- Roughly a dozen teams were interested in defenseman Teemu Kivihalme, who signed with the Maple Leafs last week, notes Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star. The 23-year-old wasn’t promised a spot with the big club but with the expected departures of Jake Gardiner, Ron Hainsey, Martin Marincin, and Igor Ozhiganov plus the injury to Travis Dermott, there should be multiple roster spots up for grabs on Toronto’s back end next season.
Maple Leafs Rumors
The Chicago Blackhawks will be adding some extra forward depth for next season after the team was informed that Swedish free agent Anton Wedin has chosen Chicago over two other teams and will sign a one-year entry-level contract, according to The Athletic’s Scott Powers (subscription required). Wedin’s agent, Michael Deutsch, commented on the signing:
Anton was faced with a very difficult decision. He had multiple offers, all of which were excellent opportunities. Ultimately, he felt that the Blackhawks were a good fit for his style of play and felt comfortable knowing that the coach already knew him from his time in Sweden.”
The 26-year-old left-shot winger had a breakout year in his first year in the Swedish Hockey League after spending most of his career in the Allsvenskan, posting 14 goals and 27 points for Timra IK. However, with his team heading back to the second-tier Allsvenskan next season, Wedin was ready to jump to North America. He chose the Blackhawks over the Toronto Maple Leafs and Arizona Coyotes, although he was received significant interest from across the league. One potential reason could be his familiarity with Blackhawks’ head coach Jeremy Colliton, who previously coached for a rival team in the Allsvenskan, Mora IK.
While the Blackhawks have improved their top-six, the team continues to add to their depth to put together the best team possible. General manager Stan Bowman has shown interest in adding talent from overseas, as the team has signed Artemi Panarin, Erik Gustafsson, David Kampf and Michal Kempny in recent years. The team had success a year ago as well when they signed German forward Dominik Kahun to a two-year entry-level contact, who proved to be a key depth piece after putting up 13 goals and 37 points. In Wedin, a 5-foot-11, 194-pound forward is known for his speed and all-around game, but he’ll have to fight for a roster space and may start the season in the AHL.
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas took the blame for many things that went wrong this year at his season-ending press conference, the most interesting of which is the team’s struggle with the penalty kill, which stopped the Boston Bruins’ power play just nine out of 16 times during the playoffs. Dubas admitted he should have had more depth. While the coaching staff should be blamed as well, Sportsnet’s Luke Fox suggests ways to fix that penalty kill for next season.
The top suggestion is that the team must use real centers to take faceoffs during the penalty kill as winger Zach Hyman took the most faceoffs last season, going 69-72, while star John Tavares took just 29 faceoffs on the penalty kill and was the 12th-most used player on the penalty kill. The team must also add some depth to this team that could lose quite a few key penalty killers whether it’s Connor Brown, who is considered trade bait; Ron Hainsey, who will be an unrestricted free agent; or Travis Dermott, who will miss six months after shoulder surgery, the team must add players who can help their penalty kill.
- One Atlantic Division challenger to the Maple Leafs could be in the running for one of their unrestricted free agents, as The Athletic’s Olivier Bouchard (subscription required) believes that the Montreal Canadiens should go after unrestricted free agent Jake Gardiner. The scribe points out that when the dust clears, Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin should have close to $11MM at his disposal and with defense being one of the team’s biggest need, Gardiner might be the perfect addition as the blueliner should be able to force defenseman Brett Kulak to a bottom-pairing role.
- Lance Lysowski of the Buffalo News writes that while the Buffalo Sabres have considered the possibility of trading defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen for a top-six forward, he believes that would be a mistake, claiming that rather than hiding his defensive weaknesses, the team keeps placing him in a role that doesn’t suit him, which is attempting to shutdown the opposing team’s players. Ristolainen, who finished the season with a NHL-worst rating of minus-41, has often been paired with defensive deficient players like Marco Scandella and Jake McCabe, while he also struggled inexplicably when paired with Rasmus Dahlin. Regardless, a new coach that can utilize Ristolainen properly might get the most out of him rather than the Sabres watch him flourish with another team.
- Joe Haggerty of NBC Sports writes that Boston Bruins forward Noel Acciari has returned to practice and while he’s not expected to play in Game 2 on Sunday against the Carolina Huricanes, he could be ready for Game 3 in Carolina. Acciari, practiced in a non-contact jersey Saturday for the first time after missing the last three playoff games with an upper-body injury. “[Acciari] won’t play tomorrow,” said Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. “He’s doing well. He should be a full practice [participant] for Monday. We’ll see what we’re doing [as a team] that day, but he’ll be ready whatever the case may be. Hopefully, that allows him to play Tuesday and then we’ll make our decision then.”
It’s already been a difficult off-season on the injury front for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who will likely not have Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott when the 2019-20 season begins following recent surgeries. So, when it was announced on Thursday that star John Tavares had suffered an injury and was forced to abandon Team Canada and the IIHF World Championships, Toronto fans were understandably worried that the team could be down another man long-term. However, that won’t be the case. The Leafs followed up on the news with an update today that Tavares suffered an oblique injury and will be out approximately one month, after which he is expected to resume his normal off-season training program.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman echoes the Leafs’ announcement, reporting that the he has heard it was an oblique strain that will require a rehab period of about four weeks. However, Friedman adds that after four weeks it is likely that Tavares will have made a “full recovery”. While the injury may cut into his preparation for next season somewhat, Tavares should be back on track by mid-June at the latest and will have more than two full months of his regular training regiment. As such, there is no concern that Tavares will be feeling any ill effects of the oblique strain by the time training camp rolls around and barring another injury will be at full strength to begin the year.
Tavares, who notched a career-high 47 goals this season while playing in every game for Toronto, is obviously a key part of a successful 2019-20 campaign for the team. However, his full health and maximum effort may be even more important next season. Beyond the injuries to Hyman and Dermott, a knee and shoulder respectively, that will keep them out likely through at least the first month of the season, several other departures could be in store for the Maple Leafs this summer. Mitch Marner, the only Leaf to outscore Tavares this season, Kasperi Kapanen, and Andreas Johnsson are all restricted free agents and Toronto will find it next to impossible to re-sign all three without trading away another core forward. The defense is also set to undergo an overhaul this summer, whether it works in their favor or not. One way or another, there will be slack to pick up next season and a healthy Tavares and his elite two-way game will go a long way to getting off to a good start.
Just as NHL teams have started to snap up European free agents to join them for next season, some North American players will also start heading overseas despite not technically being free agents yet. Many fringe players who are heading towards free agency will have spoken to their team and know whether or not they have a chance to re-sign, giving them some advance notice in order to find a job for 2019-20. There’s also the case of NHL prospects re-upping with their international clubs, instead of coming to North America just yet. Here are some notes from overseas:
- John Ramage is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this season after spending 2018-19 with the Binghamton Devils, but instead of re-signing with the New Jersey organization he’s headed to Germany to play in the DEL. Ramage signed a two-year deal with Berlin, ending his run in North America for the time being. The 28-year old defenseman has won at nearly every level, taking home gold medals at the U18 and U20 World Juniors and championships in both the ECHL and AHL levels.
- Arvid Holm was selected in the sixth round by the Winnipeg Jets in 2017, but isn’t yet ready to make the trip overseas. Holm has signed a one-year deal with Farjestad in the SHL in order to continue his development in Sweden. The 6’4″ goaltender put up a .907 save percentage in the Swedish second league last season, but may get a chance at the highest level in 2019-20.
- Jesper Lindgren has done the opposite, coming to North America now that his season has ended in Finland. The Toronto Maple Leafs have assigned Lindgren to the AHL after he took home the Liiga championship with HPK. The right-handed defenseman is just 21, but already signed his entry-level contract last spring. The right-handed defenseman is another prospect they hope can develop and help out the NHL defense down the road, but he needs some more development time in the minor leagues.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will be without one of their young defensemen when the 2019-20 season gets underway. Travis Dermott is scheduled to undergo shoulder surgery on Friday, and will be out a minimum of six months.
Dermott is now the second Maple Leafs player expected to miss the start of the season, as Zach Hyman’s knee surgery also carried a six month recovery period. Both releases also carried the qualifier of “at least,” meaning that the team may be looking at a prolonged absence for one or both. While Hyman will leave a hole on the left side of the Toronto forward group, Dermott’s injury may be even more impactful given the team’s lack of depth on the blue line.
Since his arrival on the Maple Leafs during the 2017-18 season, Dermott’s play has been exemplary and at times deserving of even more responsibility. With Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey heading towards unrestricted free agency this summer it appeared as though he would get that chance, but he’ll now have to battle just to get back on the ice as soon as possible. Toronto meanwhile will have to figure out a way of filling their defense group out of the group of fringe NHL talents and prospects, or find a solution on the open market. Calle Rosen, Rasmus Sandin, Andreas Borgman and the recently signed Teemu Kivihalme can all play Dermott’s natural left side, but none of them have even his 101 games of NHL experience.
Now that the Conference Finals are set, the draft order is set up to pick 27. The Tampa Bay Lightning will select in that slot, while the four remaining teams—or whoever owns their first-round pick—will fit into 28-31. Notably, the Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings now know exactly where their newly acquired first rounders will land. The Senators will use the Columbus Blue Jackets’ selection at No. 19, the Rangers will follow with the Winnipeg Jets’ pick at 20, and the Kings get the chance to add another top prospect at No. 22 where the Toronto Maple Leafs finished.
Even though the Colorado Avalanche were crushed last night when they lost a game seven against the San Jose Sharks, there is plenty to look forward to next month. The Avalanche will get to select 4th and 16th even after getting to the second round, thanks to the way the playoffs have shaken out overall. Adding two more players of that caliber could help the Avalanche become an even more realistic contender for the Stanley Cup. The full order can be found here, thanks to CapFriendly.
- John Tavares was set to lead Team Canada at the IIHF World Championship that opens tomorrow, but now won’t get the chance. The Maple Leafs’ center has suffered an oblique injury and will return to Toronto for further evaluation. The Canadian roster was already lacking a bit of goal scoring punch, but will have to find a way to create some offense without the 47-goal man.
- The AHL Eastern Conference Final is also set, after the Charlotte Checkers finished their sweep of the Hershey Bears last night. The Checkers will take on the defending Calder Cup champion Toronto Marlies, who are undefeated so far in these playoffs. Game one is scheduled for May 17th in Charlotte, giving the Western teams time to finish off their respective series.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have signed another international free agent, inking Teemu Kivihalme to a one-year entry-level contract. Kivihalme played the last two seasons in Finland after leaving Colorado College in 2017. Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star reports that the deal is worth $800K at the NHL level and does not include any performance bonuses.
Kivihalme, 23, was originally a fifth-round pick by the Nashville Predators in 2013 but never ended up signing with them. The left-handed defenseman was actually born in the United States when his father was playing at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, and played in the Minnesota high school system and USHL before heading to the NCAA. Three years at Colorado College saw Kivihalme record 36 points in 107 games but he left before his senior season. In Finland’s top league playing for a much stronger team than the one he had in Colorado, the young defenseman put it all together and became a legitimate two-way threat.
In his rookie season, Kivihalme recorded 20 points in 44 games and helped Karpat secure a league championship. This season he recorded 30 points in 60 games before adding another nine in 16 playoff contests, but was unable to topple HPK in the finals. Still, there were few defensemen more effective than Kivihalme in the playoffs this season and it is obvious why there was NHL interest.
With another defenseman added to the roster, the Maple Leafs now have several young options to choose from in trying to replace the outgoing Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey (provided neither of them re-sign with the team). Kivihalme, Calle Rosen, Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren and Andreas Borgman will all have a chance to prove themselves in training camp if the team doesn’t add any more veteran options. These young players are going to have to perform for the Maple Leafs if they want to contend for the Stanley Cup, as the top-heavy roster will need contributions from players on entry-level—or close to it—contracts.
- Maple Leafs defenseman Igor Ozhiganov has indeed decided to return to the KHL for next season, reports Jonas Siegel of The Athletic (Twitter link). The move had been speculated in recent weeks, especially after he lost his regular spot in the lineup and the fact that his KHL rights were dealt to Ak Bars Kazan at the beginning of the month. Toronto can issue a qualifying offer to Ozhiganov this summer that would allow them to retain his NHL rights for one more year though he’ll be eligible for unrestricted free agency either way in the summer of 2020.
- The Maple Leafs have released defenseman Eemeli Rasanen from his PTO with their AHL affiliate, per the AHL’s Transactions page. The 20-year-old split the season between Jokerit of the KHL and Kiekko-Vantaa of the Mestis, Finland’s second division before joining the Marlies in mid-March when his season came to an end. However, he played in just five regular season games down the stretch and has yet to suit up in the postseason. Rasanen, a second-rounder back in 2017, is already signed with Jokerit for the 2019-20 season.