The Toronto Maple Leafs have had issues throughout the season with slow starts and that was illustrated louder than ever in a 3-2 loss to the Dallas Stars at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday. The Leafs allowed goals on the first shot in each period, with Tyler Seguin’s power-play goal early in the third being the eventual game-winner.
Auston Matthews scored his 41st of the season to tie David Pastrnak for the NHL lead and Zach Hyman scored late in regulation to draw Toronto close, but the Leafs had difficulty getting quality scoring chances past the stingy Dallas defense and were stymied by Ben Bishop, who made 29 saves in the win.
“We learned (that we were) playing against a team that knows how to make it hard on you defensively. You can’t spot them a lead just because you make it even harder. That’s a real tough team to play against when you’re chasing a game.” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said after the game “It was the opposite when we were down in Dallas(a 5-3 victory on January 29th), we played with the lead virtually the whole game, all the way through and they had to open up, so we had lots of chances, lots of good things happening for us. It was a much different hockey game. We spot(ted) them the lead here really at the start of every period, spot them goals like, and it’s going to make it real tough.”
The news was not good on the injury front as well, as the Leafs lost winger Andreas Johnsson in the first period after he collided knee-on-knee with linemate Kasperi Kapanen. Keefe indicated after the game that the injury was not short-term and revealed on Friday that Johnsson will have surgery and will be out eight weeks.
With seven weeks remaining in the regular season, Johnsson will likely be placed on long-term injured reserve for the rest of the regular season, which means that the Leafs will be able to use the cap space opened by placing his $3.4 Million cap hit on LTIR at the trade deadline.
Keefe also provided a medical update on Morgan Rielly, who suffered a fractured foot against the Florida Panthers in mid-January, saying that the injured defenseman should be able to bear weight on his foot in the next week or so and that the club is targeting his return for late March.
Toronto may look to add a depth forward prior to February 24th unless they feel that a Pierre Engvall or Kyle Clifford cannot handle being promoted into the top nine, but undoubtedly the availability of cap space with Johnsson’s injury allowed GM Kyle Dubas to tap into the rental market for defensive help.
Dubas would prefer a long term solution on the blueline, but that would necessitate dealing a top-nine forward like Alex Kerfoot or Kasperi Kapanen and that could make the Leafs a bit thin up front. With their first and third-round picks in 2020 and another conditional pick in 2021 dealt to Carolina and Los Angeles, the Leafs may be limited to dealing a mid-round pick for a veteran rental, but that type of deal is not impossible to complete over the next 10 days.
Numerous reports indicate that the Leafs and defenseman Jake Muzzin are closing in on a contract extension. The Woodstock, ON native turns 31 next week and enjoys playing in Toronto, and the Leafs recognize the need for his leadership and physical tendencies on the blueline. TSN’s Darren Dreger speculates that the deal could be a four-year term and in the $5+ Million range.
That would give Toronto five blueliners (Rielly, Muzzin, Justin Holl, rookies Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren) signed for next year and decrease the likelihood of Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie returning.
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