Breathe in. Breathe out. The playoffs are over. The off-season is over. Preseason is starting. Mitch Marner has a deal (hopefully) *crosses fingers*. What’s done is done. It’s a clean slate. Some beloved players are gone, but some fresh faces have joined the NHL’s version of the “Bullet Club”. With a team with so much promise, it’s time for the boys in blue and white to prove they have what it takes to be the elite. Can they? Will they? It’s time to take a dead dive into the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs. A team that would be worthy of being on the NHL’s version of “Hard Knocks”.
Maple Leafs 2018-19 Season Revisited
Last season felt like a year that should matter but it really did not for Toronto. The Maple Leafs finished with a 46-26-8 record which amounted to 100 points and a third-place finish in the Atlantic Division. The 6ix’s team had a year to remember.
Newly signed star forward John Tavares proved his worth and scored 47 goals and notched 41 assists in 82 games. Mitch Marner put on a show, leading the team with 94 points. Goaltender Frederik Andersen posted a 2.77 GAA (goals-against average) and won 37 games in his 60 starts. Auston Matthews had another solid season with 37 goals and 36 assists in 68 games. The less talked about but still touted young guns Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson had themselves a year. Plus, the Leafs had some nice surprises in their ranks like Tyler Ennis, a player who came in a nice bargain deal.
A major narrative
Although the team was having a lot of success on the ice, the media had their eyes on something that was happening off the ice. What was that exactly? It was the William Nylander holdout.
Something that went on a lot longer than it should have. How long? It lasted until the cutoff date in December for RFAs to be able to sign a deal with their team and not have to sit out the year. In the end, both sides agreed on a deal that most would call a “compromise”. After all the drama was over, Nylander could finally start playing hockey again.
And when Nylander came back to play, all eyes were still on him and his scoring struggles. As the season continued on, this became less and less of a narrative, especially after the Jake Muzzin trade.
Another tough first-round exit
Going into the playoffs, the Leafs had high hopes. Unfortunately for them, the Boston Bruins also had high hopes for themselves. The Bruins played a very physical game, which gave them a mental edge. Costly mistakes and bad decisions, like Nazem Kadri‘s choice to take things a bit too far, gave Boston all the momentum they needed to win when it mattered most. The Bruins would beat the Maple Leafs in a grueling seven-game series. And after yet another first-round exit, the blame game started amongst the Toronto media.
Head coach Mike Babcock took a lot of that blame for his usage of the Maple Leafs top players and how he rolled out his lines in the key minutes of the biggest games. Going into the offseason, this landed the former Stanley Cup-winner on the hot seat.
Most fans in Leafs Nation felt like this year was a wasted opportunity to achieve the ultimate goal based on how the rest of the playoffs played out. This put a lot of pressure on Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas heading into the off-season.
The 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs offseason
Dubas managed to dump the final year of Patrick Marleau‘s contract to the Carolina Hurricanes, but the cost of doing business was a 2020 first-round draft pick. Dubas also swung a deal with the Ottawa Senators to dump Nikita Zaitsev‘s albatross contract for one year of an overpaid Cody Ceci and moved fan favourites like Connor Brown and others in the process for some pieces from Ottawa. Kyle Dubas made some smaller scale free agent signings as well.
Not too long after the deal with Ottawa, news broke out that the Leafs made a deal with Colorado to acquire right-handed defenceman Tyson Barrie and forward Alexander Kerfoot plus a 2020 sixth-round draft pick for Nazem Kaderi, Calle Rosen and a 2020 third-round draft pick. The deal was met with a lot of fanfare. Most good, but some bad.
Dubas kept with his wheeling and dealing ways. A couple weeks after that, the GM struck a deal with the Vegas Golden Knights to send a frustrated Garret Sparks to the Sin City for David Clarkson‘s tire fire of a contract and a draft pick. Clarkson’s contract is going to be put on long-term injury reserve to free up more money to sign the biggest elephant in the room, Mitch freaking Marner.
At this moment, Marner has yet to re-sign, but odds are he will ink a deal with the Maple Leafs sooner rather than later after all the offer sheet talk turned out to be just that – talk.
Matthews and Nylander should be a lock. In the past, they have played great together. Nylander needs someone to drive the line while he’s out doing his thing and trying to set his linemates up. Mikheyev seems like a player who could fit in well on that line to ensure that the rest of the lines remain balanced as seen below until Zach Hyman returns.
This line seems like a good fit. Johnsson’s speed and willingness to go out and get the puck for Tavares and Marner would create a plethora of chances for an already lethal duo of Tavares and Marner. When Hyman comes back, Johnsson could be moved up to the top line or the third line or however Coach Babcock wants to play it.
This third line pairing allows for depth scoring and has players that can handle themselves at both sides on the ice. All these players have attributes that will compliment each other as the season rolls along. Moore is a pretty fast skater and can handle the puck well. Kerfoot is a half-decent body checker and is above-average in other aspects of his game. Kapanen is a fast skater with great vision and a good shot.
This is a nice fourth line. It could serve as a “checking line”, but at the worst, this is a line Babcock can send out to wear their opponents down and give the other three trios a chance to put a puck in the back of the net. Over the season, one could expect that there will be different versions of this fourth line. Therein making it very interchangeable.
This pairing might be to the ire of some, but it does have that potential to be a bit of a “sleeper”. Ceci would benefit from playing with Rielly, a player who can make the worst of his partners look mediocre. The lefty-righty dynamic is still in play. Not forgetting to mention, it sets up the pairings that follow.
This pairing could and probably would be money for the Maple Leafs. Both players are great at playing their styles. Barrie is an offensive defenceman where Muzzin is more of a stay at home d-man. It is something, at the very least, that should be explored.
The pairing will see a lot of changes throughout the season, but it would not be surprising if this is what the Leafs ice opening night. It plays well with the lefty-righty dynamic and offers the Leafs a bit of flexibility since they have Ben Harpur in the wake in case things go sour with this pairing.
Andersen is the lock to be the starter. Odds are the backup position will be tied up between Hutchison and Neuvirth with Neuvirth seeing more playing time if he has a good pre-season.
Players to watch
After a tougher season last year with his contract hold out and all the other mumbo jumbo, this is Nylander’s chance to shut up his critics and prove his worth once and for all. This will also be a time to prove that he is indeed a “star”, instead of a really good top-six forward that has benefited from playing with superstar centre Auston Matthews.
It will be interesting to see how well Barrie gels with the new-look Maple Leafs. Who will he have the most chemistry with? How big of a difference-maker will he be? Can he finally be that top-four right-handed defenceman that the Leafs have been searching for all these years?
The hometown boy got/will get his money, but can he live up to the expectations? Can he be an 80-90 point player? How will he handle all this newfound pressure from Leafs Nation? Will he crack under it or will he thrive off it? That will be interesting to see.
Prediction for the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs!
The Leafs are an interesting team this year. After all the off-season moves, one could say they are an improved team on paper. Will the make the playoffs? Easily. Will they win the Atlantic? Probably not. It is more likely that they are looking at a second-place finish, most likely behind the Tampa Bay Lighting.
The real question is how far will they go in the playoffs? Toronto looks like a team that lacks physicality. It could hurt them if they are stuck playing the Bruins yet again or a team who likes to throw around their bodies. Odds are, the Leafs have what it takes to win a best-of-seven game series if they get a nice setup, but that’s not a given. In all fairness, the Leafs are a good team with potential, but until they can get over that hump, they are most likely going to be viewed as Stanley Cup pretenders. And it’s most likely that’s the scenario that will play out again this season.
If the Maple Leafs want to change that narrative, they need to prove that they belong. “The regular season is just practice”, as the 2019 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard said last year leading up to the Toronto Raptors “prehistoric” season. The playoffs are where it counts from here on out.
If the Leafs want the fame, they have to be able to win those do or die playoff games. Until then, they’ll simply be the “would have, should have, could have been” team wasting season after season with solid lineups full of talented players wanting to get some gold on their ring fingers.