It’s that time again, when the heads come together and The Hockey Writers’ Toronto Maple Leafs’ team sits down to discuss what is going on in Toronto. With new faces ready to wear the blue and white, the Maple Leafs will be looking for someone to take the team upon their shoulders and lead them to a better outcome in 2019-2020.
That said, this week I’m joined by Peter Baracchini and Chris Faria at the Maple Leafs’ Round Table to discuss what player will be the standout for the team this season. Who will lead the way on the ice? Who will shine brighter than his fellow stars? Which Maple Leaf will be the team’s overall MVP in 2019-20? While it’s simply a predictive piece, the fact is, the Maple Leafs will be relying on a number players to make an impact and each of us have our own idea of who might carry the torch.
Forbes: Expecting a Repeat From Rielly
It’s more of an obvious choice to pick guys like Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner. Heck, even John Tavares hit the 40-goal mark last season and would be a good candidate for this kind of honour. But there are a number of newcomers – players that come to Toronto carrying expectations. Guys like Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie will don the Maple Leafs’ logo and the weight of playing in a fishbowl hockey city will be placed on their shoulders.
But there’s one defenceman that has played in Toronto – through good and bad. There’s one guy who has seen growth in his game over his years with the Maple Leafs. And last year, Morgan Rielly had an offensive season for the ages and it could be his play and leadership that defines how the Maple Leafs’ end the year.
For starters, he’s just 25 years old. He’s going into his seventh season with the Maple Leafs and saw a significant increase in his offensive production last season. From six goals and 52 points in 2017-18 to 20 goals and 72 points in 2018-19, Rielly finished third in defensive scoring in the NHL last season and just nine points back of Brent Burns for the number one spot.
A clear leader for the Maple Leafs, Rielly played in all 82 games last season and averaged just over 23 minutes per game on a team that saw a number of defenceman rotate through the lineup last year.
While he may be recognized for his offensive output over the past two seasons, it’s also worth noting that he finished last season with a 51.7 Corsi For Percentage (CF%) and 50.6 Fenwick For Percentage (FF%) which are both above his career averages.
He finished fourth in Lady Byng voting last season and fifth in Norris Trophy winning and with the new bodies coming into the dressing room, it’ll be important for Rielly to take on an even bigger leadership role in the room and on the ice as the new faces get used to playing in Toronto.
Whether it be offensively or in his own end, the importance of Rielly can’t be understated. Sure, Marner, Matthews and others are important to the team’s overall standing this year, but when it comes down to it, it may be Rielly who leads the charge as the Maple Leafs’ MVP this coming season.
Faria: Matthews – A Leader On and Off the Ice?
When I think most valuable player, I think star power. Game breaking ability. Head honcho. Face of the franchise. For the Toronto Maple Leafs, all of those things are synonymous with one player: Auston Matthews.
He scored 40 goals as a rookie, something that hadn’t been done since Alex Ovechkin buried 52 in 2005-06. Since then, he’s had two more productive seasons, but each has been hampered by injuries. Matthews tallied 34 goals and 63 points in 62 games in 2017-18, then 37 goals and 73 points in 68 games last season.
There’s reason to think that the first overall pick has a lot more to give, and that this season will be his true coming out party as the Maple Leafs’ MVP.
For starters, Matthews will be on the first year of his lucrative five-year contract that will pay him $11.634 million per season. He’s had three years to learn the ropes, and now being paid like a top-five player, it’s time for the star center to reach that next gear.
We’ve also seen some new wrinkles in Matthews’ game throughout training camp. Most notably, it seems that the 22-year-old has been working on his one-timer. Perennial Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy winners like Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos score a huge portion of their goals with the one-timer, especially on the power play, and if that shot can become a real weapon in his arsenal, Matthews should pot a few more goals.
Finally, the Maple Leafs have hinted at the fact that they’ll be naming a captain shortly, and all signs point to it being none other than Matthews. The captaincy coupled with a shiny new contract will create huge expectations for the Arizona native. But if there’s anything we know about Matthews it’s that he’s never short on confidence, or the ability to back it up (just look at the fashion statement he’s made with his moustache). He should live up to all expectations, and more.
That said, Matthews’ success this season, and his bid as the Maple Leafs’ MVP, will ultimately depend on his health. He hasn’t played a full season since his rookie campaign, and many have questioned his durability moving forward. This season represents an opportunity for Matthews to put those doubts to rest – and to prove that he is the Maple Leafs’ leader on the scoresheet and beyond.
Baracchini: Andersen and an MVP Season
While the Maple Leafs have had MVP-like seasons from Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares, goaltender Frederik Andersen has also been an under-the-radar candidate as an MVP for the team.
It’s safe to say that Andersen has been one of the busiest goalies since joining the Maple Leafs. While recording 107 wins since his arrival to the blue and white, Andersen has faced 6,221 shots and has 5,708 saves. Compared to the next ranked goalie in both categories, Connor Hellebuyck, he’s faced 550 more shots and has made 518 more saves.
Among starting goalies with 100 games played, Andersen ranks first in both categories. All this while maintaining a 2.75 goals against average – good enough for 23rd overall – and a .918 save percentage, which ranks him ninth in that category.
If the Maple Leafs have any chance to win, it rests upon Andersen’s shoulders. But he’s carried the load for the Maple Leafs for the last three years. The amount of shots Andersen has faced is a lot compared to other starting goalies. He started 66 games in both 2016-17 and 2017-18 and another 60 in 2017-18. That’s 192 starts in three years, which ranks first during that span. Because of this excessive workload, there’s even the possibility of doing some load management with Andersen.
Andersen didn’t have the best backup last year. Garrett Sparks provided inadequate relief for his starter. Then again, the Maple Leafs had Curtis McElhinney as his back-up for a year and a half, where he provided better starts and numbers than Sparks and Andersen still managed to get 60-plus starts.
With a battle for the back-up goalie spot coming down to Michael Hutchinson or Michal Neuvirth, they could be the answer to giving Andersen more rest for a deep playoff run. Whether or not the load management happens, Andersen has been a major reason for the Maple Leafs success the last three years. Although they’ve ended in early playoff exits, they wouldn’t have got to that point if it wasn’t for him.
For years the Maple Leafs defence has been a big question mark. Even when the team failed to provide strong defence in front of him, Andersen was there to bail them out. In any situation, you always look to your goalie for a big time save or rising to the occasion. If the Maple Leafs want to reach their goal as Stanley Cup champions, they’re going to need Andersen to be their MVP.
With all that in mind, who do you think the Maple Leafs’ MVP will be this season? What are your thoughts on the matter. Be sure to share your ideas and opinions by commenting below, or tune in next time for more from the Maple Leafs Round Table.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.