Maple Leafs head into 2020 on high note with win over Wild

Justin Cuthbert
Dec 31, 2019; Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs right wing William Nylander (88) celebrates after scoring a goal against the Minnesota Wild in the first period at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports
William Nylander continues to have his day. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs have earned themselves a night out.... in Minnesota.

With a 4-1 victory over the Wild on New Year’s Eve, the Maple Leafs ended the calendar season on an impressive and season-saving 13-4-1 run since the switch to Sheldon Keefe.

The usual suspects cashed in the final game of the decade, with lead goal-getters Auston Matthews, William Nylander and John Tavares registering goals, while Alexander Kerfoot counted his 100th career point with the other marker. Meanwhile Frederik Andersen bounced back after a difficult week-long spell with 26 saves, and remains the primary reason the Leafs will head into the 2020s as the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic Division.

Toronto will be in Winnipeg to clash with the Jets this week, but not before the new year is rung in.

Until then, four points:

Weaponizing Willy

While Tyson Barrie received most of the attention when considering the philosophical divide between old and new with the Toronto Maple Leafs, we shouldn’t overlook how the reality has changed for William Nylander.

No longer being challenged to be the player he isn’t, Nylander is now being used exactly as he should: a weapon unfixed to a specific position within the Leafs lineup.

His minutes way up, as Keefe always looks to optimize in high-leverage situations, Nylander is amidst of an in-season and career breakout. He’s registered 18 points in as many games since the switch to Keefe, and with a goal and an assist in the win over the Wild, he now has six goals and 11 points in the last six games.

His current run has him on pace to exceed 30 goals and 70 points for the first time in his career, and author career numbers in every meaningful individual offensive category.

And the expectation should be that he not only hits those projected totals, but fly by them altogether — if for no reason other than the fact that Keefe is doing everything he can to tether him to the other difference-making forwards on the roster.

Both hats

John Tavares didn’t exactly come advertised.

Made famous for his ability to turn scrubs into 30-goal scorers, instead it was Tavares himself who became the sniper in his first season with the Leafs, hitting a career-high 47 with the help of the play-making Mitch Marner.

Now separated from the dynamic winger, it seemed plausible that Tavares would revert back to his facilitative ways. But with Nylander being such a dominant possessor of the puck, more often than not in the last few games it’s still been Tavares teed up for high-percentage looks.

It was no different versus the Wild, with Nylander finding Tavares time and time again.

But with converted third-line centre Alex Kerfoot now on the other wing, perhaps it sets up Tavares with a chance to do both.

We caught a glimpse of the vintage Tavares set-up ability in the first period, with his new winger on the receiving end.

With cuts or when just settling into space, that’s where Kerfoot has been a dangerous shooter in his short time with the Leafs. That’s an area of the ice Tavares has traditionally been able to supply passes to, from deep in the offensive zone.

It’ll be interesting to see if this combination sticks, and what that means for the captain.

Upside to injury

So much for the impending doom of the Maple Leafs roster.

If there’s an upside to not once being able to ice the roster that general manager Kyle Dubas had intended, it’s that the Maple Leafs have avoided making weighty decisions to manoeuvre under the associated financial bind.

I mean, look at the cap-strapped Leafs now; they are calling up prospects that belong to the hometowns of the rinks they are visiting, just to make moments and collect some of that NHL cash.

Quite a few players that were supposed to be either cut or demoted by now are playing crucial roles, and it’s possible that the Leafs survive the entire season without those decisions ever having to be made.

But more importantly, despite the injuries, and with that supporting cast, they are playing their best hockey of the season.

Richly deserved

The Justin Holl thing, it’s wild.

Buried in the Mike Babcock era and likely left to wonder from press box to press box where his career was ultimately headed at this time last the season, the veteran defenseman is now leading the transition under Sheldon Keefe by example, as he’s been leaned on to shut down the opposition’s best. And though the influence and matchups may vary, Holl will at the very least be a part of the equation for three more seasons as just the second Leafs defender to be locked up beyond the current year.

Rewarded for his efforts, Holl will nearly triple his annual intake come by the start of next season on his new two-year deal worth $6 million total. It’s a payday Holl may have never thought was possible, and a brilliant deal for the Maple Leafs if the player can simply perform at a fixed standard throughout.

Even better, the Minnesota native was able to celebrate the occasion with family, and by choosing to sign the deal in his hometown, the Maple Leafs were able to again demonstrate that compassionate side since the change at coach.

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