A new Maple Leafs season is finally upon us.
There was a lot of anger after the conclusion of the last one — which was and still is justified — but fans are back in the stands, an 82-game season is on the docket, and we don’t have to watch them play the same six opponents on a loop.
Hope springs eternal, as always.
The Leafs are back in a difficult division, but it is worth wondering what Tampa Bay will look like minus an entire line that was very good for them for two straight playoffs. At some point, Boston has to show signs of age, right? The Florida Panthers look like they will be a problem, and while I’d like to write off Montreal… we all know what happened the last time we did.
But this should still be a strong playoff team and a tougher schedule will have them more battle-tested for the playoffs this time around. At some point, they have to break through. Why not this season?
Last January, I made five bold predictions and hit on only two of them. Let’s see if I fare better this time around.
5 Bold Predictions
1. Petr Mrazek eventually takes over as the starter
Jack Campbell obviously put together a great season, and I don’t want to take anything away from him, but as long as Mrazek stays healthy, he has been an above-average goalie in the league and he’s played over 200 more games than Campbell when we include the playoffs (and he’s actually a month younger than Campbell).
Mrazek’s career high in games played in the NHL is only 54, but Campbell has only surpassed that number once in his entire professional career… back when he was in Windsor and Kyle Dubas brought him to the Soo, the Greyhounds were eliminated, and Campbell went to play for Texas in the AHL. It’s a good problem to have if they both play well, but on the whole, I’m betting on the experience and pedigree.
2. William Nylander finally hits the 70+ point mark
Maybe this isn’t bold – before the 2019-20 was cut short, Nylander was on pace for 71 points. Prior to, his career highs in points in a season were back-to-back 61 point seasons.
As for my logic here, I’d like to think it’s pretty obvious, but the first is his talent, which is undeniable. I’d like to think he’ll ride his strong playoff showing to greater heights this season, and with steady top-unit power-play time, I don’t see how he posts a season short of 70, barring injury.
3. Morgan Rielly eventually signs long-term in Toronto
Just a hunch on this one. Unlike with some of the other Leafs, I don’t get the sense that Rielly is looking to break the bank and milk every last penny. The Leafs have not entertained trading him at any point, and unlike Hyman, I think they will come to an agreement on a long-term contract that drives the AAV down to a number that’s at least somewhat palatable (which is what they tried but failed to do with Hyman).
I have no inside info here; I just feel like Rielly does want to return, and short not making the playoffs/another round-one exit that brings into serious question the direction of this core and the need to split them up, I think Rielly returns. Speaking of which…
4. The Leafs make it to (at least) the Conference Finals
There is nothing logical about this. At some point, they have to go on a run, though, right? Right!?
Why not this year?
Last season, we assumed someone would be fired after another first-round exit, and nobody was. I don’t know how the current management and coaching staff would survive another season should they lose out in round one yet again. It would be beyond comprehension. But they’ve failed so many times that I’d like to think they’ve learned something.
I also think playing better teams than Montreal/Columbus will work in their favour, ironically… Teams like Tampa, Boston and Florida will not hang five players behind center and grind away all night the same way those teams did, and I think this will help the Leafs.
I also think there is pretty well zero chance that Kyle Dubas stands pat at the deadline – he will almost certainly be an aggressive buyer again unless something goes horribly, horribly wrong. Once they win a round, I think the Leafs will gather momentum as the demons from under their bed and in their cars are exterminated.
5. Mitch Marner wins back the fans (somewhat)
I don’t know how to really quantify this, but I think the discourse on Marner has gone too far and is bound to course correct this season. He will obviously need a big playoff to quiet some of the concerns.
Nylander was in a similar-ish boat last offseason and changed the narrative around him after a strong showing. To this point, Marner has quite visibly not handled the pressure of playoffs and this market well. There’s really no clear logic in believing it will change, but I just think it will.
“Shifting gears here now, I like John in that spot. We have used Kerfoot with Nylander and Mikheyev throughout a lot of the portion of the camp, so we will put Bunting there. We are confident in that. I have liked Kampf and Kase all the way through together. I just thought the lines sort of fell in place for us once we knew that Auston wasn’t going to be available in the early going here.”
– Sheldon Keefe on the line combinations after losing Matthews and Mikheyev
I thought this was an interesting lens into Keefe’s mindset. It’s not exactly how I’d run it, but he sees things that none of us do in practice and behind closed doors. I wonder if there’s any world where John Tavares – Mitch Marner and Alex Kerfoot – William Nylander receive looks together when Matthews does return.
“It fires us up. We love him. He’s never happy when somebody takes advantage of one of our teammates especially a guy like Hollsy.”
– Jack Campbell commenting on Wayne Simmonds fighting Scott Sabourin
People can roll their eyes at this type of stuff all they want, but several Leafs players have mentioned these moments involving Wayne Simmonds since he signed in Toronto. It clearly matters to them in some capacity. I am not going to sit here and say it makes a significant difference or drastically moves the needle, but it’s not nothing.
“I’ve always thought that it would be good, especially when there’s a lot of PKs in game,” Nylander said. “It’s good to get out there to get the legs going and get moving versus sitting on the bench for an extended period of time. And you’re trying to keep the puck out of the net too, which is the most important thing. I was happy that they brought it up. I’m looking forward to it.”
– Nylander on playing on the penalty kill this season
Keefe has also noted that Auston Matthews would have been practicing penalty killing in the exhibition games had he not been injured. It’s a great asset for any player to have — and it’s worth trying — but if they are killing a penalty, you do lose out on loading up a line for the shift after a penalty kill up against, usually, the opponent’s third line.
Also worth wondering: If all the top players are receiving heavy power play and penalty killing time as well as their usual 5v5 workload, what is the point of, like, half your forward group?
Tweets of the Week
Adam Brooks was an easy player to root for with the Marlies, and he played a part in their 2018 Calder Cup Championship.
He was passed up in two drafts, and it was fun to watch him develop into a NHL player.
I hope he has a great season on an underperforming team.
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) October 11, 2021
Kudos to Adam Brooks for working his way up the ranks and into a player capable of, at minimum, taking shifts in the league. In particular, he really improved his skating, and he has put up eight points in 18 games. It has taken him some time for him to make the league, but at the same time, here is some perspective: he’s a year younger than Michael Bunting.
The reality is Brooks was caught up in a numbers game (I actually thought he had a good preseason, for whatever that’s worth), and they really had little choice. Funny enough, Mike Amadio was born seven days after Brooks, and I mentioned this in the first Notebook of the season: He has an NHL resume and some versatility to his game. The Leafs also lack right-handed centers, although Amadio has won only 46.8% of faceoffs in his NHL career.
Toronto Maple #Leafs begin the season using LTIR
Cap Hit: $83,033,116
LTIR: Mikheyev ($1.645M)
Roster Size: 22 (13F – 7D – 2G)https://t.co/xH4XQiEwjt
— CapFriendly (@CapFriendly) October 12, 2021
With the team up against the cap ceiling again and battling injuries already, here is an annual reminder of the details of using LTIR:
- If a team is cap compliant on opening day without using LTIR, or uses LTIR at any point during the season, the LTIR Pool is the Cap Hit of the LTIR player less the team’s cap space when the player goes on LTIR. For example, if a player with a $4M Cap Hit goes on LTIR when the team has $100K of Cap Space, the LTIR pool is $3.9M ($4M-$0.1M). Because of this, teams often make several roster moves right before a player goes on LTIR in order to be as close to the cap as possible, in order to maximize the LTIR Pool
- If a team cannot be cap compliant on opening day without using LTIR, the LTIR Pool is the amount the team exceeds the Cap. For example, if a team is $3M over the Cap and places a player on LTIR with a $4M Cap Hit for the opening roster submission, the LTIR Pool is the $3M that the team exceeded the cap
- While on LTIR, Cap Space is no longer accrued, meaning any portion of the LTIR pool not used cannot be used later.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1) I think this is an important two months for Pierre Engvall who, despite easily being a top 12 forward on the team in my opinion, appeared on the outs. They almost certainly would have had to waive him to take a defenseman with them for their three-game road trip starting October 23, and Engvall would likely be claimed.
Now, with Ilya Mikheyev injured for a few months, Engvall has an opportunity to really cement himself into the lineup for the season. I’d give him every chance to prove it, including some looks at center and a regular role on the penalty kill. With his shot, as we saw in preseason, he might even be an option for some spot duty power-play time.
2) I say this all the time, but to me, I think it’s still head scratching that the organization completely abandoned the idea of William Nylander playing center. Auston Matthews is out to start the season and the de-facto 2C is now Alex Kerfoot. Last playoffs, with John Tavares out, it was Kerfoot.
At one of the most important positions in the game, your best players should be capable of playing it at a high level (which Nylander would be, as that’s what he was initially groomed to do). It also plays to Nylander’s strengths to have him in the middle of the ice making plays with so much more space at his disposal compared to skating up and down a wall.
I have always been confused by pigeonholing a player as talented and capable as Nylander as exclusively a right winger, and yet Kerfoot can apparently play any forward position.
3) I think I wouldn’t be surprised if Jason Spezza takes more faceoffs than Mike Amadio on the fourth line but Amadio plays more of the actual center position in the run of play. Anytime he has been listed as the center, Spezza always ends up playing wing in open play because, as noted a number of times, he’s really a winger at this point in his career. That’s how I’d run it – Spezza is still excellent at faceoffs, but let Amadio handle the skating that the center position demands.
4) I think I would also start with Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin in the lineup over Timothy Liljegren. On pure pedigree alone, they deserve it (and that does matter). While Liljegren did have a solid preseason to my eye, Dermott and Sandin didn’t exactly do anything to warrant coming out, and the tie should go to the more experienced player(s). Liljegren will get his chance eventually, but this is the right way to start.
5) I think these injuries are actually a blessing in disguise. Everyone in the organization needs to see that they can win games without Auston Matthews playing 24 minutes (or whatever) per night. If the past two years are any indication, the only way we’re going to see this is, unfortunately, through him or Mitch Marner missing games.
In terms of what I would do with the lines, this is a great chance to give players extra time, and let us further see the Tavares – Marner, Kerfoot – Nylander pairings. If they do well, that starts giving you all sorts of options to play with once Matthews returns.