Last Word On Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2022-23 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team over the course of the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2022-23 Toronto Maple Leafs.
2022-23 Toronto Maple Leafs
Last season was a high-scoring affair for the Leafs. The long-established chemistry between Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner was at its brightest. Matthews potted a record-breaking 60 goals in 73 games, along with breaking the 100-point barrier for the first time in his career. His partner in crime was an All-Star, with an astounding 97 points in just 72 games. Combining their offensive output with a tremendous supporting cast, they propelled the Leafs into contention for the President’s Trophy. Overall, the squad saw a vast improvement in play and was tipped to end their first-round playoff demons.
Once again, Toronto was one of the best teams in the league last season, racking up a huge 312 goals, just 25 short of the league leader Florida Panthers. However, they fell short again in the playoffs. In comparison to seasons past, the Leafs saw their play improve in the first round of the playoffs but met a formidable foe in the form of reigning champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Disappointing again for fans, players, and the Toronto front office, but overall improvement was there for hopes to be held against.
General manager Kyle Dubas was a busy man again this summer, bringing in a number of fresh faces to wear the famous blue and white uniform. Goaltending was the first item on the list Petr Mrazek was the first man out, with the Leafs sending him to the Chicago Blackhawks. This allowed Matt Murray to be brought in from the Ottawa Senators a couple of days later.
Once the free agency window opened, six players – Nicolas Aubé-Kubel, Adam Gaudette, Ilya Samsonov, Jordie Benn, Victor Mete, and Calle Jarnkrok – were signed over the first few days of the signing period. Although most will be providing depth, almost all will crack the Leafs starting line-up.
Along with finding new players, the summer is all about tying down those you have. Along with signing Dennis Hildeby to his entry-level contract, Toronto brought back two forwards, Pierre Engvall and Denis Malgin. Whilst Engvall was a frequent member of the line-up with the Leafs, Malgin had spent the past two seasons playing in his home country of Switzerland. Finally, after much deliberation, defenceman Rasmus Sandin re-signed in late September.
Leafs fans also waved goodbye to a number of players among which was Jack Campbell. He switched Ontario for Alberta by signing with the Edmonton Oilers in free agency. Other players of note were forwards Ondrej Kase and Ilya Mikheyev, who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes and Vancouver Canucks, respectively.
2022-23 Toronto Maple Leafs Lineup Projections
Toronto has arguably the finest top-six in the league. Having the back-to-back Rocket Richard winner and his elite linemate supporting him with assists is already a force to be reckoned and it is easy to overlook the other outstanding talent on offer. William Nylander’s progression into one of the league’s best wingers has delighted fans and Toronto staff alike. The emergence of Michael Bunting was even more of a welcome surprise. A Calder Memorial Trophy finalist, he has the ability to propel himself to a legitimate threat against the NHL’s top defences. With captain John Tavares and the versatile Jarnkrok rounding out the supporting cast, it is difficult to see how many teams could hold off the storm.
Along with a number of regulars returning, Dubas has added a number of reinforcements for the Leaf’s bottom six. As a result, they look much better than years before. Previously, the Leafs’ bottom six was not the most gritty. Whilst they had the odd ‘tough-guy’, he was often a veteran lacking that punch in his play. However, this time Dubas has turned to skilful players who have that bit of bite, allowing them to handle the workload of a bottom six.
Aubé-Kubel is just one of these signings, a slick, tough winger who will likely cement a role in the middle four. Although Gaudette has bounced around a number of teams since leaving the Canucks he is a proven NHL depth forward, with versatility, heavy-hitting and a playmaking touch. Currently signed to a professional try-out, Zach Aston-Reese could be the ideal depth piece that Toronto has been looking for. A proven performer on a contending team, his underrated two-way skills should earn him a contract and a place on the opening night roster; Dubas would be silly to not roll the dice and get him in the blue and white permanently.
Finally, this season should be the season Nick Robertson takes the next step. After being drafted 53rd overall in 2019, Robertson has played outstanding in the AHL but still struggled to earn a permanent role with the big team. However, a very strong pre-season has helped his chances and coach Sheldon Keefe has been impressed. Expect to see him make it out of camp, but he must keep up his strong form to stay away from the Marlies.
Extra: Timothy Liljegren
As ever, Toronto will enter the season with a strong top four. Morgan Rielly will once again drive the offence and partner Jake Muzzin will complement him perfectly with his heavy-hitting, physical style. Former Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano will enter his first full season in Toronto, having settled well following his deadline-day trade from the Seattle Kraken. This will allow his strong chemistry with the speedy TJ Brodie to continue forming, where the duo has given the Leafs an enviable middle defensive pairing.
It could be fairer to say the bottom trio for Toronto. With Justin Holl an established mainstay of the blue line and the top-four seemingly impenetrable when all fit and healthy, Sandin and Timothy Liljegren will each be battling it out for the various duties that come their way. Both have played very similarly over the past few seasons and Dubas confirmed both were parts of the club’s future defensive plans. Of course, the injury bug likes to plague teams and the Leafs are no different. Muzzin often struggles with fitness and misses large spells at a time. Giordano is a veteran and his on-ice time will dwindle. It is here that Sandin and Liljegren will need to step up.
Goaltending has always been a concern for the Toronto Maple Leafs and following Campbell’s departure, fans were hoping for a huge upgrade. Unfortunately, it does not appear that Dubas has managed to do that. In fact, the Leafs may have potentially downgraded by choosing Murray and Samsonov.
After winning back-to-back Stanley Cups as a rookie, Murray slowly lost form and signed with the Senators. Upon his arrival in Ontario, he deteriorated further and his poor form saw him even demoted to the AHL. Now he is reunited with Dubas and Keefe, both of whom he is familiar with from the trio’s time with the Soo Greyhounds, fans will sincerely be hoping that Murray finds his mojo again.
Alternatively, Samsonov could be the goalie taking charge of the crease on opening night. The Russian has at times shown he has what it takes to be a true starting goalie in the NHL. Unfortunately, inconsistency concerns with the Washington Capitals resulted in reduced game time and likely contributed to his departure from DC. The Leafs will be hoping he finds the strong and steady form his promise projected and with youth on his side, it is entirely possible that he may do just that.
Players to Watch
Aubé-Kubel is fresh off a Stanley Cup win with the Colorado Avalanche and will provide gritty playmaking for his new club. No stranger to NHL checking lines, he has a history of solid offensive production. If given the opportunity with Toronto’s skilful forwards, he could see his point totals jump up and become a valuable asset for the Leafs’ forward group.
The Leafs will be hoping at least one of their bold goaltending choices will pan out and out of the two, Samsonov is the most likely. A former first-round pick, at 25 he is still relatively young for a goalie, especially one with so much promise. With a vastly improved defence in front of him and a chip on his shoulder, he has the potential to prove to the Capitals that they were wrong to let him leave.
Prediction for the 2022-23 Season
Questions do dog Tavares over his form and potential decline, which are a concern when the player was bought to be a cornerstone of a Stanley Cup contending team. However, their franchise pillars have shown significant growth from the season before, both during the regular season and during the playoffs. Based on the team’s overall upward trajectory and their core still being in their prime, could this be the year that Toronto finally gets past that first round? It is looking more likely and if they do, it is possible that was the last hurdle in the team’s way. 2023 Stanley Cup winners? Stranger things have happened.
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