An award for each Maple Leaf with the season on pause

·12 min read

It’s possible the Toronto Maple Leafs have their say, yet. But it’s maybe more likely after the NHL pushed the return-to-play timetable back, and then pushed it back again, that the Leafs’ confusing and highly consequential season never reaches an appropriate conclusion.

Because of that, it’s possible that every word being written now about the 2019-20 season, wherein which the team finally sewed a letter on for a new captain, fired its multi-million-dollar-earning legend of a head coach, and was fighting tooth and nail just to make postseason, will be done entirely in retrospect.

For now, fingers will remain crossed, hoping that’s not the case, and we’ll continue to look back.

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In an effort to distill the best moments and quotes from the abbreviated season, here’s an award for each roster player:

Auston Matthews
Best Campaign

It began with a fully loaded bank account, a moustache and an upbeat demeanour for training camp in Newfoundland, and it paused in the middle of a tremendous three-horse race for the Rocket Richard Trophy. Yes, there was a serious and significant off-ice issue as well as inconsistencies with his overall performance at times, but Auston Matthews was clearly in the process of submitting the best of his four seasons in the NHL before the coronavirus forced the NHL to shut things down.

The question of “what would have been?” seems likely to remain for Matthews this season, but the sniper left little doubt that he’s worth the massive contract extension he signed before the end of last season with his performance.

John Tavares
Best Secret Keeping

“We’ll all find out tonight.”

Sure, the world’s greatest poker player would have noticed the blood rushing to his head when, for the final time, Tavares had to deflect the line of questioning. But the in face of mild and unrelenting interrogation in the lead-up to the home opener, Tavares was able to navigate it all, keeping the franchise’s biggest secret, and a career and life highlight, under wraps.

Hours later, and not long after Tavares was unveiled as the 25th captain in team history during introductions on opening night, it was revealed that his newborn son, Jace, was the central figure in first delivering the news of the honour.

Hiding the emotion associated with that, Tavares had no chance.

Mitch Marner
Best Thrill

With a productive but mostly unremarkable season in a comparative sense, Mitch Marner was unable to completely scrub the memory of his drawn-out and controversial contract negotiation from the minds of all fans. In this moment, though, and just before the team broke for the holidays, all was certainly forgiven.

Scoring twice and adding an assist in under a minute in an exhilarating third-period comeback win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 23, Marner authored the most spectacular moment of the Leafs season (to date).

William Nylander
Best Put Up

There was the weight of the previous season’s failure, there was a promise to deliver. William Nylander silenced the noise with a career season, in the process reversing much of the thinking over the contract he hammered out two months into last season — with just minutes to spare. A full and uninterrupted summer with a complete training camp looks mighty good on Nylander, who also happened to earn Best Fit:

Morgan Rielly
Best Isolation Content

Whether it was taking a shot at Zach Hyman in a demonstration of proper hand washing or the impromptu appearance on Instagram Live which all-but confirmed his royal-worthy relationship with Canadian Olympic hero Tessa Virtue, Rielly has provided the most notable content since the Leafs were forced into separate confinements under the NHL’s isolation mandate.

Frederik Andersen
Best Costume

It was far from a perfect season for Frederik Andersen, but Fred Sheeran went undefeated.

Cody Ceci
Best Validating Performance

He was he who we thought he was.

Jake Muzzin
Best Advocate

Best Leader or Best Succinct Use of Words would have worked for Muzzin, who seems to tell it like it is realer and more effectively than any other member of the Leafs — especially in trying moments. But what he might be able to do even better is talk up a new (or old) teammate.

In his first media availability after Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford were acquired from the Los Angles Kings in early February, he served up this nugget on the Leafs’ new backup netminder: “He’s the hardest-working guy I’ve ever seen in hockey.”

While he didn’t use absolutes when describing Clifford, he was highly complimentary of his long-time teammate, saying this about the impact he would have: “He’s going to bring toughness, he’s going to bring grit, and that sandpaper — it can go a long way.”

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 22: Jake Muzzin #8 of the Toronto Maple Leafs warms up before the facing the Carolina Hurricanes at the Scotiabank Arena on February 22, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 22: Jake Muzzin #8 of the Toronto Maple Leafs warms up before the facing the Carolina Hurricanes at the Scotiabank Arena on February 22, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

Alexander Kerfoot
Best Camouflage

The controllable return asset in the Nazem Kadri trade just sorta blended in, didn’t he?

Andreas Johnsson
Best Thievery

No, you can’t control injuries, but Johnsson had 43 games to live up to the new lucrative contract he signed over the offseason, and simply failed in that regard. For that reason, and because reinforcements are coming at the left wing position, Johnsson might have moved to the front of the line in terms of offseason trade candidates.

Kasperi Kapanen
Best Worst Idea

We said we’d laugh about it one day. Today can be that day.

Kasperi Kapanen’s decision to spike the handle of his broken stick at Jeff Petry while killing a penalty with the lead late in third game of the season will likely stand as the most boneheaded single decision of the entire Leafs season. And with Michael Hutchinson taking the loss in his first start of the year, it’s possible that its consequences snowballed into something more significant than just the single point they left on the table that night

Six months later, though, and any bit of levity welcome at this point, it’s not hard to find the humour in it.

Tyson Barrie
Best Party Trick

He didn’t necessarily wow us with his complete offensive portfolio in what could be an incomplete rental season, but he did receives oohs and aahs from teammates, fans and media alike for his unique means and ability to knock down passes that happen to miss the target he laid down.

Zach Hyman
Best Bionics

It normally takes eight months to a full year to recover from reconstructive knee surgery. We still have not yet reached the anniversary of Zach Hyman tearing his ACL in Game 4 of the Leafs’ first-round series versus the Boston Bruins, and he managed to match his career goal total in 20 fewer games, while producing points at a rate higher than players like Tyler Seguin, Erik Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault.

Kyle Clifford
Best Ignorance

No matter what happens, we’ll always have that time Clifford didn’t realize that a team rule states that all players must wear their helmets for warmup.

He was informed not long after, and we never saw that head shine in warmup again.

Ilya Mikheyev
Best Food Take

Mikheyev waived off the interpreter and stepped into his first full post-game scrum without anyone to lean on. Reporters wanted comment after the Russian rookie scored a goal and collected two points in his NHL debut, while he wanted answers himself.

“I like soup. I don’t know why you don’t eat soup,” he said, memorably.

Mikheyev’s single food take and associated incredulity gave him an immediate identity within the fanbase, and later a sponsorship with Campbell’s.

Pierre Engvall
Best Failure to Play it Cool

It was a tremendous first goal. The subtle breakaway speed and the finish signalled that he could hang at the NHL level. And yet he’ll never live down the stumble on the celebration.

Rasmus Sandin
Best Sign of Things to Come

Opponents eventually found ways to exploit the fact that he was rushed to the top level, but in stages with the big club, Sandin provided every indication that he would soon be a force on the Maple Leafs’ blueline.

The smoothness to which he slid clear of forechecks, his first passes, stretch passes, and awareness of the offensive zone. The occasional open-ice hit and the ability to avoid contact himself, Sandin showed a little bit of everything in 28 games as a rookie.

Travis Dermott
Best Wholesome Content

Something tells me social distancing isn’t coming easy to Travis Dermott. The dude loves his teammates, and isn’t afraid to show it.

Denis Malgin
Best Walk Back

It was apparently a trade request that prompted the Panthers to move Malgin to the team they were battling for a postseason spot with. Appearing desperate to remain as anonymous as possible and to not start a controversy, Malgin denied that it ever happen in his introductory scrum, in turn creating a brief controversy.

Jason Spezza
Best Handling of Undue Criticism

One of the weirdest storylines of the season was the clear vendetta former coach Mike Babcock held against Jason Spezza. Seeming to protest Kyle Dubas’s decision to invest a measly $700K into the veteran centre, Babcock took shots at him through the media in training camp and held him out of the lineup on opening night against the Ottawa Senators, his former team, in an embarrassingly poor misuse of power.

Spezza could have handled the situation far differently, but instead put his head down and continued to work. In time, he became a truly valued member of the organization after the transition to Sheldon Keefe, and now more likely than not he’ll return for next season.

Martin Marincin
Best Humility

“This is not my role. But I like it.”

Marincin provided maybe the most unexpected single moment from the Leafs season only a few games before the pause. In a critical game versus the Vancouver Canucks, the depth defenceman waltzed through neutral ice and fired a wicked shot off the bar, before cutting through the defencemen and following up on the rebound to re-establish the Leafs’ lead.

It was his first goal in a long time, and it was written all over his face.

This is a man with no illusions.

Frederik Gauthier
Best Hashtag

Speaking of humility, Frederik Gauthier launched a self-deprecating social media campaign after scoring his second goal in just four games to start the season, posting a picture of his celebration on Instagram and using the hashtag: Ontheroadto50.

Legen-err, Goat.

Justin Holl
Best Rise

Hands on hips, chest out, now standing a little taller. You could almost see it in Holl’s body language, the fact he seized his opportunity after a full season of hockey was essentially taken from him, and will now be part of the blue line for the next three years.

Jack Campbell
Mr. Congeniality

Tik Toks, memes, moustaches, the refusal to blame anyone but himself, Campbell endeared himself to just about everyone after his trade to the Maple Leafs.

And the best part is he can actually play the backup goaltender position, too.

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