As we get closer to the start of the NHL season, there are still some issues surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was an eventful offseason for the team; from revamping the roster to the on-going Marner contract that was finally settled before the Maple Leafs regular season started. While we have gotten many answers, there are still some questions that remain.
Here are some predictions that I’ve made for the 2019-20 season.
Offense Could be Part of a Great Club
Last year during the preseason, TSN analyst Ray Ferraro mentioned that with the offense the Maple Leafs had, they could look to break 300 total goals and 100 power-play goals. Early on, the Maple Leafs looked poised to be a part of this prestigious offensive club until a poor stretch on the power play began to plague the team from Dec. 2018 onward.
The team fell short with 286 goals for and was way off with 46 power-play goals.
With new assistant coach Paul McFarland handling the power play, the team might be in a good spot to bring that consistency this year to make a great power-play even better. With their core intact from last year and with the addition of Tyson Barrie who finished in the top 10 in scoring among defenseman, this objective looks like it might be possible again this year.
Last year, the Tampa Bay Lightning scored 319 goals but only managed to score 74 on the power play. The last time that any team recorded over 100 power-play goals was back in 2005-06 when the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres and the Atlanta Thrashers managed to reach that mark. The Senators and the Red Wings were the only teams to score over 300 goals.
The Maple Leafs finished fourth in goals for and goals per game while executing at a 21.8 percent rate on the man advantage in the previous season. In addition, their goals for percentage at 5-on-5 was top-10 in the league at 54.8 percent. With Auston Matthews’ lethal shot, a rejuvenated and motivated William Nylander, superstar John Tavares and Morgan Rielly and Barrie on the backend, the Maple Leafs will look to be one of the top offensive teams this year at both even-strength and on the man advantage.
Marner Will Live up to Contract
Whether or not you’re a fan of the Mitch Marner contract, you can’t deny that he’s an incredible talent and had fantastic numbers last year. Yes, it may seem like an overpayment, but the Maple Leafs are looking to what he can do for the next six seasons. Which is to continue to be an elite playmaker.
At 5-on-5, Marner had total assist per-60 rate of 2.08, which ranked second behind only the Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov, and was first in primary assists per 60 with 1.78. He also had 20 multi-assist games, third behind Kucherov and Connor McDavid, and a respectable 27 multi-point games. His ability to be a set-up man is undeniable, but it would be more beneficial if he were able to score a few more goals.
While it would be ideal for Marner to start scoring more, he did set a career-high last season with 26 goals. As fellow Maple Leafs writer Chris Faria mentioned, if Marner is able to score around 5 to 10 more times, then the contract isn’t as bad as some may think.
Defense Will Be Improved
Like last season, the biggest question for this year will be how the Maple Leafs will handle the way they play in their own end. They tend to make it a priority for this season.
Even though the Maple Leafs were one of the top offensive teams in the league, they were also one of the worst defensively. The Maple Leafs ranked eighth overall in shots against per game with 33.1 and 12th overall in the league in goals against per game with 3.04. While they tried to address that issue mid-season with the acquisition of Jake Muzzin, it wasn’t enough.
Muzzin and newly acquired Cody Ceci would carry most of that responsibility, along with Travis Dermott when he arrives back from offseason shoulder surgery. A slew of defensemen are eyeing the final spots, including Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, Ben Harpur, Jordan Schmaltz and Kevin Gravel.
The Maple Leafs have improved their depth, but they need to see results. With Dave Hakstol replacing D.J. Smith, he’ll look to provide a solid defensive structure for the Maple Leafs in order to reduce the number of shots and goals against. Hakstol even went as far as Sweden in order to gain more information on coaching strategies.
In 2017-18, the Philadelphia Flyers did a great job at minimizing their shots against, as the chart above shows. The Flyers that season had the third-fewest 5-on-5 shots against (1,920). If it’s any indication, Hakstol would provide a major transformation that would minimize the chances in their own zone.
Nylander Will Dominate
To say that Nylander disappointed last season is an understatement. But he’s primed to break out and regain his offensive form.
I previously wrote an extensive article on Nylander needing to be with Auston Matthews, which will play in part for his bounce-back season. Matthews and Nylander had incredible chemistry with each other for the first two seasons together. Last season, as good as Nylander was at times, he was having incredibly bad luck. While he only scored seven times, Nylander had a shot-through percentage (amount of shots that made it on goal) of 52.8 percent. His puck possession and advanced metrics showed that he was more than what we were seeing.
But with a contract negotiation over and done with, Nylander is ready to dominate. Based on line combinations during training camp, if Nylander continues to be on Matthews wing, then there’s no reason why he shouldn’t have a career year. Over his career, Nylander’s highest goal total is 22 while his point total was 61. It’s possible that he could score 25 to 30 goals and reach the 70-point plateau. Either way, it will be greater than what it was last season.
Leafs Will Make a Deep Playoff Run
Since the arrival of John Tavares, the Maple Leafs were instantly vaulted into the category of Stanley Cup contenders. But after a second postseason loss to the Boston Bruins in as many seasons, that was another year gone in attempts to bring a championship to Toronto. With the core locked up long-term as well as a few more years of service from Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen, general manager Kyle Dubas went all in, in hopes to try and make a deep playoff run and win a championship.
As horrible as the current playoff format is, the Maple Leafs need to dig deep and lay everything on the line, from opening day to playoff time. It’s a long grind, but they have the players right now that’ll compete and play hard every single game. When the playoffs come, that’s when the intensity needs to be there. Everyone was disappointed with their early exit last playoffs, knowing the expectations that were over their head. With the same expectations this year, they need to use last year as motivation.
Whether it’s the Boston Bruins for the third time or the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Maple Leafs need to dominate and show that they are what many consider them, a true Stanley Cup Contender. With the current roster, they have the players to make the playoffs, get out of the first round and make a deep run for the Cup.
The St. Louis Blues were nowhere near to making the playoffs at the start of January. Yet, they wrote their own story by becoming Stanley Cup Champions for the first time in franchise history. That’s what the Maple Leafs need to do. They need to write their own story and make it worthwhile. There’s no better story than that.
Anything less than that will be a disappointment.
Statistics and numbers from Natural Stat Trick, ESPN and NHL.com. Chart from HockeyViz.com