It was another hot summer for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team that never ceases to make headlines. Whether it was the overdue Mitch Marner contract, which will be contested ad infinitum, or the alleged pants-dropping actions of Auston Matthews and the story still unfolding out of Arizona, the Six is certainly in the news.
On the ice, this team has a job to do. After being bounced from the post-season by the Boston Bruins in the first round last year, the Maple Leafs want to prove that they can win with this roster. That said, Toronto’s been ousted from the first round in three straight tries now and that has to change in order for this team to be taken seriously.
It will be up to this group – and this season – to get Kyle Dubas’ club over the hump. They’ve had it all, at least on paper, and made more additions through the summer to bolster the roster. Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot were acquired in a trade with Colorado that sent Nazem Kadri out the door. Defenceman Cody Ceci joined the team in a trade with Ottawa. Veteran centre Jason Spezza was also signed.
Spezza will presumably take on the Patrick Marleau role, but he’ll also have to make up for the absence of other secondary forwards like Kadri and Connor Brown. Tyler Ennis and Ron Hainsey are also no longer Leafs, while Jake Gardiner signed with the Carolina Hurricanes and is looking forward to spending some years in comparative obscurity.
Toronto had no trouble scoring last season. They put up 286 goals, second in the Eastern Conference behind the juggernaut Tampa Bay Lightning, and they had a staggering seven players with 20 or more goals. At the top of the goal-scoring chart was John Tavares, who put up a career-high 47 goals and a total of 88 points.
Tavares skated with Marner and Zach Hyman, creating a potent line responsible for approximately 33 percent of Toronto’s goals last season. Marner had 26 and a total of 96 points, which led the club. It’s no wonder he signed a six-year extension, although there’s a great deal of debate about whether or not Dubas overpaid. Calgary’s signing of Matthew Tkachuk to a bridge deal doesn’t help the case.
That’s why so much is riding on this offence. Marner almost has to repeat as the team-leading scorer, just like Matthews has to put up serious numbers once more. And in 2018-2019, the 22-year-old meant business with a career-high 73 points. He notched 40 goals in his rookie season and covered for 37 last season.
After the lethal trio of Marner, Matthews and Tavares, it’s up to William Nylander to prove he’s worth his money. Last summer’s holdout story started slow when he finally did take the ice, but he won’t have any such excuses this time. The forward had a dip in most production numbers and saw time on the third line as the season wore on. But if he’s paired with Matthews again, Nylander could find his game.
Hot take: the Maple Leafs were not the most defensive of teams last season. They allowed 251 goals against, eight more than the Washington Capitals. That made Toronto the most porous of all Eastern Conference playoff clubs. Even the Montreal Canadiens allowed just 236 goals against, but they didn’t make the post-season. Ouch.
Improving that defence is not the focal point of these Leafs, who seem fairly content to play a run-and-gun style. The addition of Barrie proves that point. The 28-year-old from Victoria is a clear power play quarterback and he did the job with Colorado, but he might have to split time with Morgan Rielly now.
If you like goals, Barrie and Rielly are a great one-two punch. Think the Sharks with Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson. The Maple Leafs should be able to table a flexible, active defensive group that will rush more than sit back. Jake Muzzin and Ceci give them options to an extent.
With Toronto spending way, way more on forwards than defenceman, goalie Frederik Andersen knows what to expect. The 29-year-old has two years to go on his contract and should pick up his wins on account of his team’s offence. But that doesn’t mean he’s a slouch in goal, as Andersen stood strong against the eighth-most shots against last season and still pulled out decent numbers.
With a high shot volume on tap again this season, Andersen will likely still see around 60 starts. The backup position will be the job of Michael Hutchinson, with Garret Sparks now a member of the Vegas Golden Knights. For a minute or two, it looked like Michal Neuvirth might’ve had a shot. But Toronto released him from his PTO Tuesday, thus all but solidifying the gig for Hutchinson.
Expectations are high for this group and rightly so. Toronto has been blasted for tying up a great deal of money in just a few players, but it’ll be up to those players to prove that this team can win it all. A lot is riding on the performance of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander. Here’s hoping Dubas’ cap flex pans out.
Photo credit: Mark J. Terrill/AP