Things are happening for Toronto Maple Leafs fans. Last week it was the announcement of a 24-team play-in tournament as a way to complete the 2019-20 NHL season. This week it’s working out of the details that would allow the Maple Leafs and 23 other playoff-bound NHL teams to prepare and transition into what’s been named “Phase 2” of the NHL’s reopening.
Phase 2 of the league’s reopening plan calls for players to return to their team’s facilities or to train in small groups. That Phase could start as early as next week (in early June); however, (Phase 3) formal training camps won’t begin before July 1. Phase 4 will be in-conference round-robin games, playoff qualifying rounds, and the Stanley Cup Playoffs; however, we’re not at all sure when those might happen.
As players and teams decide how to engage Phase 2, in this post I want to discuss some of the news and rumors that have come up about the Maple Leafs. Specifically, in this post, I’ll talk about two young organizational prospects who find themselves at different stages of their careers with the Maple Leafs organization.
Item One: Noel Hoefenmayer Turns a Setback into a Potential Setup
In an interview on Thursday of this week (May 28) with TSN’s Mark Masters, Noel Hoefenmayer talked about how being dumped by the Arizona Coyotes actually turned from a setback to a potential dream come true. During the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, Hoefenmayer was chosen in the fourth round by the Coyotes. However, in 2019 when Arizona decided not to sign him to a contract, they relinquished his rights.
As Hoefenmayer told Masters during his interview, “It drove me and pushed me to new limits so I’m grateful for that.”
His dream was always to play in the NHL. But last summer the prolific 21-year-old Ottawa 67’s defenseman didn’t allow a momentary setback – being spurned by one NHL team – douse his spirit. Instead, the 6-foot-1, 196-pound North York native stayed in Ottawa working closely and diligently with the 67’s strength and conditioning coach and the skills team.
That work paid off. In his overage 2019-20 season, Hoefenmayer won the Max Kaminsky Trophy as the OHL’s top defenseman. In addition, he led all major junior defensemen with 82 points in 58 games.
Obviously, the young defenseman is driven. More than once during the Masters’ interview, Hoefenmayer noted the extra motivation that being dumped gave him. He added, “I’m really happy that my offseason work paid off. I took not signing with Arizona pretty seriously when I was working last summer. I knew what my goals were, I knew what I was working for so to have that pay off was rewarding.”
Hoefenmayer’s play improved so much that he lifted his point total by 20 points while playing in 10 fewer games than in 2018-19. As a result, he signed an AHL contract with the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies. Suddenly, he’s one step closer to the Maple Leafs roster.
Obviously, Hoefenmayer also learned you should take nothing for granted. Although he’s closer, he also wisely noted: “The road never ends until you’re there. It’s a good step forward, but there’s a lot more hard work to do.”
When Masters asked him about possibly playing for the Maple Leafs, he noted that, because he was a “Toronto kid,” playing for his hometown team would be a “true honor.” He also mentioned the Maple Leafs development staff was a huge plus for him.
He said, “I’ve seen it throughout the years and it’s well-known throughout the whole of hockey that they have a great development system.”
Specifically, what stood out for him most about the development team was Barb Underhill. “She’s a great skating coach and she’s worked with a lot of players in the NHL especially with the Leafs and turned them into great skaters and that’s the No. 1 area I need to work on. She’s very good so I’m excited to work with her.”
Welcome to the Maple Leafs organization, Mr. Hoefenmayer. The team needs good defensemen.
Item Two: Why Kyle Dubas Appreciates Nick Robertson So Much
On Wednesday, May 27, Maple Leafs Team President Brendan Shanahan, general manager Kyle Dubas, and team captain John Tavares held a conference call with the media to provide updates about the NHL’s Return to Play plans. During that call, Dubas announced that the organization’s 2019 second-round draft choice Nick Robertson would be part of the team’s roster when it returned to the ice.
In that conference call, Dubas was specific about what he likes so much about the diminutive-in-size but giant-in-heart Robertson. He claimed, “The main thing about Nick is that he had a great season in Peterborough and continued to improve in what he can offer. Obviously he scored at a prolific level, one of the best scoring seasons in the history of the OHL, but it was the way that he scored that was more important to us, pressuring up the ice on the defensive side, making steals and scoring short-handed and on the penalty kill, which is how he scored his 50th goal.”
About whether Robertson would be ready to play, Dubas added, “I think more than anything, as I said earlier, conditioning level and the commitment to your fitness level as an individual and as a team is going to have such a major impact on how you perform coming back from this, and Nick is a person who’s as committed as any that I’ve seen certainly at that age, and I know what he’s been doing since he’s been back home in Los Angeles and quarantining at home and I know his commitment to be in the best possible shape that he can be and that combined with his talent and ability, makes me believe that he’ll give a good run for not only just to be here but to potentially be on the roster.”
It’s easy to see that Dubas is paying attention to his organization’s players, no matter where they played. As well, from what I’ve seen about Dubas and his honesty, Maple Leafs fans might be in for a treat. I’ve already noted that – as a fan myself – it would be exciting to see Robertson get some shifts with the team. Obviously, the point is to win games; however, if Robertson’s as good as his 2019-20 season hinted, he might just be able to help the team win.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
In his conference call, Dubas also noted that issues must be worked out before deciding where Maple Leafs players will congregate for Phase 2. Because people entering Canada from other countries must serve a 14-day quarantine, Dubas noted that quite a few players – “if not most of them” – have already started to book travel back to Toronto.
Dubas admitted that “We haven’t encouraged it, because it is a voluntary phase for players, but it seems that most of our guys would like to be here and at least be into their small groups with us, which will begin at some point here in the next week or two weeks.”
However, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun suggested a wrinkle in those plans. He noted that Auston Matthews and Frederik Andersen might hold off any return to Toronto given the need to quarantine themselves. (from “The possibility of trades this summer and Canada’s training camp concern, Pierre LeBrun, The Athletic, 28/05/20)
Further complicating matters was Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning’s thought that his club might train in the United States if the Canadian government maintains quarantine restrictions. The mandatory quarantine makes it unlikely that Toronto, Edmonton, or Vancouver would be picked as one of the two hub cities that host playoff games.
As fans, we know something is happening, however, it’s complicated. As June 1 approaches, we have much to watch for.