Expectations were high for the Toronto Maple Leafs going into the 2018-2019 season, what with the arrival of John Tavares from the New York Islanders in July of 2018 and the preceding saga to sign William Nylander taking up an awful lot of press. The 23-year-old didn’t sign a contract until the last minute on December 1 of 2018.
The Maple Leafs played well during the regular season, posting a record of 46-26-8 – good for third in the Atlantic Division. They managed 100 points, tying the Pittsburgh Penguins and landing seven behind the Boston Bruins. There were a full 28 points behind the division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.
Offensively, the Maple Leafs were excellent. They scored 286 goals, putting them second in the Eastern Conference. Toronto had seven players with 20 or more goals and you have to imagine they would’ve had 21 had it not been for Nylander being limited to 54 games thanks to contract talks.
Nevertheless, Tavares lived up to his billing and then some. He posted a career-high 47 goals, 10 more than his last season in New York, and managed a career-high 88 points.
Auston Matthews was second in goal-scoring with 37. That’s not a career-high total, but the 21-year-old did lay out a career-high 73 points. Unfortunately, he finished a minus player for the first time in his career.
Mitch Marner was third in goal-scoring with 26, his best NHL total to date. His performance earned him a team-leading 94 points.
Zach Hyman, Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen, and defenceman Morgan Rielly rounded out the top scorers for Toronto in 2018-2019. Patrick Marleau and Nazem Kadri also contributed with 16 goals apiece.
Defensively, the Leafs were not quite as impressive. They allowed 251 goals against, making them the most porous of all Eastern Conference playoff teams. The Washington Capitals allowed 249 goals against.
Toronto played well enough during five-on-five situations, but their penalty kill was below the league average and they struggled somewhat when it came to high danger chances against.
Goalie Frederik Andersen posted a .917 save percentage with a 2.77 goals against average. That’s par for the course for the 29-year-old, although he did earn just one shutout in 2018-2019 after posting five shutouts the previous season. Andersen started 60 games, six fewer than his 66 starts apiece in the previous two seasons.
When Andersen wasn’t starting, it was up to Garret Sparks and Michael Hutchinson. Those two goalies were in net for 43 percent of Toronto’s regular season losses despite starting just 27 percent of the games. Sparks lost nine of 17 starts and Hutchinson dropped three of five.
When it came to the playoffs, Toronto faced off against the Bruins in the first round and once again lost in seven games. That series was by and large about a goaltending duel that the Maple Leafs lost, although Andersen deserves credit for playing a better game overall.
So, what went wrong?
That’s a tough one. The Maple Leafs are a strong hockey team on paper and they seem to be doing a lot of things right, especially when it comes to collecting a young squad intent on scoring goals. Were it not for the juggernaut Lightning in 2018-2019, Toronto would’ve dominated most offensive categories.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Sure, Kadri and Marleau are out and the D has a boost in the form of Tyson Barrie. Cody Ceci was also signed to a one-year deal on July 4 of 2019, while most of the $19 million defensive group is inked for just one more year.
There is a lot on Kyle Dubas’ plate. The Marner deal is the top priority and he should fetch major bank after becoming the first blue-and-white since Mats Sundin to notch at least 90 points. Marner’s contract is expected to set the market for a number of players, but most current reports state that the two sides are still not close to ironing something out.
If that means Marner doesn’t sign until the first day of the regular season or later remains to be seen, but you have to imagine this issue holds a lot of weight over the upcoming season. And that, in turn, holds a lot of weight over what could go wrong in 2019-2020.
Photo credit: Nathan Denette/Canadian Press