s looking for Matthews and defends against that.”
The dominate narrative that overlaps all of those is “Mitch Marner doesn’t show up in the playoffs.” And with one assist in three games so far, it is the one that needs to be addressed.
No matter where you come out on Mitch Marner, there are two things that seem pretty clear at this point in the playoffs, the first is that Marner with Tavares isn’t doing it for the Leafs, and that breaking up the Bertuzzi-Matthews-Domi line in order to try to jumpstart Mitch Marner would be a huge mistake.
So where does Marner go? I’d suggest he has a perfect partner in crime with his penalty killing buddy, David Kampf. Kampf is already playing a lot more than a typical fourth line centre does to account for the fact that he’s been the more trusted option defensively instead of Pontus Holmberg. As such, why not formalize Kampf as the 3C for now and put Marner on his wing. The Leafs then have the potential option to go with either Jarnkrok (an all-around option), Knies (a physical option with offensive upside), or Dewar (having success with Kampf) as their other linemate. The Leafs can then see if Nylander can get the Tavares line going in a more offensive direction as he was able to do for most of the season as well.
Pushing Marner down the lineup shouldn’t be viewed as a punishment. It’s the playoffs, it’s about finding what can work and the Leafs finding a way to have a defensively responsible line that could produce offence isn’t a bad thing. Hell, if it makes Marner feel better the Leafs can even list it as the second line on their whiteboard and the Tavares-Nylander line can be the third unit.
Marner is also still going to play a lot of important special team minutes and as the game moves on and different situations occur it seems pretty likely that we’d see him with Tavares and Nylander for shifts as well.
Even if Nylander isn’t in the Leafs lineupthere needs to be some consideration given to what can work differently for the Leafs. It could still be Marner with Kampf and Tavares might be better with Jarnkrok and Robertson.
There is rightful criticism of what Marner is doing offensively and the solution doesn’t seem to be coming through playing with John Tavares. It’s time to try something new. If something new doesn’t yield results that is the right time for having the bigger conversation around Mitch Marner as his future as a Maple Leaf.

ICYMI

Here’s some TLN content from the past week:
Remembering Bob Cole, the greatest hockey announcer of all-time by Arun Srinivasan
Maple Leafs radio announcer Joe Bowen calls out the Game 3 home crowd for lack of energy by Shane Seney
Keefe, Montgomery trade passive barbs ahead of Game 4 by Zach Laing
The Toronto Marlies have signed a pair of NCAA prospects by Bennett Jull
“He’s world-class” Auston Matthews’ teammates marvel over all-around game after Leafs’ Game 2 win in Boston by Alex Hobson
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