Entering the offseason, the Maple Leafs’ needs were not particularly extensive, but they did have some holes and question marks, as every team does.
In net, the whole position was obviously an unknown. Jack Campbell was an unrestricted free agent and Petr Mrazek was coming off of a nightmare first season in Toronto. Both are in the other conference now.
Logically, betting on any two goalies in the league that have flashed ability/shown some form of extended success in their careers to better the Leafs’ 27th-ranked 5v5 save percentage last season seems reasonable. They aren’t exactly asking their new tandem to be great – only decent, or dare we say it, solid. Worse bets have been made.
That said, question marks about Matt Murray don’t only surround his play but his ability to stay healthy. Ilya Samsonov, meanwhile, has not sustained strong play since his rookie season in 2019-20.
Goalies are magic beans at the best of times. To acquire certainty in net, a team has to pay up – and it’s quite possible we look back and say the Leafs should have – but in lieu of that, this is the type of situation a team will find itself in. At the very least, the Leafs have two credible NHL netminders, so the responsibilities won’t fall squarely on one goalie’s shoulders.
The defense was more or less set on paper, and once Mark Giordano took a sweetheart deal, it was essentially complete. Our one question was whether they’d look to add a top-of-the-lineup defender – another difference maker – to the group and whether they’d continue to trust Jake Muzzin to stay healthy in their top four. Complicating matters there is Muzzin’s no-trade clause.
The Leafs have decided to run it back on defense with a group that is solid on paper – albeit aging – provided Muzzin can return to form (or someone emerges to reduce his minutes and responsibilities). If Muzzin struggles again with form and/or health, it could lead to questions about whether the Leafs need to acquire another defenseman.
Will Rasmus Sandin and/or Timothy Liljegren continue to ascend? How will Mark Giordano hold up at 39+? Will Justin Holl rebound in a contract year? TJ Brodie is 32 – how much longer is he going to sustain his play in a borderline top-pairing role?
There are enough quality defensemen on the roster that they should be able to sort out the defense internally. Without question, they have seven above-average NHL blueliners (with various capacities and skill sets), so it’s probably going to be about evaluating and moving them around to find the best fits unless a player or two really falls off in his play or gets hurt.
At forward, there were really three questions of sorts: How would they fill out the bottom six? Would they move a core player, and if it happened, what would be the domino effect? If they didn’t move a core player, the top six contains five locked-in players, so could they add a player of quality to round out the group?
The bottom six has been rounded out largely by role players (which has been a subtle shift over the years in Kyle Dubas’ tenure). Nicolas Aube-Kubel was added as an energy/forechecker type of player. Zach Aston-Reese, another professional role player, has a clear fit. Calle Jarnkrok has more utility and scoring ability than those two, but again, he is an effective penalty killer, he’s good defensively, and he’s a swiss-army knife type of player who gives the Leafs options.
None of these players is better than the departed Ilya Mikheyev. I’d even argue that if Ondrej Kase could stay healthy, he’s better than all of them, too. But the newcomers fit the bottom six roles a lot better than the Jason Spezzas, Wayne Simmonds, and Kyle Cliffords of last season. They are all also plus defensive players.
There has been a slight shift in his area philosophically over the years. None of these players are even remotely similar to some of the names the Leafs have filled out the roster with in previous seasons: Jimmy Vesey, Dmytro Timashov, Tyler Ennis, Par Lindholm, Joe Thornton (when he wasn’t playing on the top line), and all the other players we just mentioned. The new additions are largely defensive and energy-role players, which I think is a welcome change.
At the top of the lineup, no core player was moved but no established needle mover was added. At this time, the options are essentially Denis Malgin – who is getting the first crack at it – calling up Nick Robertson, or bumping up Alex Kerfoot or Calle Jarnkrok. Realistically, the latter two would be playing higher in the lineup than they probably should if they went that route.
If someone pops among the above-mentioned group, the roster (not including goalies) is about as complete as it gets. The question, yet again, is whether they can deliver when it counts. If nobody stakes a claim to the top-six spot, the conversation will shift to who Kyle Dubas should acquire at the trade deadline.
– I mentioned a few weeks ago that the Marlies have quietly been trending down since Sheldon Keefe was promoted. It’s always a big year for your development-league team, but this one, in particular, is quite important.
Nick Robertson made a big push to make the Leafs and probably deserved to make it, all things being equal. He will surely return to the Leafs at some point. He has been promising since the Leafs drafted him as a high pick and has been in and out with the Marlies; I’m sure the reps in the AHL have helped, but I don’t think he’s really a product of their system per se. The only other young player who really pushed to make the team was Pontus Holmberg, who has played all of six games with the Marlies.
In camp, Keefe made a point of noting that Jordie Benn and Victor Mete were a clear step ahead of all the other depth defensemen in the organization, and neither is a world-beater exactly.
There have been some decent young players sent down to the Marlies in the past week. They need to develop and make something out of at least a few of them. It would make Dubas’ life a lot easier if he had more of them knocking on the door sooner rather than later.
There was a lot of disagreement when I wrote about this originally, but here we are going into the season and David Kampf is centering the team’s “fourth” line. I think this has always been the setup the Leafs have wanted ever since they acquired Riley Nash a few years ago. The fourth line is the defensive-zone start/checking line, the top line is the do-everything line, and the middle two lines are used situationally.
Even if we consider Kampf the proverbial 4C, he’s going to play at least two and a half minutes per game shorthanded (we’ll see if that actually ticks up now). He’ll get his minutes. It wouldn’t be surprising if his line has a number of games where they play more minutes than the “third” line.
– I know people loved Jason Spezza – and it’s not a knock on him – but it was time. They couldn’t build their lineup like this with him, Wayne Simmonds, or Joe Thornton on that fourth line. They look like they have four lines that could theoretically play against anybody.
They’ve never been able to make such a claim to start a season under this regime. There has always been a few players they’ve kind of had to work around.
– I have to give credit where it’s due: one heck of a camp for Denis Malgin. We’ll see how the regular season goes, of course, but he definitely earned an opportunity to prove himself in the real games, and he’s getting about as good of a look as he can possibly hope for.
– Similarly, both Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov looked good. Both are NHL talents and it was preseason – frankly, we should expect them to look good – but all they can do is play each game in front of them. So far, it’s been promising. Of course, Leafs preseason and goaltending have gone well before until the real games started, so that’s the most I’ll say there.
“Willy has done that before and I think has the ability to. Frankly, I wouldn’t read too much into it. If you kind of break it down, it is kind of a placeholder for John in his spot. There are those elements to it. I think it is important for Willy to get some reps through the camp and all of that. He does play center at times… It was really more that I wanted to get a look at Engvall, Kerfoot, and Jarnkrok today. It was just natural to put Willy in that spot.”
– Sheldon Keefe on moving William Nylander to center in practice
I wonder if this is the season we finally see it again. With a great top line firmly in place and a checking fourth line that’s bound to work, the Leafs can get all sorts of creative with their middle two lines.
It is always worth repeating that William Nylander was, at one point, groomed to play center on the Marlies. He looked good there. He has the tools to play the position and is at his most dangerous in the middle of the ice. The Leafs won the draft lottery and he shifted to wing full-time, but there is a pro-hockey foundation there.
“It’s a talented team. I find glory in the fact you can get that blocked shot or that big hit that will save the game or changes the momentum for the skills guys to take over.”
– Zach Aston-Reese, who turned his PTO into a one-year contract
Zach Aston-Reese is a professional role player. This is the exact type of player the Leafs need in the bottom six – role players who are able to impact games in different ways. A team can’t have 12 scoring forwards. There are all sorts of elements that go into winning, and he brings a much-needed one.
“I felt like we had a really good group. I wanted to be the best version of myself. Sometimes you put too much pressure on yourself. It is not easy. It is a tough league. There are a lot of games. Sometimes, you can get a little lost or a little confused about what makes you a good player.”
– Jake Muzzin on his struggles last season and the pressure he put on himself
I really believed Jake Muzzin struggled last season because he was unhealthy, but he seems to think it was more of a mental thing. Whatever it was, a healthy Muzzin stringing together a solid season would be a major boost to the team.
Five things I will be watching for this season
Can the Leafs win the division?
For all the talk of how good of a regular-season team the Leafs have been, the only thing they have won is the all-Canadian division. As we saw last season with the matchup against Tampa Bay, there is value in finishing higher up in the standings.
The Atlantic might be a little less strong than usual, but Tampa still looks like a great roster to me, Boston looks good once healthy, and Florida still has a number of gamebreakers.
They should be trying to win the division and be in contention for the President’s Trophy. There’s no value in the team going through the motions through the regular season and waiting for the playoffs. They should come in with a chip on their shoulder and their sights set on buzz-sawing through the league. The potential is definitely there for them to do exactly that.
Part of this is me also wondering if the team starts to feel a little stale. At its core, it’s been the same group for five seasons now, and they haven’t won anything. Are they going to be more motivated than ever and start by running over the league this regular season?
How much will Sheldon Keefe mix up the lines?
Well, the Michael Bunting – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner line is back to start the season as are William Nylander – John Tavares. Is that going to be the case all season?
Keefe did have Matthews and Nylander together briefly last season, but Matthews was still recovering from injury and definitely wasn’t himself. There is a part of me that thinks an injury of note forcing their hand to shift around the lines would benefit them long-term; it seems like they won’t shake it up otherwise.
Waiting to shake up the lines after the team is locked into a playoff spot isn’t the solution. They should experiment in games that matter to really establish a feel for what works – not when they’re playing out the regular season down the stretch. The latter leads to reverting back come playoff time when the games matter again, as they did last season.
Will the power play fall off again as the season progresses?
We won’t know about this until the spring. Under Sheldon Keefe, the Leafs’ power play has been strong to start, and then it’s fallen off a cliff in the last month or two of the regular season through to the playoffs. Their power play was flirting with the best percentage in league history last season, but it was mediocre when it mattered most yet again. It can be great all the way to March, but then what happens?
How all-in will the Leafs go at the trade deadline?
We have seen Kyle Dubas move numerous draft picks and some solid young players, but there has never been a move that we could categorize as a legitimate mortgaging of the future – i.e. trading a high-pedigree young player for a veteran in order to win now.
No, trading a first-rounder for Nick Foligno doesn’t match this definition. It would be moving a name like Nick Robertson, Rasmus Sandin, or Matthew Knies. I’m not endorsing this type of move necessarily (it would depend on the details and circumstances), but he’s a lame-duck GM, and the team hasn’t won anything. If he can acquire a massive difference-maker and it costs him a really good young player, is he going to pull the trigger?
Colorado traded Conor Timmins and a first for Darcy Kuemper before acquiring Arrturi Lehkonen for Justin Barron – who they drafted in the first round – and a second. They also acquired Josh Manson in exchange for Drew Helleson, who they drafted in the second round, and a second-round pick.
The Leafs have definitely made splashes, but I wouldn’t say they’ve gone all-in yet.
Does any young player take a step?
Look, the Leafs are a really good team. Anyone arguing otherwise is kidding themselves. But I still think they need at least one more difference-maker. If a young player were to emerge as one, it would really round out the roster nicely.
No squinting and wondering whether Alex Kerfoot is the solution on the second line. If Denis Malgin or Nick Robertson pop, the roster is about as deep and diverse as it has been in decades. Without such an emergence, I see the merit in going all in with a trade at the deadline.
This is also noteworthy on defense, too, if Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren are able to take a step. Jake Muzzin is aging, and while it isn’t talked about much, TJ Brodie is, too. We’re coming off a playoff where Morgan Rielly partnered with Ilya Lyubushkin. It’s a good, deep group, but it’s lacking a bit at the top.
Sandin did not play in the playoffs. Liljegren played two games. If even one was to emerge as a full-time top-four, it would have a really positive domino effect on the Leafs’ defense.