The Toronto Maple Leafs Still Can’t Carry Regular Season Success into the Postseason
The Toronto Maple Leafs had a typical Toronto Maple Leafs season in ’20-’21. They picked on teams throughout the regular season, cruising to a playoff berth. Yet, they still found a way to lose a game seven home game to a Montreal Canadiens that barely squeaked in. Why does this keep happening? It’s certainly can’t be Auston Matthews’s fault – he would have scored 64 goals last season if the NHL played a full 82-game schedule. Since drafting him first overall in the 2016 NHL draft, Toronto has not won a playoff series including losing the weird qualifying round to the Columbus Blue Jackets in ’19-’20. Matthews (currently working his way back from offseason wrist surgery) and Mitch Marner put up ridiculous regular season numbers year in and year out but can’t carry their momentum through the postseason.
Aren’t Maple Leafs fans tired of this act? This franchise has not been to the second round since ’03-’04, and they haven’t won a Stanley Cup in 54 seasons – the longest active drought in the NHL. This organization plays with no chip on its shoulder. Do they think they are going to be handed the Cup for regular season success? There have been countless memes of Toronto being bounced in round one, and something needs to be done about it.
Matthews and Marner are both going into their sixth NHL season. The attitude must change because these guys are tired of losing when it matters. Toronto had a lot of moving pieces this offseason, and we’ll have to wait and see if the new guys they brought in were worth departing from familiar faces or not. Among those familiar faces that moved on were goaltender Frederik Andersen and forward Zach Hyman. Both were lost to free agency along with others like Joe Thornton, Nick Foligno, Zach Bogosian, Alex Galchenyuk, and David Rittich.
The incoming guys carry less value than those leaving, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any talent arriving to Toronto. Nick Ritchie signed a two-year, $5 million ($2.5 million AAV) deal and will compete for a top six forward spot. Ritchie’s top six competitor is most likely going to be Ondrej Kase, who signed a one-year deal for $1.25 million. Both are 25 years old and even played together for three and a half years in Anaheim for the Ducks and two years in Boston for the Bruins. Kase struggled to get playing time on a loaded Bruins roster last year, as he played just in just three regular season games. Still, both have the potential to be second line scoring options for Toronto.
Others coming in include goaltender Petr Mrazek (three-year deal), Michael Bunting (two-year deal), David Kampf (two-year deal), Kurtis Gabriel (one-year deal). All in all, this free agency class for Toronto wasn’t great.
|William Nylander||Auston Matthews (A)||Mitch Marner (A)|
|Ondrej Kase||John Tavares (C)||Ilya Mikheyev|
|Nick Ritchie||Alexander Kerfoot||Wayne Simmonds|
|Michael Bunting||David Kampf||Jason Spezza|
The top line plus Tavares is the core four of this forward group, and they’re bona fide stars in the NHL. With Hyman gone, the top line needs a new guy, and moving Nylander away from Tavares could go one of two ways: a) Nylander sees his numbers rise while Tavares sees his decline, or b) Nylander sees his numbers rise and Tavares also rises by making it work with a new pair of wingers. Nylander is flat out a better hockey player than Zach Hyman, and if you thought Auston Matthews’s 41 goals in 52 games was nuts last season, just wait and see what he can do with two elite offensive players by his side. It may seem strange dividing up the four best forwards unevenly, but something needs to change in Toronto in order to get the results they want come postseason.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have a lot of names competing for few spots in the top 12 skaters for gamedays. We’ve discussed the core four, but the remaining eight spots will likely rotate between 10 – 12 guys. For my projection, Tavares finds new wingers in Kase and Mikheyev. As for the third line, it’s a hard-hitting line made up of two bruisers on the outside with Ritchie and Simmonds. The fourth line is anyone’s guess minus Spezza as he proved to be one of the best 5-on-5 skaters in the entire league last year. Sheldon Keefe seems to like Bunting, so I expect him to get plenty of minutes, and he may even move up into the top six if he continues to stand out.
|Morgan Reilly (A)||T.J. Brodie|
|Jake Muzzin||Justin Holl|
|Rasmus Sandin||Travis Dermott|
The blue line for Toronto is looking concrete at this point. Barring any preseason injuries, these will most likely be the pairings. Reilly is one of the best blue liners in the entire NHL, and he and Brodie should be amongst the league leaders for +/-. Muzzin has been rock-solid and better than expected since coming to Toronto in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings in ’18-’19. The young guns round things out on the back end. Sandin, 21, will most quarterback the second powerplay unit and Dermott will do the dirty work to allow Sandin to save his energy for the offensive end of the ice.
|Jack Campbell||Petr Mrazek|
Jack Campbell had a great year in ’20-’21 for Toronto after Frederik Andersen forgot how to save hockey pucks. His .921 save percentage and 2.15 GAA was a big reason the Maple Leafs finished atop the North division. His record as a starter was an outstanding 17-3-2. Now with Mrazek in town, the Toronto Maple Leafs finally have a promising tandem in net. Mrazek battled injuries and a three-goalie rotation for the Carolina Hurricanes last year, but still put up a very good .923 save percentage, 2.06 GAA, three shutouts, and 6-2-3 record in 12 starts. Campbell will be the starter, but as we know, today’s NHL calls for more of a 1a/1b approach. If both can stay healthy, I predict Campbell to start about 60-65% of Toronto’s games this season.
The Issue with This Year’s Maple Leafs
The issue with this lineup is that is lacks scoring in the bottom six. Toronto has brought in forwards Nikita Gusev and Joshua Ho-Sang on professional tryout contracts for the preseason, but I doubt either cracks the opening day roster. Kurtis Gabriel is another name that will be in the mix, but even he is not a scorer, rather an enforcer who likes to give his team a spark through his physical play style. Pierre Engvall will be in and out the lineup, too.
Where Will They Finish?
The NHL’s divisions are shifting back to normal this year, which means the Toronto Maple won’t get to pick on the weak Canadian teams every night. They feasted last year, going 35-14-7 and claiming the first seed in the North division. This year, the Maple Leafs have to deal with teams like Boston, the Florida Panthers, and the defending two-time Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the Atlantic division. All three were playoff teams last year, and all three are stronger than Toronto on paper. Tampa looks like they can three-peat. Boston has the Perfection Line. Florida had a top-five offense in the league last season.
Are the Maple Leafs even a playoff team this year? My guess is yes, but as the four seed in the Atlantic. In the Eastern Conference, top to bottom, the Metropolitan is the stronger of the two divisions. It’s just about a given that the Metro will send at least four teams into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Toronto will be one of the last team’s in unless Auston Matthews and his mustache can replicate his “Rocket” Richard Trophy season of last year. Making the playoffs rides on his and their star talents’ collective shoulders. If he puts up more big numbers, expect the Matthews to be in the running for his first Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s MVP – he’s that good, people.
The Toronto Maple Leafs open the season at +1400 odds to win the Stanley Cup in ’21-’22.