The Toronto Maple Leafs are heading into an exciting season. They’ve got the No. 1 draft pick in Auston Matthews, and a whole crop of young talent. If that wasn’t enough, the Leafs have also revamped their goaltending. Expectations for this season won’t be much higher than they were last season, but for a few players, there is a pressure to live up to expectations of fans and management to prove themselves.
The arrival of Frederik Andersen has signaled the start of a new era in Maple Leafs’ goaltending. After being acquired in a trade from the Anaheim Ducks and then signing to a five-year $25 million contract, it’s clear that Andersen needs to prove he is worth it.
The salary of the contract isn’t really the issue for the Leafs since most NHL starting goalies make much more than that. What Andersen needs to prove, however, is the length of the contract.
The Leafs have a bad history of bringing in goalies that just aren’t starting goalie material with the most recent being Jonathan Bernier. Hopefully, it will be different this time, since Andersen had two seasons of being Anaheim’s starting goalie, unlike the other goalies that only ever served as the backup before coming to the Leafs.
Andersen needs to quickly silence critics and show that he is undoubtedly the Leafs number one goalie for the next five years.
The Leafs created a lot of controversy with fans when they signed Matt Martin to a four-year $10 million contract. Martin is expected to play on the fourth line for the Leafs which makes his contract seem like that much more of an overpayment. That is, unless he can repeat his season of leading the NHL in hits and help make the Leafs a tough team to play against.
Martin had a career-best 19 points in 80 games with the New York Islanders last season. It’s unlikely that he will have a repeat of last season, but that isn’t the reason the Leafs signed him. Martin is in the same situation as Andersen where they both need to prove they are worth the long contract.
Auston Matthews will face the most pressure and the highest expectations out of anyone on the Leafs this year. Nothing less is expected after being the top pick in the 2016 NHL draft and being in the biggest hockey market in the league. Matthews is expected to be an elite talent for the Leafs and the cornerstone for the rebuild.
Matthews will have an edge over previous top draft picks because of spending last season playing for the Zurich Lions in the Swiss-A league. Playing in the Swiss league gave Matthews the chance to play against experienced professional hockey players and he finished the season with 46 points in 36 games.
Matthews is currently playing for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey which has provided Leafs’ fans an early glimpse at Matthews before he steps on the ice for the Leafs.
Nikita Zaitsev’s first season in the NHL will be challenging. Not only is he playing his first season in the NHL, but he has to deal with the challenges of moving to a new country. Many players have tried to transition to the NHL only to go back to their respective countries after just one season.
Luckily, Zaitsev is still relatively young at 24-years-old, which should make it easier to transition to the North American style of hockey. It’s hopeful that Zaitsev can be a top-four defenseman for the Leafs and continue to help on offense like he did in the KHL. Zaitsev has spent the last three seasons in the KHL playing for CSKA Moscow where he led the team’s defensemen in points for the last two seasons.
If Zaitsev can overcome the challenges of his rookie season, then the Leafs will have added a great defenseman to their roster.
Joffrey Lupul needs to have a great season or it may be his last year in a Leafs’ jersey. Part of Lupul’s problem is that he is always injured. He has struggled to play the majority of the season for a few years and now his age seems to be catching up with him. At 32-years-old, it’s unlikely that Lupul will be in the NHL much longer.
Lupul’s constant injuries were always made bearable by his scoring ability, but after last season, it seems that injuries and age have started to affect his play. Lupul had 14 points after only playing 46 games last season, which has been par for the course of a gradual decline in his production with the Leafs.
Lupul needs to show he can still contribute offensively, and more importantly, stay healthy to keep his spot on the team. Otherwise, the Leafs may have to buy out his contract.