As a whole, you would be hard-pressed to find an NHL team boasting more pure talent than the Toronto Maple Leafs. From the one-two punch of John Tavares and Auston Matthews up front — not to mention a bevy of skilled wingers — to Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie on the back end all the way to a potential Vezina threat in Frederik Andersen in goal, the Maple Leafs are both deep and dangerous.
In the 2018-19 campaign, the Maple Leafs saw career seasons from a points perspective from Tavares, Matthews, Mitch Marner, Rielly, Zach Hyman, Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen and Travis Dermott. That said, while Tavares and Rielly have been around for some time now, the remainder of the aforementioned list is light on NHL experience. However, some of these players and their teammates could be in for an increase on career bests in the 2019-20 season. Others might fall short of lofty totals posted just one season ago.
Let’s take a look at the Maple Leafs’ players with the best chance of topping previous career highs in the 2019-20 season.
After bursting onto the NHL scene with 40 goals while skating in all 82 regular-season games as a rookie, Matthews has dealt with injuries in each of the last two seasons, failing to top that wild rookie campaign that included a historic first NHL game.
Despite skating in just 130 games across the last two seasons, Matthews’ 71 goals in that time is tied for 12th in the league alongside Patrick Kane. He missed 14 games with a shoulder issue last season, but the 2016 first-overall pick managed a career-high 73 points to go along with his 37 goals. As a result, his ability to top those 73 points — and his career-high 40 goals from the 2016-17 season — hinges on his ability to stay healthy. After all, he’s been the top even-strength goalscorer in the NHL since his debut regardless of games played.
Matthews has played 30 fewer games and almost 1,000 fewer minutes than Connor McDavid over the last three seasons and has still outscored the Oilers’ superstar at even strength. If he can stay healthy to the tune of 75-plus games next season, we can almost certainly expect a new career high in points and likely in the goals column.
A lengthy contract holdout that went deep into the regular season and came just minutes before a deadline that if missed, Nylander would not have been allowed to play in the NHL last season, hindered his production in his third full season in the NHL.
From Dec. 6 through to the end of the season — a span of 54 games — Nylander tallied just 7 goals and 20 assists for 27 points in that time. Sure, the 0.50 point-per-game pace is a fine number for most NHLers; however, it represented a far cry from the 0.75 point-per-game pace he accomplished over the previous two campaigns. Interestingly, he finished with precisely 61 points in both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons.
After a dreadful NHL season, Nylander skated for Sweden at the World Hockey Championships in May and dominated. It gave both the Maple Leafs’ brass and fans alike the confidence that he can return to form and contribute at a much higher level this time around. From a fans perspective, he certainly helped his cause in terms of earning his way back into the collective heart of Leafs Nation.
Whether or not he will be reunited with Matthews to start the season remains to be seen. However, the odds are likely in his favor thanks to the chemistry between the duo in their first two seasons skating together in blue and white. A shotgun seat next to Matthews and some authoritative confidence could very well have Nylander set new career highs across the board in 2019-20.
Johnsson endured a tough start to his first full season in the NHL as he tallied just 1 assist over his first 10 games and 3 points over the first 18 games of the season. As a result, the fleet-footed Swede spent some time in the press box as a healthy scratch and was forced to earn his way back into the good books of bench boss Mike Babcock.
Johnsson caught fire in late November, thanks in large part to a first-period hat trick that set the stage for an extended stretch of production for the 24-year-old. Over his final 55 games of the season, he notched 18 goals and 22 assists for 40 points in that time — good for a 0.73 point-per-game clip. Keep in mind that just 6 of his 43 points last season came on the power play where he skated just over 1:30 per game on the team’s second unit. With Nazem Kadri traded to the Colorado Avalanche, Johnsson is largely expected to take over Kadri’s spot as the net-front or high-slot presence on a loaded unit that almost certainly contains Matthews, Tavares, Rielly and Marner. Johnsson indeed took Kadri’s spot in that group when Kadri was suspended in the team’s seven-game, first-round loss to the Bruins last season.
With Johnsson expected to skate to the left of Matthews at even strength this season — something I’ve looked at in depth — as well as the top power play unit, we should certainly be expecting a career year from him in 2019-20.
There’s little doubt that Ceci will have to play his way into the hearts of Leafs Nation this season. After playing six years for rival Ottawa Senators, Maple Leafs fans are well aware of the type of game he plays. Unfortunately, they have seen him at his worst on some bad Ottawa teams these last couple of seasons.
To be fair, the 26 points Ceci recorded last season matched a career high that he set back in the 2015-16 season. That said, he did so while skating in excess of three extra minutes per game than his previous career year and with a shooting percentage that was a full 1% above his career high — a notable figure for a defenseman.
However, the 2012 fifth-overall pick will get every opportunity to turn his game around with his new club. Not only will he likely skate on the Maple Leafs’ second pair with a reliable partner in Jake Muzzin — or even potentially the top pairing with Morgan Rielly depending on chemistry — but Ceci will be skating on a much better team this season, one that can help in transitioning the puck out of their own zone, something the Senators struggled mightily with last season.
In other words, when Ceci moves the puck up ice to his forward group this season, his chances of picking up a secondary assist are significantly improved. He did set a new career high with 19 assists last season, but will get an excellent opportunity to top that figure in a top-four role on a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Time will tell, but his chances of posting a career year have never been better than they will be in 2019-20.
Entering his fourth season with the Maple Leafs, Andersen is looking to take that final step from “very good” to “elite.” He’s been remarkably consistent in his three-year tenure with the Leafs — and in his career — as he’s posted a .918 save percentage (SV%) twice and a .917 mark once in his Maple Leafs career. Consider his .918 career SV% and it’s agreeable that he has provided remarkable consistency and stability for the blue and white.
Andersen has been nothing short of a workhorse for his team. Since joining the Maple Leafs prior to the 2016-17 season, his 192 starts and 6,221 shots faced both rank first in the league, the latter of which is a massive lead over the 5,671 shots the Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck has faced in the same time.
Andersen’s ability to take the step into Vezina Trophy territory is something that hinges on the ability of the new-look Maple Leafs defense and additions down the middle that aim to lower the workload on the big Danish netminder. The Maple Leafs have ranked in the bottom four in shots against per game in two of his three seasons in Toronto, and the bottom 10 in all three. That needs to change. However, I think GM Kyle Dubas’ offseason moves indeed helped the Maple Leafs become an improved defensive club.
If that turns out to be the case, look for Andersen to set new career highs, at least from a save percentage standpoint, in 2019-20.