By Cole Parkinson
The question has been asked numerous times over the past few years— will the Toronto Maple Leafs ever get out of the first round? Of course, there was a long stretch since 2004 when they didn’t even make the playoffs, but now that they seem like perennial playoff contenders, the question is being asked by the vast majority of the fanbase.
Whether it’s Washington, Boston, Columbus, Montreal, or Tampa Bay, the Leafs have yet to find a solution to winning a do-or-die playoff round. GM Kyle Dubas and the Leafs’ brass are hoping this year is different — and it totally could be. The Leafs have new goaltending, Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov, and a few other new faces, but for the most part, it looks like the same team from last — and that’s probably not a bad thing.
When you have Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares, Morgan Rielly, TJ Brodie, and Jake Muzzin, I understand the lack of motivation to make big sweeping changes. The levee has to break at some point and trading one of those guys is not a surefire way of making this team better.
The line of Matthews, Marner, and Michael Bunting was arguably one of the best lines in the NHL last season and that I see that continuing this year. Tavares and Nylander struggled to find a consistent winger to fit on their line and that will be a challenge. Will it be a new face in the likes of Calle Järnkrok, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, or Zach Aston-Reese, or a familiar one with Alex Kerfoot, Joey Anderson or Nick Robertson? That’s definitely something to watch in camp.
The rest of the forward group should be fairly similar and while the bottom six has seen a bit of a shakeup, that’s probably for the best. Giving shots to Anderson, Aube-Kubel, Järnkrok, and Adam Gaudette isn’t that big of a drop-off from departing players. With Pierre Engvall also out for most of camp, I’d be shocked if Aston-Reese wasn’t signed. He’ll provide some great bang and crash in the bottom of the lineup — which will need to be replaced considering neither Wayne Simmonds nor Kyle Clifford are locks to make the team. It’s likely neither guy does, so adding some younger players is the right approach.
Defencemen Jordie Benn and Victor Mete were both brought in on league minimum ($750,000), one-year deals and will serve as depth options on the backend. Re-signing Mark Giordano was a great bit of business and he’ll likely move up and down the top six all season as long as he stays healthy. The biggest question on defence continues to be — when will Rasmus Sandin sign? With Timothy Liljegren out for the foreseeable future due to sports hernia surgery, there’s a role waiting for Sandin when he does. Otherwise, Rielly, Muzzin, Brodie, Giordano, and Justin Holl will occupy the top five spots with one of Benn or Mete filling in until Sandin signs or Liljegren comes back. Is it the best d-core in the league? Nope, but it’s also fairly solid. As long as the Leafs continue to score
Looking at the two new goalies, some obvious concerns are going around Leafland. Yes, both were mediocre last season, but it’s not like the Leafs had world-class goaltending all season last year either — and they still did fine did they not? Not many teams can point to their goaltending and be extremely confident in what they’re going to get, so betting on these two guys isn’t far from what other teams are doing. Health is the number one concern with Murray and Samsonov has had plenty of issues on and off the ice — but as long as one guy can give the Leafs .905 or better, they’ll do just fine. It’s been a long time since Murray won a Stanley Cup, but at least he has experience there before. And Samsonov was a top-round pick in the past, so maybe one of these guys grabs this opportunity and becomes the number one. More likely though is they both get their fair share of games in and it’s more of a 1A, 1B situation.
Like most teams, the Leafs are right up against the cap and were just over $1 million over right before camp began. They’ll likely be finagling all season with roster moves to accrue space right up until the deadline because as we’ve seen the past few years, Dubas likes to make some sort of move. All of the big boys are signed past this season, so if the Leafs go on some sort of a run in 22/23, Dubas likely has his contracted renewed.
If not, I expect there to be some changes come next off-season. But that’s still quite a ways off and the Leafs still have the entire regular season ahead of them before they can even talk about playoff games.