Does a Michal Neuvirth PTO solve the Leafs goaltending issue?

The issue at hand for the Leafs is the professional level depth, bridging the gap between Frederik Andersen and the youth tandem of Joseph Woll and Ian Scott. With Michal Neuvirth signing a PTO in Toronto, is he the answer to this issue?

If anything, Michal Neuvirth’s PTO with the Toronto Maple Leafs echos the vast majority of Leaf fans’ sentiments, that we don’t have faith in Garret Sparks as the Leafs backup goalie this season.

The stats really speak to this issues Sparks had last season backing up Andersen. While marginally improved from his season NHL prior in some categories, Sparks still struggled in his 20-games played in 18/19. Going 8-9-1, Sparks posted a .902 save percentage and GAA of 3.15, Sparks failed to impact the Leafs positively. For a contending team like the Leafs are this simply isn’t good enough for what is becoming an increasingly important position.

The signing of Michael Hutchinson to a 1-year, 700k contract suggested that the ex-Jet and Panther goalie would assume Sparks’ position as the backup. This move wasn’t exciting, but a fresh face was seemingly better than predictably underwhelming Sparks. This has all gone out the window, however, with Neuvirth’s PTO.

What can we expect?

Michal Neuvirth offers something the Leafs have been lacking since Curtis McElhinney – NHL experience. Neuvirth is 31-years old and has played in 257 NHL games for Washington, Buffalo, the Islanders, and most recently the Philadelphia Flyers.

His career GAA is 2.71 and his career save percentage is .910% which, on the whole, makes him a serviceable and about average NHL goaltender. But, one must ask why, then, would a solid goalie be training in the Czech Republic and signing a PTO with the cap-strapped Maple Leafs if he is still able to maintain his career level of play?

Because is 2018/19 season suggests he may be regressing. In a heavily injury-ridden season, Neuvirth played in just 7 NHL games (1 AHL game), and posted an inflated 4.27 GAA and a save percentage of just .859%. While not inspiring, you can see the idea from Dubas and co. on this one.

Get him in on a PTO with no risk, put him in a better defensive system with the revamped defensive core of the Maple Leafs, put him through the wringer with training camp, and lastly see if you can make a low-ball offer on a short term deal to revive his career.

The Leafs previously took a risk on McElhinney (albeit much less of one) just one season removed from one of his worst NHL seasons for the Blue Jackets. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take risky NHL veteran over unreliable AHL goaltenders all day.

The writing’s on the wall; Goodbye Garret Sparks, hello Michael Hutchinson!

Looks like the Leafs found their backup goalie for next season and still somehow saved money over Garret Sparks’ contract! The Leafs inked Michael Hutchinson to a one-year deal worth $700k and it’s becoming clear, Garret Sparks time with the Maple Leafs is quickly coming to an end.

We all saw this coming, right? Last season he played in 20 games for the Leafs and put up some sub-standard numbers. A 3.15 GAA, a .902 save percentage, 8/20 quality starts, allowed 4+ goals in seven games including 6 GA in three separate occasions. Those aren’t numbers that can be associated with a backup keeper on an elite team. The Leafs can’t trust the player right now, and Hutchinson looks like a better option as Andersen’s relief.

Hutchinson, last season, put up some better numbers, albeit at the AHL level. In his 5 games with the Leafs last season, he put up a .914 save percentage, and 2.64 GAA. In the AHL he posted a .910 S% and a GAA of 2.70. While not elite, Dubas, who has more than a solid pulse on the AHL team, has more faith in Hutchinson as Andersen’s back up and this is probably due to his NHL experience over Sparks’.

With the Raptor’s success with Kawhi Leonard’s load management, I could see a shift to resting Frederik Andersen more this season. Instead of mostly back-to-back games off, getting Andersen down to less than 60 games is a must for a deep playoff run.

Goalie tandems are also all the rage these days in the NHL so why not implement one in Toronto too? The next step after Hutchinson’s signing has to be defense focused. Improve team defense and watch the goalie numbers skyrocket. All the best, Sparks, I’m sure you’ll enjoy Edmonton next season!

The plan is now set for the uncharacteristically strong Leafs goalie depth chart. Andersen and Hutchinson at the NHL level, then Kasimir Kaskisuo and Joseph Woll at the AHL level. Mix in Ian Scott to the Newfoundland Growlers of the ECHL and we’re all set. All three teams are poised for championship runs and the internal competition and depth should keep every player motivated to take the next step.

Part Two: Happy Draft Day! Get ready for some Maple Leafs madness!

The NHL entry draft is upon us and with it a slew of information from NHL insiders and beat reporters as Kyle Dubas has opened up on his team’s status. From players staying to those potentially moving, there is all but guaranteed to be trades and action from the Leafs on the draft floor as tensions rise.

No cap increase = forced moves?

With the salary cap rumored to be increased up to $82 million+, the Maple Leafs were amongst teams excited about the extra cash to spread around their roster. This dream came to a screeching halt as the post-season ended and all signs point to it staying closer to the current $79.5 level.

For the Leafs this means a few things:

  • Nikita Zaitsev is on his way out
  • Connor Brown is expendable
  • Consequences of keeping Marleau
  • Nazem Kadri is redundant
  • Goodbye Gardiner
  • Mitch Marner offer sheet threat

Zaitsev – TSN’s Darren Dreger has reported a lot of interest in Zaitsev after he requested a trade out of Toronto. It could end up being a mutually beneficial deal as Zaitsev gets his fresh start and the Leafs get out from under his contract. All signs point to a draft floor deal.

Brown – A player we all love but with a price tag too rich for his production levels in Toronto. Edmonton could be interested and the Leafs, as per Elliot Friedman, could be looking for as little as a second-round pick in return to clear cap space.

Marleau – Kyle Dubas has broken his silence on Marleau. With the Kings using their buyout on Phaneuf and the Ducks on Perry, it seems unlikely that Marleau will leave Toronto. Dubas confirmed this as the Toronto Star reports, as life with Marleau next season becomes a reality.

KadriDubas spoke on Nazem Kadri’s future too, stating he would like to keep the center but will listen to offers on him. It makes sense as the Leafs strength is up the middle of the ice, however, can they trust him? The Leafs want a center in return (cheaper).

Gardiner – The Karlsson $11m deal set the bar for defensemen, and despite Gardiner being far from him on skill level, he’ll likely get $7+ million a year. This effectively prices him out of the Leafs range, which in my opinion, is a good thing. So long.

Marner – The biggest news comes on the Marner front. Dubas, who has previously stated he will match any offer sheet on Mitch Marner, has now stated that it isn’t a guarantee he matches now. Maybe it’s jockeying as Dubas tries to leverage playing in Toronto to Marner and his agent, but after the Marner camp reportedly turned down $11m for 8-years, it could be Dubas coming to terms with losing the player.

What to expect when you’re expecting (chaos)?

Movement. Lots of movement. Kyle Dubas’ precarious cap position means he and Brandon Pridham will need to be creative and assertive to clear cap space. The lack of a first round pick might keep the Leafs off of the draft board on Friday night, but don’t expect them to remain quiet.

As far as predictions, I would say Zaitsev and Brown are off to Edmonton, Kapanen+ to Carolina for a right shot defenseman, Sparks may leave on a PTBNL deal, Kadri moves out on a deal for a depth center and a bottom-4 defenseman, and Dubas may not balk at Mitch Marner’s game of chicken.

While none of this is certain, one thing is; the Maple Leafs are going to be movers and shakers at the NHL draft. I am all in on Dubas taking this team, making some changes, and forcing their way to the next step.

Take Warning: Kasimir Kaskisuo is not the Maple Leafs answer

Forget the two recent losses in the Calder Cup playoffs, Kasimir Kaskisuo has been playing great for the Marlies this season. Just please don’t get your hopes up for him next season to make the Leafs.

AHL and Calder Cup success for a goalie prospect? Who does that sound like, Leaf fans? I’m not saying Kaskisuo and Garret Sparks are one and the same, but I’m also not saying that they aren’t.

Either way, with the Leafs ousted from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in round one, it’s been great watching the Baby Buds succeed in the AHL postseason. One of the heroes not named Bracco, Timashov, Liljegren, or Sandin has been goalie Kaskisuo, without a doubt. But, let’s not get it twisted here, he isn’t the next best goalie in Leafs nation.

AHL Lifer?

That’s where I have him pegged. He and Sparks can duke it out for AHL supremacy and the Aldege Bastien Memorial Award (advantage Sparks). Is it harsh to throw this B-Level trajectory on a thriving 25-year-old player currently succeeding in said league? No.

It’s really not. Criticism allows for truth to be separated from bias, and for Kaskisuo the criticism on him is his physical stature. What do Frederik Andersen, Carey Price, Andriy Vasilevsky, and Pekka Rinne all have in common? When you look at them in net there is no sight of mesh behind them.

Kaskisuo, while 6’2″ is very slight. I guess chalk it up to his style, but he lacks the intimidating look of an elite goalie. Likewise, his crease control and vision will be a stumbling block for his success. By this, I mean that after the first shot, Kaskisuo sells out and gives up position to try and make the next save, rather than reducing rebounds and using edgework to stay in position for second chances.

Next in line

Frederik Andersen has two years left on his deal. The Maple Leafs have some serious questions to answer at that time about the state of the club and who is going to be the starting goalie. I think we’ll see a short term Andersen deal, but if not is it up to Kaskisuo to step up?

Again, no is the answer here. I’d be utterly shocked if Kaskisuo is with the Leafs organization at that time because budding superstar goalie prospects Joseph Woll and Ian Scott will likely be in the AHL and pushing each other for the Maple Leafs throne.

The likes of Sparks and Kaskisuo will probably be afterthoughts once these two top-tier prospects get closer to NHL debuts. Hutchinson, Sparks, Kaskisuo. All three are of the same ilk; close to the top level of play in their position but haven’t shown enough to enter that level of play.

As much as Sparks isn’t anything but a low-cost bench warmer for the Leafs, Kaskisuo is too. Don’t let his Calder Cup 1.96 GAA and .935% save percentage fool you.

Put your money where your mouth is, Garret Sparks

Garret Sparks called out his teammates for being emotionless after an embarrassing loss to Ottawa on Saturday. Now slated to start against Buffalo, can Sparks show up in this could-be statement game?

I’ve teeter-tottered on Garret Sparks being the Leafs backup. My interest was peaked in him as he quickly outgrew the talent of the ECHL with the Solar Bears. I then watched him crush it with solid consistency in the AHL with the Marlies. Now, it’s been a white knuckle ride as he’s struggled for that ECHL success and that AHL consistency.

To the Sparks haters I ask this: what do you get out of constantly berating him with offside comments about his play? What good does that do? Why does it have to be all criticism without any constructive? I understand he’s had some howlers this season, but no credit when he plays well?

Actually, in his last three appearances, Sparks has been playing well! He’s also had to relieved Andersen twice, which is something he hasn’t had to do too much in his Maple Leafs career. He came in cold and came up with saves where his team needed him.

(Relief) Tampa Game: 2 GA, 21 saves, .913 save percentage
(Relief) Chicago Game: 1 GA, 24 saves, .960 save percentage
(Start) Ottawa Game: 6 GA, 38 saves, .864 save percentage

Not bad up until that Ottawa game, right? Agreed, although in the Sens debacle Sparks was a revelation in the first period. Sparks played so well, making Andersen-esque saves time after time in an attempt to build up some momentum for his team. Instead, the Leafs continued to allow a rookie-laden Sens team pen them in and eventually break down Sparks.

Life after losing to Ottawa

After that awful team performance Sparks had this to say:

Who says the Leafs don’t need a captain? Why is Sparks getting interviewed post game? Who on this team takes the brunt of the media when the team plays poorly? Lately, it’s been a rotating door of different players forced into answering questions that they don’t really know how to answer as Sparks exemplified above.

Either way, he’s called out his teammates for playing without emotion and now needs to show up against the Sabres. Buffalo has a fast, skilled, and under-performing team that can put up goals at will. It will be a tough test for Sparks tonight who needs to back up his comments and lead from the crease.

Should the Sen’s win over Toronto give the Leafs hope to beat Boston?

Hockey games aren’t won on paper, and the Ottawa Senators proved that on Saturday night as they completely dismantled the much better Maple Leafs. Can Toronto take solace in the loss heading into the playoffs?

Who had that score line predicted before the game? I’m sure Ottawa fans (who watched from home, lets be honest) didn’t even see that explosive game coming. It’s inexplicable but maybe there is a lesson the Leafs can take from the game.

Hockey Games Aren’t Won on Paper

Who wants it more. That will be the question that decides Toronto’s eventual playoff series with the Boston Bruins. The Leafs seem resigned to cede home ice advantage to Boston, which isn’t a great tactic to be fair, but until we get to the playoffs, we won’t have any idea how this team will fare.

On Saturday, Ottawa showed Toronto that hockey games can be won on pure desire. A young, inexperienced team beat the offensive juggernaut Maple Leafs by shocking them with goals, simply because the pressure was off and they wanted the win more.

Call it a faulty ‘big team mentality’ but the Leafs appear to have overlooked Ottawa in this game and when they slapped them in the face with an unrelenting attack, Toronto had no answers for them.

Anders Nilsson played a role in Ottawa’s win, as well. He backstopped them to the unlikely 6-2 scoreline with some tremendous saves. On the other side, it’s easy to point the finger at Garret Sparks in net for Toronto for the loss but Sparks played extremely well and again was let down by his team defense on the majority of the goals.

Hockey Isn’t Fair

Toronto can embrace this. Everyone, including a lot of Leafs fans, are counting the Leafs out of their impending playoff series with Boston before they postseason even starts. I, for one, am not one of those doubters. I don’t want to come out and say they’ll win, but I think they have as much of a chance to beat Boston as they Bruins have to beat them.

It’s essentially a pick’em. Toronto has the better and deeper offense, Boston has one of the most effective first-lines in the NHL and a better defense-core. Ironically, on paper the Leafs might have the edge on Boston, but hockey isn’t fair like that.

It’s all burned into our minds. The playoff series that slipped away years ago with the old regime, and the grinding loss last season to the Bruins as well. Boston has the mental advantage and has people thinking they’ll repeat their first-round win over Toronto.

Ottawa showed Toronto that desire and wanting it more can outweigh on-paper skill of the perception of the public. Toronto should embrace the underdog mentality like the Sen’s did and shock the hockey world. It kind of sucks that their prize will be Tampa thought…

When the times get tough, the Leafs get going; Toronto quits as bounces go Tampa’s Way

Hand up: who settled in on a warm Monday night to watch the Leafs take on divisional and league leaders Tampa Bay in what could be a measuring stick game? Okay, hand up: who watched the full 60 minutes?

An utterly sad effort from the Blue and White saw Tampa Bay assert their dominance over the Leafs last night. Toronto, a team poised and playing for the ever-important right to home ice in the playoffs couldn’t rock the boat against a well-oiled, albeit unmotivated Tampa team.

With the abysmal scoreline ending up 6-2, can we hang the goals on anyone? My answer? No not goals but a specific goal, yes. That goal was the shorthanded and fifth goal of the game. All but puck-chaser Morgan Rielly took the clearance as a chance to change, and with no one in support Tampa forced a turnover and scored on a SHORTHANDED 3 ON 1.

Every other goal against was a flukey bounce that Toronto never seems to get going their way. Cross-crease toe deflection and in, screened slot deflection and in, mask-popping rebound centered to man alone in front, off the draw deflection off Matthews and in on a well wide shot, *omit 3 on 1 shorthanded goal*, and deflection in front that found a way in.

That fifth goal against, that was the true mark of a team who gave up. Toronto had a powerplay and an opportunity to get back in the game. Instead of buckling down and looking to claw their way back into the game, the first unit sewered Rielly by taking a line change.

Somehow, a Few Players Impressed

First and foremost, Auston Matthews looked like he wanted to win this game. He was firing on all cylinders throughout the night but his linemates couldn’t keep up with him or the Tampa defense. Yes, Matthews also had the giveaway that led to the first goal, but I’m willing to look past that if you are.

The first goal of the game was another clip to his highlight reel, too, to balance things out:

Imagine having cemented linemates for your generational, franchise center? Seems crazy, doesn’t it? Well, until Babcock and Dubas want to commit to finding him a leftwinger I fear we’ll never see the sustained success of this superstar.

On defense, I thought two players actually played well. Jake Muzzin took a bonehead penalty in the first, but after Tampa failed to score on it he battened down the hatches and started firing his shot from the point with regularity.

He finished a -2 but I’m hard pressed to find him at fault for either goal against. Likewise, Rielly did well tonight for Hainsey who made a bit of a mess on the ice. Usually the pair is responsible and can shut down the elite attacking of the opposition, but only half pulled their weight tonight.

Like Muzzin, Rielly was a -2 but led the team in ice-time at 21:07.

Lastly, Garret Sparks came off the bench and looked good for Toronto. The game was seemingly in hand for Tampa at the time, especially after dismissing Andersen, but Sparks stood tall in net.

Both goals allowed are hard to fault him on. On the shorthanded 3 on 1 he could have came out to play the puck and help out Rielly, but to his defense I’m sure he didn’t think his entire time would take a lazy line change, and the puck was curling away from him positioning in the crease. The second was a tip in front that found it’s way in.

Sparks made 21 saves in his half-game and showed that with the pressure off, he can perform.

The Ugly, Lazy Truth

Nazem Kadri is certainly not in game shape after his 8-game concussion layoff. As much as I would like to trust the well decorated Mike Babcock, Kadri looked bad against Edmonton and predictably followed that up with another bad performance again against Tampa. So, why force him back onto a struggling powerplay unit in both games then? It doesn’t make sense to me.

In both games he collected an assist, which Kadri apologists will hide behind as justification for “good games,” but he brings zero intensity, is a pushover on draws, and cannot hold onto possession for the life of him.

Along with Kadri, Connor Brown has been a shell of what we all thought he would be this season and utterly stunk last night. I suppose effort and grinding to win a roster spot and contract is what the goal is, but the other end of the deal is that you, ya know, take the next step and continue to grow. Brown has failed to do that and doesn’t make my September training camp roster next season. His garbage time goal doesn’t change my opinion.

Tavares – Marner – Hyman, where did you go? The Leafs defacto top line in Matthews’ injury-ridden season yet again went MIA in a crucial game? Marner danced along the ice as he usually does, but I cannot recall hearing Tavares’ name mentioned once in the broadcast. Toronto needs better from this (currently) underperforming line.

Upon Further Review…

Toronto was missing two of their top four defensemen, and Kasperi Kapanen was a late-game scratch hurting the top-9 forward group. The excuses are there, but I’m not convinced the team would have fared much differently had these players been in the lineup.

The game was won on lucky bounces that found the back of the Leafs’ net and not the Lightning’s. Toronto didn’t press enough offensively and lacked the edge to force turnovers when Tampa held possession, and it showed in the final scoreline.

That being said, this game is a hell of a lot more respectable if the team didn’t quit on the fifth goal against just because things weren’t bouncing their way in this one. That is the unacceptable part. If this can be a learning experience, so be it, but it cannot happen again.

Garret Sparks’ deal is a short-term solution to the Marleau contract problem

Kyle Dubas and Brandon Pridham are at it again with the extension of Garret Sparks. The Leafs so-so backup goalie has been inked for another year on a cap friendly deal to levy the hit of Patrick Marleau

Boiled down to as simple of a reason as I could find, the Maple Leafs are leveraging a low-risk position, the backup goalie, to accommodate Patrick Marleau’s $6 million contract for it’s final year in 2019/2020.

Rather than dip into free agency for a low-value position like a maximum 20-game backup goalie, Dubas is riding out Sparks. Sparks is a completely adequate backup for Frederick Andersen and at $750k is a bargain.

The gamble is that Andersen won’t get injured. If that should happen, Toronto will be forced into a Sparks/Kaskisuo tandem that just about no one would be confident in.

The benefit of Sparks over a free agent is that he is homegrown. He knows the coaches, he knows the systems, he knows the building, he knows the team. He’s another stable player who helps solidify a team that will likely see quite a bit of turnover before the start of next season.

As well, Sparks signing this extension now allows for yet another piece of the puzzle to fall into place for Dubas before he tries to resign Mitch Marner, Andreas Johnsson, and Kasperi Kapanen.

The upside of a one year deal is that band-aid style resolution it gives the team; a low risk, apply as you need it smart bit of business. Should Joseph Woll and Ian Scott make the jump to the AHL or ECHL for next season then the contingency plan is essentially in effect, and Sparks’ one-year deals stop.

It’s shrewd business from Dubas and Pridham who are trying to shoehorn the top end talent into this deep, young team. Even Sparks’ harshest critics surely wouldn’t have a problem with this deal if it helped sign one of Marner, Johnsson, or Kapanen, right?

Garret Sparks, it’s Not Your Fault; Leafs Lose Big in Defensive Catastrophy

The Maple Leafs were (maybe predictably) slaughtered at Nassau Coliseum after Islanders fans embarrass themselves about John Tavares’s return. Nothing is fair and just, and the hockey Gods don’t exist. Oh, and Sparks wasn’t to blame.

Recap

Islanders 6 Maple Leafs 1. Pretty telling of the performance by the Buds and also that there is no justice in the hockey world. Islanders fans kept true to their idiotic word, chanting: “we don’t need you”, and “asshole” among other creative jibes while throwing jerseys and rubber snakes on the ice.

Just as a reminder, Tavares left in free agency after playing nine seasons for the New York Islanders. What a dick, right?

Anyways, it wasn’t terrible from the start as Zach Hyman got the scoring started. Hainsey’s point shot was deflected by Marner to Hyman who was able to bounce it in over Robin Lehner for the opener. Other than a disallowed second from Hyman, the Leafs offense ended there.

They still forced Lehner to make 34 saves in the game, but the intensity of the fans was matched by a tenacious Islanders team who were motivated to repay the Long Island faithful with a marquee performance. And they did.

Diving in on a shaky Garret Sparks

What would follow Hyman’s opener was six unanswered goals. Many are pointing the finger at backup goalie Garret Sparks but is that fair? Here’s my assessment of each goal and who was to blame for it:

1st goal: Anthony Beauvillier – 3 on 1 break, Sparks hung out to dry by Muzzin who decided to make a hit instead of keeping the puck in or, ya know, playing defense.
2nd goal: Anders Lee – Rielly gambles on center ice hit that he doesn’t land, Johnsson and Hainsey don’t communicate, leaving Lee opened in front for a half-empty net. Sparks not to blame either.
3rd goal: Casey Cizikas – Bad miss on a simple pass to Muzzin, soft on the stick by Ennis, but you need your goalie to make the simple stick down save there. Not entirely his fault, but it’s a savable shot.
4th goal: Valtteri Filppula – It’s a save that Andersen usually makes, but Marincin and Holl make an absolute mess out of this. Holl rushes to cover the Filppula in front, Marincin also does, Ladd is able to rush the net and shoot, both players lose Filppula and he ends up scoring. Sparks rebound control wasn’t great here but had zero help in front.
5th goal: Nick Leddy – Weird tip in front. No one really to blame on this one, this shot misses the net 9/10.
6th goal: Brock Nelson – Sparks easily abandons the top of the net on a post play which allows Nelson to score it. Again, Andersen makes this save but Marincin makes an idiotic pinch, then just chooses not to cover his man and goes back post where Rielly already is.

Upon further review…

From my initial watching, I was glaringly mad at Sparks. It was another start, another shaky performance, and I was ready to point the finger. Looking back on it, however, this game plays out very differently if Jake Muzzin plays better and Martin Marincin is nowhere near the team.

It’s a shame that Babcock didn’t deviate from his plan of playing Andersen the first game in every back-to-back for this one game. That being said, the players on the ice let Tavares down, as well as their backup goalie.

The Sparks criticism is certainly warranted, but only for maybe 3 of the 6 goals against. He wasn’t outstanding as we all really expected, but take your own look back on the goals, Sparks gets hung out to dry – a lot.

Overall…

It’s a shame for Tavares, but this game clearly meant more to the opposition than it did to his Leafs. Toronto isn’t playing playoff games in February, but the Islanders are. This was their Stanley Cup. Congratulations, I guess.

It’s two points a month before the playoffs start, so it’s important, but there isn’t much you can draw from this game other than it being a one-off. The Leafs were outplayed but judging by recent form and results, this game isn’t a barometer of games to come.

Leafs Forced to use Three Second-Stringers in John Tavares’ Return to Long Island

Jake Gardiner – Out, Travis Dermott – Out, Frederick Andersen – resting. Thing’s are a little lean on the back end for the Toronto Maple Leafs as they visit Tavares’ old home in Long Island.

New Third Pair

Ahead of the second game in the back-to-back the Leafs are shuffling their defensive lines a little more and mixing in players as much as they can it would seem. Martin Marincin has been called up to pair with Justin Holl as the bottom two for the Leafs defense.

It’s an interesting move for Mike Babcock, to not pair each new player off with a veteran, but rather pair them together. I understand, however, the desire to keep your greenest defenders on a pair that you can minute-manage for the entirety of the game.

The Gardiner injury saw Igor Ozhiganov return to the lineup after a months absence and he played well. Ozhiganov finished with an empty stat line and 15:08 if ice time. While underwhelming, it’s a positive; Igor showed he can seamlessly return to the team and put in a solid effort.

Justin Holl

Ozhiganov did well, but there is no need to rush him into what looks to be a high intensity back-to-back. Justin Holl, the Leafs OTHER extra defenseman will get the right-side duties tonight on the bottom pairing.

Holl impressed last season after getting called up and scoring in back-to-back games from the blue line. He impressed in those two games with the two goals and, more importantly, his +5 rating in that stretch.

There is a possible problem with injecting Holl into the lineup tonight. That issue is rust. Holl has played in just 2 NHL games this season and due to having waivers attached to him, has had no AHL games to keep him in game shape.

I would have liked to have seen Holl in the first game against Edmonton in Gardiner’s absence but that’s only due to the hindsight gained after the Dermott injury. Holl will have a tired team in front of him but no doubt they’ll be motivated for JT.

Martin Marincin

I’m seriously impressed that Martin Marincin is still a Maple Leaf right now. He played a big part in the Leafs’ playoff defensive woes last season and offers little to nothing from the back. This begs the question: why is Marincin getting the call up?

Let’s be honest here, Marincin is in because Calle Rosen is injured.

The Leafs did have Marincin on the roster earlier this season. Once Ennis returned from injury, however, there was no roster space available for him and he was waived. Despite my crossed fingers, Marincin (and his gaudy $700,000 contract) wasn’t claimed by anyone and he’s been in the AHL since.

In his 10 games with the Leafs this season, Marincin has chipped in 2 assists with a -1 rating. In his 8 AHL games, he has 1 goal and 3 assists for a 0+/-.

Scheduled Sparks gets the Start

As is tradition this season, Garret Sparks gets the start for the Leafs second game in the back-to-back. It’s good for Sparks to get into a game that will have a playoff-like intensity, providing him meaningful NHL hockey experience while still in the regular season.

There is little to no pressure on Sparks, whose job is basically to take whatever the opposition throws at him. He’s tasked with playing and knowing there is little to no chance of Frederick Andersen coming off the bench to relieve him.

Sparks hasn’t looked the most steady in net this season, but his stats show he’s doing a fine job as a backup. Throughout his 13 games played this season, Sparks is 7-3 with a .908% save percentage and GAA of 2.86.

He’s improved on his numbers in 15/16 when he first came up which is terrific. The next step in Sparks’ development is to learn how to stay more composed in net, which he can absorb from Andersen’s style of play.

It’ll be a tough game, regardless of Toronto’s bottom pairing and backup goaltender getting the start. Hopefully, the added pressure on the Leafs to come together for Tavares can inspire a solid performance.