When the Toronto Maple Leafs begin training camp there will be no shortage of storylines to follow. At this time last year, superstar centre Auston Matthews was working his way through a nagging wrist injury. He went on to defend his Rocket Richard trophy and added a Hart trophy to his collection of hardware. How will he look fully healthy? General manager Kyle Dubas has turned to an old friend in the net. Will newly acquired Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov save his job by providing stable goaltending?
Is former first-round pick and (potential) future top-four defenceman Rasmus Sandin finally going to put pen to paper and sign a contract? Which prospect will shine during the preseason and take hold of regular duty in the lineup? Will captain John Tavares return to his goal-scoring ways after he lit the lamp less frequently a year ago? These questions all hold their share of intrigue, but there are other more under-the-radar Toronto Maple Leafs training camp storylines to follow that might have a major impact on the Leafs season.
The Health of Jake Muzzin
Defenceman Jake Muzzin brings elements to the Leafs’ “D” corps that many of his teammates do not. First, and foremost. a physical presence. He brings the thunder on opposing forwards more than any other defenceman on the Leafs. Muzzin blocks shots and is a willing combatant in front of the net. He is also a respected locker room voice. He is a team leader and a Stanley Cup Champion.
The Leafs lose a lot from their backend when he is out of the lineup. Unfortunately, that has happened too frequently in recent seasons. He has battled hand, foot, and concussion issues. With his style of play comes a higher risk of injury. A healthy Muzzin is key to the Leafs’ success, especially come playoff time. It is important that he does not change his style of play, but you can bet the Leafs hope “Lady Luck” is more kind to Muzzin this year.
Calle Jarnkrok‘s Role
The signing of forward Calle Jarnkrok raised many eyebrows among those who follow the Leafs. Committing four years to a thirty-year-old, thirty-point player will do that. Leafs management likes something about his game. Last season, the Leafs had a reliable and productive third-line composed of David Kampf, Pierre Engvall, and Ilya Mikheyev. They chipped in offensively and played an important even-strength shutdown role while also killing penalties.
With Mikheyev leaving via free agency, Jarnkrok now projects to play with Kampf and Engvall. He must develop chemistry with them. He will be counted on to contribute offensively to make up for Mikeyev’s twenty-plus goals that left for Vancouver. Jarnkrok’s transition to the lineup will determine if the third line continues its success.
Pierre Engvall Must Continue to Progress
The aforementioned Engvall must also help make up for some of the Leafs’ losses to their group of forwards. The Leafs lost Jason Spezza to retirement and chose not to resign Ondrej Kase, in addition to losing Mikheyev. They have more questions up front than they did at the beginning of last year. Engvall has made progressive gains throughout his years with the team. He graduated from their Toronto Marlies championship team to become a regular contributor to the lineup.
Last season was his best since joining the Leafs. He set career highs with fifteen goals and thirty-five points. A continued ascension in his play would be a welcome sight for head coach Sheldon Keefe. Being a reliable penalty-killer and contributing twenty goals would help Leaf fans forget about some of the production that left town. His offensive game will be closely monitored during training camp.
Under the Radar Storylines Will Help Determine Leafs’ Success
The most important determinants of the Leafs’ success this season will be centred around their key figures. Matthews and Marner must continue their dominant play. One of Murray or Samsonov, preferably both, must provide dependable goaltending. Tavares needs to fend off “Father Time”. A prospect or two needs to make a name for themselves.
The usual suspects will be critical to the Leafs’ fortunes. But the secondary characters and stories shouldn’t be overlooked. They might lead the Leafs to new heights. That all starts in training camp.
Jake Muzzin’s return to active duty can’t come soon enough. He broke a foot on Dec. 27th in New Jersey but will be back on the ice tomorrow for the 1st time. A return soon after the break would coincide with his arrival as a Maple Leaf exactly a year ago from L.A. #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/l438oGmZWu
— Paul Hendrick (@HennyTweets) January 14, 2020