Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, where Last Word on Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Toronto Maple Leafs.
2020-21 Toronto Maple Leafs
It seems like a lifetime ago that Mike Babcock was fired as the head coach of the Leafs. Yet when the puck dropped on the 2019-20 season for Toronto, over 15 months ago now, it was Babcock behind the bench. But the 2019-20 campaign marked yet another unexpected detour in the ‘Shanaplan’ for this Toronto team. While the Leafs had a slow start to the season, many were quick to chalk it up to some fluke performances and iffy goaltending that should stabilize. But after a 2-1 overtime win over the Vegas Golden Knights on November 7, 2019, things went south, and fast. They proceeded to embark on a six-game losing streak, culminating in a 4-2 loss to the same Golden Knights just over a week later on November 19. Toronto brass had seen enough, and after a 9-10-4 start to the campaign, Babcock was fired.
Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe was promoted and took over behind the bench in advance of Toronto’s next game. The team fared much better the rest of the season under Keefe, going 27-15-5 before NHL operations were shut down due to COVID-19. It was a good enough record to get them into the Qualifying Round but were handed a five-game exit at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets due to an embarrassing offensive performance. The seemingly never-ending scrutiny of the Leafs only intensified, leading the 2020-21 campaign potentially being the most closely examined Leafs season in history.
Truthfully, the 2020 offseason started for the Maple Leafs before their playoff journey began. Spring signings during the league’s COVID pause of European free agents Alexander Barabanov and Mikko Lehtonen kicked off proceedings. They’re currently both slated to make the team’s opening night roster. However, that certainly wasn’t the end of general manager Kyle Dubas’ proceedings.
After their elimination from the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round, the Maple Leafs began clearing salary cap space with another underachieving team in the Pittsburgh Penguins. Kasperi Kapanen was the casualty of this deal, being packaged to Pittsburgh in a multi-asset deal. Toronto stayed relatively quiet until free agency opened, but they rocketed back with a bang. Within the span of just a few days, they refreshed their entire team. Acquisitions included Wayne Simmonds, T.J. Brodie, Travis Boyd, Joey Anderson, Zach Bogosian, Jimmy Vesey, Aaron Dell, and Joe Thornton. They made up for these roster spots by parting with Tyson Barrie, Kyle Clifford, and Cody Ceci via free agency and dealt Andreas Johnsson to the New Jersey Devils. Dubas’ moves were aggressive, there’s no doubt. The pressure is on this year, and they’ve been given the chance to win.
Toronto now boasts some of the league’s best depth at every position. With additional lineup options balanced with the creativity of a fully Keefe-led squad, line combos could be all over the place this year. Still, Toronto’s lineup looks to be as powerful as ever.
Alexander Barabanov – Jason Spezza – Wayne Simmonds
Extra: Travis Boyd
Despite having some stacked forward talent, Toronto’s chosen to spread the love across all four forward lines. To say that there are some unexpected names on their first two lines is an understatement. The usual suspects sit on center and right-wing for yet another year, as Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander continue to make up Toronto’s core four. But it appears as though two sub-$1 million free-agent additions in Thornton and Vesey will slot in on the two open left-wing spots.
But it’s still worth being said that the aforementioned core four still makes up one of the best in the league. Among the North Division, they battle with Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Kailer Yamamoto. Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, and Patrik Laine are also in the conversation. But pairing Matthews’ and Marner’s shot with Thornton’s passing ability could prove deadly, and Vesey could very well see a breakout season playing with Tavares. Those hypotheses are just that, however, and these lines could get shuffled quickly.
For the first time in a long time, it appears as though Toronto’s third line is what may set them apart. Alex Kerfoot is a returning cast member, but he’ll gain some new linemates but old friends in Mikheyev and Hyman. Hyman moves out of the top six into more of a checking role, a game that suits his hard-nosed style of play. He’ll provide some grit while Kerfoot and Mikheyev supply some solid (and consistent) depth scoring, something Johnsson and Kapanen could not provide.
The fourth line sees some grit added too with the addition of Simmonds. He’ll look to be a power-play presence as well, but his main contribution to the team will be as an agitator. Spezza returns after an admirable performance as the team’s fourth-line centre last year, and if he keeps it up, they’ll be solid there, too. Barabanov is gearing up for his first season in the NHL after being very productive in Russia. He’s certainly a wild card. But given his stats overseas, he could help form one of the better bottom-six groups in the league.
Morgan Rielly – T.J. Brodie
Mikko Lehtonen – Zach Bogosian
Extra: Travis Dermott
“Is T.J. Brodie better than Cody Ceci???” might be something you’ve heard circulating around the internet recently. All stupidity and joking aside, Toronto has quickly reformed and improved their top pair on defence through a single free-agent transaction. Brodie has produced impressive results in the past playing alongside another star no. 1 defenceman in Calgary by the name of Mark Giordano. If he can repeat that success in Toronto, it’ll be a success both defensively and offensively. Muzzin and Holl will continue as Sheldon Keefe’s shutdown pair of choice. They were decent but not great last year. It’s still not the strongest top-flight ‘D’ in the league, but it’s much-improved from last season
The highlight here is Mikko Lehtonen. He’s shown his offensive skills in the KHL, and will likely see time on one of Toronto’s power-play units as well. He’s impressed in training camp so far and the transition to North American ice seems to be going well. He’ll seemingly be paired with Stanley Cup champion Zach Bogosian, who, along with Simmonds, will look to provide some aggression to Toronto’s depth. Travis Dermott will almost definitely work his way into the lineup as well. Toronto’s bottom pairing looks to be a rotation of those three.
Toronto’s tandem from last year returns. Campbell’s addition from the Los Angeles Kings via trade has been heartening to say the least. He’s one of the more capable backups in the league and will be able to start a decent number of games. He’ll take a bit of the workload away from the always-overused Andersen. Speaking of Andersen, he’ll look to have a bounce-back season after his worst statistical year in the league. He’ll be helped by an improved defence. This tandem looks to be one of the more capable ones in the North Division.
Players to Watch
This team will undoubtedly live or die by the blade (er, Freddy Andersen’s stick). A rebound year from him could make all the difference in regular-season dominance. There’s reason to expect this because of his great playoff performance. If he returns to Vezina-finalist form, Toronto could see a solid gap between them and the next team in the North Division standings.
Despite all of Toronto’s forward talent, Mikheyev could be a crucial part of Toronto’s offence this year. He was a rather important contributor to Toronto’s depth before a gnarly wrist injury cut his rookie season short last year. If he continues his 0.50 point per game or better pace, Mikheyev could help galvanize a bottom-six group that’s been a liability at times.
Prediction for the 2020-21 Toronto Maple Leafs
Disappointment has been a word used often by Leafs fans in recent years. And while no Stanley Cup is guaranteed, there should be many more reasons for optimism this season than in years past. A reformed defence and winger personnel are looking promising already. The Leafs have the tools to set themselves apart from other Canadian teams in every facet of the game. The 2020-21 Toronto Maple Leafs should have a North Division title in their sights (and a first-round playoff victory).
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