Observations from the Maple Leafs’ first two preseason games

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
9 months ago
The Toronto Maple Leafs are 0-2 in preseason so far. After a 3-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Sunday afternoon and then a 4-3 overtime loss to Ottawa the following night, I’ve come to the conclusion that the one and only takeaway from this is that the Leafs need to blow it up. Trade everyone, fire anyone with or without a name tag, and move the franchise to Tucson, Arizona. 
Just kidding. Imagine if we were serious though?
For real, at this time of year, it feels like we always have to tap the sign. In this case, the sign reads “it’s only preseason”. This goes for both the good and the bad. While preseason hockey is great for keeping tabs on younger players and those who might not have a guaranteed spot out of camp, taking anything away from the actual results of games is wrong and won’t get you anywhere. 
So, with that in mind, I’m going to highlight a couple of observations I had from watching the first two preseason games of the year. Only, I’m going to ignore the actual results of the game and zero in on a few things I noticed out of certain players’ individual performance. 
Easton Cowan doesn’t want to go back to London
When the Maple Leafs drafted Cowan 28th overall in the 2023 draft, lots of people, myself included, were skeptical. Not to his fault, obviously. He can’t help where he’s selected. But for the Leafs to draft a player most experts didn’t have ranked until the third round with their first round pick, there was naturally going to be some questions about it. You knew it was a reach of a pick when the camera panned to him and his family, and they were seated in the furthest possible corner of the arena. He likely wasn’t expecting to hear his name called that day. 
Well, perhaps we should acknowledge that Maple Leafs director of scouting Wes Clark likely knows what he’s talking about. It’s still far too early to say whether that pick was a reach, or if the Leafs were onto something that most other teams weren’t, but to say he’s made a good impression in his first couple of games in a Leafs uniform would be an understatement. 
Between the Traverse City rookie tournament and the one preseason game he appeared in, he’s been doing everything you could ask of a player who’s looking to make a good first impression. Go ahead and point out the fact that it’s only one game and half of the opponent was made up of AHLers, but when you’re 18 years old and the head coach of your NHL team tells the media he had to keep reminding himself not to throw you on the ice every other shift, you’re doing something right. 
Coming off a strong three-game rookie tournament that saw Cowan lead the team in assists (4), points (6), PIMs (4) and add two goals of his own, he took the ice at Scotiabank Arena for the first preseason game of his career and didn’t disappoint. He opened the scoring for the Maple Leafs, completing a nice tic-tac-toe with Noah Gregor and Nick Abruzzese, and tallied an assist on the Leafs’ second goal, a tip-in courtesy of Joseph Blandisi. He had a real nose for the net, displayed some excellent speed, worked out two breakaways and earned a penalty shot on one of them. He certainly didn’t look like a rookie getting his feet wet for the first time. 
I could sit here and talk about Cowan all day, but my colleague Steven Ellis already did that if you want to read more about his performance. He’ll almost certainly be heading back to London before the start of the regular season, but he’s being rewarded with at least one more preseason game before they send him back. 
Nylander and Domi are developing chemistry early 
If you play for the Leafs, a good way to ensure you get talked about in the Toronto media circle (outside of just existing) is by catching the attention of Keefe. It worked for Cowan after his first game, and before that, it worked for William Nylander and Max Domi. 
Keefe and general manager Brad Treliving got the content bus moving right off the bat at training camp, dropping the bombshell that Nylander would likely be spending some time at centre to start the season, assuming preseason goes well at least. What’s even more interesting is that this doesn’t stem from a desire to move John Tavares to the wing. Meaning, they seem pretty into the idea of having Matthews, Tavares, and Nylander down the middle. 
One way to boost the odds of this experiment working out for the Leafs is by giving Nylander a player he can feed off offensively. Enter Domi. 
With Domi’s versatility, he could realistically play anywhere in the top-9 depending on where the Maple Leafs need help the most. He plays centre and wing, and has shown in the past that he can be a top contributor if paired with the right players. And given the fact that he’s shown he’s capable of 50+ points in the past, there’s reason to believe he and Nylander could work well together. 
Keefe already sees it himself, singling those two players out following the first game against Ottawa. Although they didn’t contribute anything on the scoresheet in the loss, their coach cited Domi’s playmaking ability and recognized the chemistry they built early on. The son of Tie had 20 goals and 36 assists last season for 56 points in 80 games, and coming off his first 40-goal season, Nylander could make for a perfect match with him. 
If the Leafs plan on running those three centres up the middle and running a strictly-offensive top-9, the offense that could be created between these two players along with the help of a Nick Robertson or a Calle Jarnkrok might outweigh any concerns on the defensive side of the game. Speaking of Jarnkrok, that brings me to my next point. 
Where in the world is Calle Jarnkrok? 
One of the more perplexing stories to come out of training camp throughout the first week or so is the absence of Jarnkrok. He didn’t play in either of the team’s first two preseason games, and hasn’t been seen practicing with the team in a couple of days. Full disclosure – Keefe did say on Tuesday that he’s dealing with something bugging him from practice, and is currently considered day-to-day. 
Okay, so we know where he is. So why do I bring this up? Because Jarnkrok’s name has been floated in trade rumours for a couple of weeks now. Currently in the second year of a four-year contract worth $2.1 million annually, he’s somebody who the Maple Leafs may have to consider moving in order to become cap compliant by the start of the regular season. For what it’s worth, $2.1 million annually is great value for someone who scored 20 goals for the first time last season while bringing solid defensive instincts. That said, while it would be less-than-ideal to move him, it’s a possibility we can’t ignore.
I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but Jarnkrok’s absence did raise some questions around the fanbase just because of how little information there was about it. His status wasn’t clarified until the day after their second game, and there have been no details released about his injury. 
Again – I’m not trying to spin a rumour out of nothing. But, this article is all about observations I had from their first two games, and that was one of them. On the scale of significant to insignificant, Jarnkrok leans towards the former. Regardless of his playoff performance or anything else, he did score 20 goals last year, so to have him mysteriously absent from practice as well as both games so far naturally raised some questions. 
I wouldn’t say to keep an eye out for a trade involving Jarnkrok, because there haven’t really been any legitimate rumours about him being on his way out. But at the same time, given how easy his contract would be to move, don’t be surprised if it happens. 
The Maple Leafs are in action once again tonight to take on the Buffalo Sabres. Puckdrop is at 6:30pm EST on Sportsnet One. 

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