Toronto Maple Leafs Season Previewby Christopher Gallagher September 30, 2021 2 comments
The Toronto Maple Leafs entered the 2020-2021 NHL season as one of the premier contenders across the NHL. Finishing in first place in the all-Canadian North Division, the team won 35 games. They were led by the standout duo of star center Auston Matthews and winger Mitch Marne. The former led all players with 41 goals in 52 games, and Marne enjoyed one of the finest campaigns of his five-year pro-tenure. He was named to the All-Star game for the first time in his career. There was a change in net after Frederik Andersen was placed on the injury list, and the Maple Leafs elected to roll with veteran Jack Campbell. Providing a spark in goal for the franchise, the netminder set an NHL record with 11 straight victories to start a season.
Active at the trade deadline as they geared up for another run at the Stanley Cup, general manager Kyle Dubas made multiple moves. Acquiring forward Nick Foligno from the Columbus Blue Jackets, he sent back a first-round pick and a fourth-round pick in return. The Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario native also made other minor transactions. He acquired center Riley Nash, goaltender David Rittich, and defenseman Ben Hutton.
The Leafs were matched up with bitter rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, to kick off the postseason. Toronto would jump out to a 3-1 series lead. Highlighted by a 4-0 shutout victory in Game 4, the group returned to Toronto looking to close out their first opening victory since 2004. However, after falling in overtime in games five and six, playoff shortcomings ultimately hindered the team once again. They lost 3-1 in a deciding Game 7, putting the spotlight on the team heading into next season.
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Led up front by their core four of Matthews, Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares, the Leafs will lean on them to play big minutes in 2021-2022. However, they will be without Foligno in their top six after he inked a deal with the Boston Bruins in free agency. Toronto will also be looking to fill the void left by Zach Hyman after the longtime Maple Leaf signed in Edmonton in the offseason.
Rounding out their forward core with many cheap short-term contracts, the team agreed to terms with Michael Bunting, David Kampf, Nick Ritchie, Kurtis Gabriel, and Michael Amadio. Likely the two most logical options to slide into their top two lines are Bunting and Ritchie. Bunting scored ten goals in 21 games last season with the Arizona Coyotes, while Ritchie had 26 points in 56 games with the Boston Bruins.
A much-improved unit a year ago after they signed T.J. Brodie, Toronto heads into next season with its blue line intact. Led by former Norris Trophy candidate Morgan Rielly, the 27-year-old will look to have a strong 2021-2022 campaign as he heads into a contract year. Pacing the group with 35 points in 55 games last season, Rielly also racked up 11 power-play points.
Concluding their top four, veteran defenseman Jake Muzzin joins Justin Holl on Toronto’s second pair. Becoming a shutdown duo late in the season a year ago, they ranked inside the top ten in both scoring chance percentage and expected goals. Look for Rasmus Sandin to see significant minutes on the power play as the fifth defenseman, while Travis Dermott battles Timothy Liljegren for the final spot.
The Maple Leafs chose to move on from one of their longest-tenured members in Andersen during the offseason. Hampered by a nagging lower-body injury all year long, the 31-year-old made only 23 starts for the team. After posting his lowest career save percentage at .895 and goals-against average at 2.96, the Denmark native signed with the Carolina Hurricanes during free agency.
Turning the net over to Campbell next season after a stellar finish down the stretch, the franchise also shored up their tandem after inking a deal with veteran Petr Mrazek. Battling injuries like Andersen all season long, look for both players to split time in between the pipes for the team with neither being a proven number one starter during their pro careers.
Already entering his seventh season with the Leafs in 2021-2022, Nylander averaged nearly a point per game a year ago. The 25-year-old racked up 17 goals and 25 assists during the league’s shortened season. He was also one of the team’s best players during their first-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens. Dynamic with the puck on his stick, he led the group with eight points in seven games.
Likely to be on a line with Tavares to begin the season; look for him to also be featured on the top power play unit. If Sheldon Keefe‘s group is going to find any success in the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division, they need a big year out of him after losing both Hyman and Foligno.
Looking to get more out of Sandin as they open up exhibition games across the league, the former 29th overall pick has struggled to latch onto the roster over the last few seasons. Appearing in 29 games for Toronto during his rookie season, he eight points while playing just over 14 minutes per night. Choosing to look outside the organization to fill out their final spot on the blue line a year ago, the Maple Leafs inked veteran Zack Bogosian to a one-year deal.
Forced to sit on the taxi squad as a result of this, Sandin appeared in just nine regular-season games and five playoff games. Possessing high-end offensive upside, if Sandin can finally put all the pieces together and have a strong season, it will be a much-needed boost to the bottom of the team’s blue line and their second power-play unit.
Biggest Question Facing the Maple Leafs
Toronto will be certain to be surrounded by constant scrutiny and question marks all regular season long after being bounced in the first round once more. However, the biggest challenge they face entering next season will be how they choose to fill out the left side of their forward lines. Thin at the position after losing both Hyman and Foligno, the team heads into opening night with Ritchie and Bunting likely to man the spots inside their top six.
Along with this, after requesting a trade in the offseason after a poor showing a year ago, Ilya Mikheyev returns along with veteran Wayne Simmonds to close out. Nonetheless, with third-year man Nicholas Robertson pushing for a roster spot after spending his 2019-2020 campaign in the American Hockey League, Keefe and company will be faced with many tough decisions as they figure out what to do at the position.
Remaining a playoff contender with their core forward group still intact, the team will be harder pressed to qualify for the postseason. Returning to the Atlantic Division after playing out one season in the all-Canadian division, the Maple Leafs will face tough tests. They will square off against the defending cup champs in the Tampa Bay Lightning, along with the Boston Bruins and the Florida Panthers.
Likely to get strong seasons out of Marner and Matthews, the group will need the bottom half of their roster to step up and provide depth scoring if they hope to shake off their playoff demons and advance out of the first round. Furthermore, they will need steady play between the pipes from their new goaltending tandem in Campbell and Mrazek.
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