It’s game day, it’s season prediction time, and the MLHS staff — for the first time ever — is unanimous on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ regular-season finish.
Are they setting themselves up for a bigger letdown, or are they justified in their unbridled optimism? Let us know your predictions in the comments.
Alec Brownscombe: 1st in the North
Any season prediction has to come with the obligatory caveat: This is the ultimate wildcard year. We know all too well what the 48-game schedule brought in terms of the Leafs’ illusory finish in the 2013 season. What surprises does a compact 56-game schedule with no preseason, possible Covid-related absences, and an entirely divisional schedule bring?
This prediction largely hinges on Frederik Andersen. If he bounces back to form, or at least something closer to his perennial (at least before last year) .918 mark, with improved support from superior goaltending depth, the Leafs will take the division without too much of a sweat down the stretch (far too many points in the last few years have been thrown away by the Leafs in back-to-backs with bad backup goalies, as well as shootouts). If Andersen struggles, the Leafs will fall back into a pack of 4-5 teams jostling for position.
The Leafs‘ defensive depth is notably improved, Nylander, Matthews, and Marner are a year wiser and more battle-scarred, Brodie has to be the best partner Rielly has ever had, and they’ve addressed some of the missing intangible ingredients in a meaningful way. In addition to a major award-winning year from Matthews, I expect better seasons than 2019-20 from both Tavares and Rielly. My main question mark is at bottom-six center, but for once, the Leafs will accrue the cap space needed (and will have the draft/prospect capital available) to address it at the deadline if necessary.
The Leafs will play over 50% of their schedule (29/56) against three teams who were sitting 20th or worse at the pause last season. There is no elite opponent in this division. Surely, this has to be the year the Leafs take home-ice into round one, where they will end their drought of 16 years without a series victory.
Anthony Petrielli: 1st in the North
I am quite high on the Leafs this season for a few reasons.
The first is they improved the defense, both within the top four itself with a logical (though possibly on the decline) fit with the TJ Brodie, and within their depth, with Mikko Lehtonen and Zach Bogosian plus Rasmus Sandin and possibly Timothy Liljegren knocking on the door. Martin Marincin is no longer the first in line when injuries inevitably occur.
At forward, I’m not actually sold they really improved their depth (Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson are both better than this market is giving them credit for, especially compared to their replacements). However, what they did add is some much needed veteran voices that will help guide them through the season and bring along their young talent.
Auston Matthews is ready for a massive season. I think Mitch Marner puts the contract stuff behind him this season. There is an urgency to them this year that they need to make noise, which really has been lacking in the past few seasons. They are no longer looking up at two elite teams in their division.
The Leafs will win this division and go on a run in the playoffs this year. Goaltending and forward depth are the only things that give me pause.
Kevin Papetti: 1st in the North
The Leafs are the best team in this division, with plenty of star power up-front along with an improved defense. Their depth at all three positions is quite strong, but like any team, injuries and goaltending could always bump them down a spot or two.
The Senators were the second-worst team in the NHL last season, and while they’ve improved, they still aren’t anywhere near the top of this division. The Canadiens finished with just three more regulation-plus-overtime wins (ROW) than Ottawa. While Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, and Jake Allen will help, they probably need a huge season from either Carey Price or their power play to contend for first.
Winnipeg finished ninth in the West last season even though Hellebuyck won the Vezina, and their defense still looks awfully weak. The Oilers are without Klefbom and look even worse defensively. Plus, they have goaltending questions and a power play that is bound to take a step backward.
Both the Flames and Canucks finished below the Leafs in points percentage last season. Over the offseason, I think the Leafs took a step forward, the Canucks took a step backward, and the Flames are about the same.
While I don’t expect the Leafs to completely run away with this division, they are certainly the best team on paper.
Mark Rackham: 1st in the North
Due to the realignment, there is no Tampa or Boston to pound on Toronto. Despite the intense rivalries between the Canadian teams, there isn’t a single rival in the newly-formed North Division that consistently has Toronto’s number like the aforementioned American rivals.
The added depth on the roster, especially between the pipes and on the blue line, will surely improve the team and increase internal competition. The latter is something I believe has been lacking at times, and the added veteran presence will provide another dimension to a group that has at times lacked a certain “je ne sais quoi” when the chips are down.
With Sheldon Keefe now fully established in the head coaching role, I believe this is time for Toronto to come out from the shadows and show they are more than just a flashy team who can score at will whenever they feel like it.
Gus Katsaros: 1st in the North
Toronto will fight through initial pains for fit, but barring injury, they should be in a position to finish in first place in the North division. The one fly in the ointment is the head to head matchups against the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal’s upgrades up front give them some much-needed firepower that they can deploy in 10 games against the Leafs. Whether that holds to be effective enough to leap into first overall remains to be seen.
The forever rivals always show up for close hard-fought games and a swing in the season series could be the deciding factor for first overall. Don’t underestimate the specter of three-point games and the potential of a close finish. Ultimately, Toronto matches up well against the rest of the Western Canadian clubs. Ottawa, while likely to provide some entertainment, is more likely to be regular contributors to the Leafs’ point totals.
Toronto needs to dominate this division. Bypassing potential first-round opponents in the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Boston Bruins is the biggest prize of their placement north of the border.
Hudson Scott: 1st in the North
It’s hard to imagine that this season will be in any way predictable given the short, compact schedule and intradivisional play, but it’s also hard for me to not give the Leafs the edge in the North Division given their competition.
Toronto has the best five-on-five offense of the group and has a chance at being one of the best on the man-advantage — although I might give Edmonton the edge in that department, and I also have reservations about the 1A/1B unit strategy that Toronto will start the season with on the power play.
Five-on-five shot suppression, on the other hand, likely goes more in favor Montreal, although I would argue the Leafs have a chance at being competitive in that regard, again, given the opposition in the North Division. Toronto’s PK should also be competitive, relatively speaking, and I expect them to be inside the top 10 in special teams league-wide.
When you include the eternal x-factor of goaltending, Winnipeg sees a massive rise in their stock given Connor Hellebuyck’s dominance over the last couple of years. I would give Calgary the edge over Toronto in goaltending as well, but after that, it’s less clear. I don’t take Frederik Andersen’s poor 2019-20 regular season lightly, but I haven’t lost faith yet, and the Leafs’ depth in goal has improved massively.
It wouldn’t be a shock to see any one of these teams go on a run and win the division — outside of Ottawa, of course.