Welcome to the latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. Each day, we will take a look at a new team and examine three of their potential breakout or bounce-back players. What are these? These are players that have the chance to make a serious difference with their teams. Whether that’s as someone who finally finds their place in the NHL, or as someone who had previously been good but has struggled as of recently. Each day we will be looking at a different team! However, today we will take a look at the potential 2020-21 Toronto Maple Leafs key players.
2020-21 Toronto Maple Leafs Candidates
We start off with Toronto’s cornerstone, and quite possibly their most make-or-break talent for next season. Frederik Andersen had been a rock for Toronto during his first three seasons as a Maple Leaf, continuing his previous success with the Anaheim Ducks. Two out of those three seasons saw him finish in the top 10 for Vezina Trophy voting. However, Andersen produced career-low numbers in 2019-20 with a .909 save percentage and a goals-against-average of 2.85. He was one of the main reasons the Maple Leafs only finished eighth in the Eastern Conference.
However, despite losing their Qualifying Round series to the Columbus Blue Jackets, Andersen showed signs of rejuvenation in that five-game stint. He was rock-solid, posting a .936 save percentage and a 1.84 goals-against average. ‘Freddy’ has also consistently performed among the top goalies in the NHL. Per Evolving-Hockey’s goals against replacement (GAR) metric, Andersen’s 73.7 rating over the past three seasons is third in the league (behind only Connor Hellebuyck and John Gibson). Add in a fortified defence in front of him with the addition of T.J. Brodie, and Andersen should return to being one of the league’s premier starters in 2020-21.
In all honestly, Ilya Mikheyev may not have even been eligible for this list had he been fully healthy in 2019-20. However, a scary wrist laceration from a skate limited him to only 39 games last year. The first-year Russian import was still productive, scoring 23 points in 39 games while bouncing around in a middle-six winger role. Over a full season, that puts him on pace for around 48 points.
But with the departure of Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen both shipped out of town, we can expect Mikheyev to land a bigger role in 2020-21. He has the inside track to slot in on the second line full time with John Tavares and could see some power-play usage as well (which he saw none of last year). His solid possession stats (54.1 percent Corsi For in 2019-20) suggest solid play-driving ability, and he now has a season on North American ice under his belt. Look for a more comfortable Mikheyev in 2020-21, and as the 26-year-old winger enters his prime, he could blossom in an increased role.
General manager Kyle Dubas continues to be a master of bringing in cost-effective European imports. This offseason it was Mikko Lehtonen – a 26-year-old Finnish defenceman who spent the 2019-20 campaign with Jokerit of the KHL. It was a breakout season for Lehtonen, who posted 49 points in 60 games in the second-best league in the world. Next season will be his first on North American ice, but the left-shot defenceman has every chance to make an impact.
So far, 2020-21 has gone even better for Lehtonen. Toronto loaned him back to Jokerit for the beginning of the KHL season, where he scored at a point-per-game pace through 17 games. He’s since been recalled and is in Toronto in order to prepare for training camp, but that kind of production is a great glimpse of what he may be able to contribute this season. While he’ll be pressed for minutes behind Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin, Lehtonen could break out as one of the best depth defenders in the league this year. Over the past year and a half in the KHL, he’s given Toronto fans every reason to be excited.
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