Maple Leafs: 3 Burning Questions Heading Into Next Season

The leg work for the Toronto Maple Leafs offseason appears to be over, and the team looks basically set heading into training camp next month. The players continue to enjoy the summer months while the management team has been crazy busy of late. General manager Kyle Dubas has been extremely productive this offseason, creating ideal internal competition and improving his hockey team as much as he could with the available resources.

While certain aspects of the team are set in stone, let’s examine three questions circling the Maple Leafs:

Who Plays Left Wing on the Top Two Lines?

I have a feeling this question will gain the most traction come training camp, and especially if a couple of the Maple Leafs’ additions enjoy a strong start to camp. It feels like newcomer Nick Ritchie would benefit the second line more than the first. Playing him with John Tavares and William Nylander would give Toronto one of the more interesting second lines in the league, and three players who bring very different attributes to the group. To me, this makes more sense, due to the fact that Auston Matthews is the most physical of the “core four.” Meanwhile, Nylander having Ritchie riding shotgun could open up the ice even more for the shifty winger to break out.

Nylander showed last postseason he’s on the verge of taking his game to the next level, and having Ritchie, who will hit everything and be able to finish better than most physical wingers, could create a productive trio for Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe.

Nick Ritchie Boston Bruins
Nick Ritchie could be a force in Toronto and quickly a fan favorite (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

With Ritchie projected for the second line, the first-line left wing vacancy looms. Michael Bunting brought in from the Arizona Coyotes will be given a look as he’s scored on every team he’s played on. One wildcard move could potentially see Alexander Kerfoot end up getting some first-line minutes on the wing, in training camp, and into the preseason. Kerfoot has shown in the past he’s capable on the wing, but his preference appears to be down the middle. Perhaps things change this season.

David Kampf, who was signed to a two-year deal from the Chicago Blackhawks, could end up as the team’s third-line center. He’s capable in the faceoff dot, winning 52.8 percent of the 777 draws he took last season. His style of play wouldn’t suit well with Matthews and Mitch Marner, so personally I would hand him the keys to the shut-down center role, and open up Kerfoot. It may be asking a lot of the 26-year-old Kampf, however, if the team is going to make the jump to an elite team, players are going to need to commit to roles and flourish. Again, something to watch come training camp.

Along with Bunting and Kerfoot, I think the only other player who could use camp to propel him onto the top-line is Ilya Mikheyev. It felt like the Russian winger had a tap-in each of the first 20 games, and ended up with only two goals. He showed in his rookie season his offensive instincts can lead to production, finishing with 23 points in 39 games. Perhaps being snake-bitten is all a thing of the past, and the hard-working forward can take the next step along side two of the game’s best.

Is the Maple Leafs D-Core Physical Enough?

Losing Zach Bogosian is going to hurt more than some want to give it credit for. The veteran defender had a great season as a Maple Leaf and brought some much needed sandpaper to the back end. While Jake Muzzin and his partner Justin Holl can play a physical game and bring some spice to the team, it ends there.

Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are likely headed for more minutes with the big club this season and both aren’t physical specimens, and that’s ok. They both can move the puck and use their craftiness and skating ability to get out of trouble.

Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Rasmus Sandin
Rasmus Sandin has breakout potential for the Maple Leafs next season (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

While Dubas did make a few under the radar type of signings, perhaps Toronto could look to a couple of veterans to invite to training camp on a professional tryout? What if Erik Gudbranson or Zdeno Chara were open to a tryout, would Dubas consider? While there may be no risk involved for the Maple Leafs, neither seem likely to head in that direction. Yes, a stretch indeed.

At this point, it feels like the physicality is going to come by committee and may be led by the likes of Ritchie, Wayne Simmonds and newcomer Kurtis Gabriel, who is a candidate for the team’s fourth line. He’s a passionate player who loves to ruffle feathers and brings an element of “crazy,” and the team could use more of that. Nobody in the league is worried about getting beat up by the Maple Leafs, but look for the team to play a more physical style next season.

How Will Dubas Upgrade the Team From Here?

With basically no cap space and only three draft picks currently for the 2022 entry draft, at this point it’s hard to imagine the Maple Leafs making another Nick Foligno type deal at the deadline. Sure, it’s a ways away, and a lot can change before then, but as of now it seems more likely the team deals a top prospect to upgrade its current roster.

My colleague Kevin Armstrong wrote a great piece on the potential of trading Morgan Rielly, as his contract demands may not be reachable, and do the Maple Leafs really want another key piece walking away for no return next offseason? It doesn’t feel to me like this has crossed the mind at all of Dubas and the Maple Leafs, but certainly something to watch out for as the season progresses. Should Rielly be moved? Potentially yes, but at this point the potential Team Canada Olympic team defender remains in Toronto.

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

In net the team is set with newcomer Petr Mrazek on a three-year deal, and Jack Campbell, who is due a new contract next summer. The tandem approach should help keep Campbell affordable to sign. The competition will be fun to watch, and looking back to their results from last season, Toronto could very well have one of the best combos in the league making a combined $5.45 million in 2021-22. Savvy business by the young general manager.

Speaking of, Dubas is one of the hardest working executives in the league and wants nothing more than to make the Maple Leafs better, in any way possible. He sounds more committed than ever to his core and thinks they have the makings to get over the hump. Even though it will be tough to pull off, I would expect a “hockey deal” from Toronto next season, likely long before the trade deadline. Dubas could benefit from a proactive approach to the trade market and could dangle one of his top prospects for a young proven NHL talent on an affordable ticket who fills a need. What need exactly? Who knows at this point? The answers remain limited, while the questions continue to pile up for the Maple Leafs.

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