The Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t short on star talent or impressive young assets. The team carries an admirable amount of depth up front and time will tell whether their new-look defense can help ease the burden on Frederik Andersen.
The Maple Leafs will continue to rely on superstars such as John Tavares, Auston Matthews and, presumably, Mitch Marner, to do the heavy lifting again next season. However, with injuries to key regulars in Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott to begin the season, the Maple Leafs will need some of their depth to show through as some players will be asked to play an increased role in 2019-20.
Let’s take a look at three players set to shoulder more responsibility in 2019-20:
When Nazem Kadri was suspended last postseason, we saw Andreas Johnsson fill his spot on the Maple Leafs’ top power-play unit, and we can expect to see him on that unit again next season after Kadri was shipped to the Colorado Avalanche in a blockbuster deal that brought defenseman Tyson Barrie and forward Alexander Kerfoot to Toronto.
On top of his anticipated move to the top power-play unit, it’s widely expected that Johnsson will move up the lineup and flank Auston Matthews to his left at 5-on-5. The duo, along with William Nylander and his overwhelmingly likely bounce-back campaign, should be a potent unit for head coach Mike Babcock.
Since entering the league in the 2016-17 season, Matthews leads the NHL with 79 even-strength goals despite missing 34 games in that time. In his first two seasons, 83.8% of Matthews’ goals came at even strength. Moved up to the top power-play unit last season, he scored 12 of his 37 goals on the power play, but he’s still scored 77.5% of his goals at even-strength.
Johnsson is cut from a similar cloth. He averaged just 1:35 of power-play time per game last season on the Maple Leafs’ second unit, and scored just three power-play goals in his 20-goal rookie season. Through the first 82 games of his NHL career, Johnsson has scored 86.4% of his goals at even-strength. Nylander has maxed out at nine power-play goals in his NHL career, with that total coming in the 2016-17 season in which he and Matthews displayed some dynamite chemistry in all situations. His even-strength goal percentage sits a little higher than his presumed linemates at 70.9%.
The picture is nonetheless crystal-clear. Skating alongside Matthews in all situations is a clear-cut promotion for the 24-year-old Johnsson. After skating just 13:40 in mostly bottom-six duty last season, expect to see Johnsson crack the 16-minute barrier with a career-best season on the horizon.
With Hyman likely to miss time to begin the season, the Maple Leafs’ depth at left wing takes a hit. Johnsson will be the only regular from last season’s club to start the season on the left-wing while Moore, Nic Petan and offseason signee Ilya Mikheyev likely to fill out the depth chart on the left side. Outside of Johnsson, we don’t know at this point where the pieces will fall throughout training camp and come opening night on Oct. 2 against the Ottawa Senators.
Moore, a Mike Babcock favorite, brings a wealth of speed and tenacity to the Maple Leafs’ forward ranks. Sure, he stands at just 5-foot-10 (on a good day) and 182 pounds, but his style of play immediately endeared him to his head coach despite skating in just 25 regular-season games and seven postseason contests a season ago.
Moore tallied 2 goals and 6 assists for 8 points in those 25 regular season contests while skating 9:06 per game. In the postseason, he notched one goal while averaging 7:46 in ice time per game. With Hyman out, Mikheyev an unknown and Johnsson widely expected to skate with Matthews, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see Moore skate next to Tavares and Marner, when signed to his restricted free agent contract. If not, you can expect to see Moore skate next to Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen on the Maple Leafs’ third line – a line that would represent one of the fastest units in the league. Either way, his likely move into a top-nine role is an expanded one and given his skill set, I don’t imagine he will look out of place.
Cody Ceci, acquired in the deal that sent Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Brown to the Senators, will not only immediately find himself in the spotlight in the hockey mecca that is Toronto, but possibly in an integral role on the top defense pairing with Morgan Rielly.
Given the lack of depth on the right side of the Maple Leafs’ blue line, Ceci is surely expected to fill a top-four role with his new club. That said, early indications are that he could very well begin the season paired with Rielly – a spot that would give him an opportunity to flourish alongside one of the NHL’s premier defensemen.
While informal offseason skates aren’t the best predictor of future results, the initial setup makes sense. Rielly – one of the very best two-way defenseman in the league – would seem to fit well with a stay-at-home type defender to his right. There’s a reason why he was paired with a defensive defenseman in Ron Hainsey for much of the past two seasons.
Jake Muzzin – a fine two-way blueliner himself but a defensive one by trade – is a nice compliment to an offensive-minded Barrie on the right side of the second pair. The duo have been paired before in international competition, and successfully so.
It’s not like Ceci wasn’t playing an important role on the Senators’ blue line of late as he’s averaged in excess of 22:30 of ice time per game in each of the last three seasons. I wouldn’t expect the ice time per game to increase all that much – if at all – but playing with Rielly would pit him against the opposition’s top players on a nightly basis. Besides, playing on the top pair of a Stanley Cup contender with the Maple Leafs is a much more marquee role than a top-four setting on a basement-dwelling Senators team.
Regardless of how you slice it, the newly-acquired Ceci will be one of the most critiqued players on the team this season, possibly while skating in a top-pairing role.