NHL

Maple Leafs Final Loss to the Jets Has Playoff Implications

In the post-game recap of the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets in both team’s final game of the season, CBC sports noted “The game meant little as both teams already have their first-round playoff matches set.”

That’s true on one hand; it didn’t impact the standings. From the perspective of the standings not moving and the teams involved in those matchups not changing, the CBC assessment was accurate. However, to equate the game meaning little because of the standings misses all the little micro-stories that will both impact player’s and the team over the upcoming playoffs.

Related: Toronto Maple Leafs: Stitching Together the Ilya Mikheyev Surgery Stories

That’s the “on another hand,” because I believe playoff implications for both players and the team emerge from looking at this game in the bigger picture. In this post, I want to explore some of them.

Playoff Implication #1: The Status of Pierre Engvall

Pierre Engvall started the scoring in Friday’s 4-2 loss. That goal bodes well for him as the playoffs start. I’ve been watching Engvall’s play over the last two seasons since Sheldon Keefe became the head coach of the Maple Leafs.

Pierre Engvall, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If you recall Keefe’s first game, he brought one thing with him to the Maple Leafs from the Toronto Marlies when he flew into Arizona to take over the team on the road. That was Engvall. Keefe believed Engvall should be playing at the NHL level and sat next to him on the flight to Phoenix. In that first game, Engvall scored.

However, as much as I hoped he would, Engvall never leveraged his initial support from Keefe into a regular lineup spot. He’s been in and out of the lineup, and I believe the 24-year-old’s seven goals and five assists (for 12 points) in 42 games this season were fewer than the organization expected.

However, over the last five games Engvall has scored four goals to finish the season on a roll. Does that mean he’ll have a place in the lineup during the playoffs? The prediction is that he’ll likely be in-and-out of the lineup; however, I’m thinking he might be more in than out. He adds to the team in terms of speed and penalty-killing, but can his size translate into the physicality needed to compete successfully in the playoffs?

Playoff Implication #2: Postseason Playing Time for Ilya Mikheyev

In a number of ways, Ilya Mikheyev shares characteristics with Engvall. Both have size and speed; and, neither has lifted the offensive part of his game to the place where it could be or was expected to land. That said, from watching their deployment during the regular season, it seems the organization has become more disappointed with Engvall than it has with Mikheyev.

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Both Engvall and Mikheyev scored seven goals on the season, but Mikheyev had five more assists. He played more. Furthermore, although I hear the occasional critique from fans – mostly that he couldn’t hit the ocean with a seashell from the seashore – the fans like him. And I can see why. They’ll likely see him play regularly in the playoffs.

Ilya Mikheyev Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Mikheyev adds value to the team. As Sportsnet Justin Bourne wrote a couple of months ago, “He works hard with the dial always set to hustle, he’ll play physically, he’ll go to the net, and just for the eye test, he’s got size. He’s also got the distinct advantage of not being overpaid, which from a perception standpoint might be the greatest sin one can commit up here.”

Playoff Implication #2: The Playoff Lineup Status of Alex Galchenyuk

In last night’s 4-2 “tune-up” loss to the Jets, Alex Galchenyuk recorded an assist on Engvall’s first-period goal. Since he’s been with the Maple Leafs, he’s surprised people. Most fans – and, as much as I love reclamation stories, I wondered, too – were surprised with the work ethic Galchenyuk brought to the team.

Galchenyuk’s skills have never been in question; it’s his heart that people were looking for. By my assessment, he’s passed. He plays physically; he plays good defense; and, he’s faster than I imagined. Given his bargain contract, I have to believe the Maple Leafs’ organization has him penciled in their plans for next season.

All that said, with Nick Foligno coming at the trade deadline and Zach Hyman returning from his knee sprain it seems there’s talk that Galchenyuk might be benched during the playoffs. I don’t think so.

What we have with Foligno and Hyman are physical players who are hard on the puck who can play effectively anywhere in the lineup. Obviously, I’m not coach Keefe, but that offers the team lots of flexibility which fits Keefe’s bench style. He’s notoriously creative as a bench boss during the game.

Related: Canadiens Can Redeem Themselves with Upset over Maple Leafs

What’s been surprising for me as I’ve watched Galchenyuk’s play has been how well he’s seemed to fit in. Once an offensive goal-scoring prodigy, his scoring has been down; but, that could be more that he’s respecting his line-mates John Tavares’ and William Nylander’s skills. I think Galchenyuk’s seeking to fit in. I see him in a fluid top-six role during the playoffs, perhaps with lots of line-changing happening over the course of a game.

The 27-year-old Galchenyuk has scored only 13 points in 34 games on the season, but he adds more in a top-six role than in the bottom six. He’ll also be working hard for next season’s placement on the team. I don’t think he’ll be going anywhere over the next few years.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

The playoffs seem to be another kettle of fish for the players. After last night’s game, Jason Spezza was quoted as saying: “You go through the regular season and the grind of it to get to the playoffs.”

Related: Maple Leafs Seeing in Spezza What Babcock Never Could

Spezza added, “For me, I think our team is very excited to play in the playoffs. I think we’re built for the playoffs. I think we’re a team that has a chance to have a lot of success. Now we’re just getting excited to get going.”

We’ll soon see.

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