Expectations in Toronto haven’t been this high in some time. The Maple Leafs haven’t won a playoff series since Pat Quinn’s club eliminated the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 of the 2004 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. After many losing seasons followed by three consecutive first-round playoff exits, the team is in a position to become a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
However, nothing is given to you in the NHL – a circuit chock-full of parity. Teams surprise and disappoint every season and just because you’re among the league’s best on paper doesn’t mean you’ll be there come game 82.
Even the best of teams face obstacles throughout the season. Here’s the biggest three facing the Maple Leafs in the 2019-20 campaign.
Loaded Atlantic Division
Sure, the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings are a pair of Atlantic Division clubs expected to finish at or near the NHL’s basement, however this is a deep and difficult division.
Before you get into the depth, you have a 62-win Tampa Bay Lightning team from a season ago as well as the 2018-19 Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins – a team that came one win short of the Stanley Cup – at the top.
Moving down the list, you have a Florida Panthers club widely expected to take a leap forward this season. The Panthers indicated a win-now mentality by hiring head coach Joel Quenneville – he of three Stanley Cups – immediately after the conclusion of the regular season and doubled down on that notion by inking unrestricted free agent goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to a lucrative seven-year deal, among others. Factor in a young and dangerous top-six group of forwards and the Panthers could be another force to be reckoned with in the Atlantic.
Don’t forget the Montreal Canadiens either. The Habs finished just two points out of the second Wild Card spot in the East last season, three if you factor in a would-be tie-breaking scenario. Montreal didn’t do much to bolster their lineup this offseason, however it would simply take a hot Carey Price or another step forward from their young guns to get the Canadiens into the dance.
Finally, while the Buffalo Sabres cratered after a red-hot start to the 2018-19 season, a new head coach in Ralph Krueger combined with a revamped defense corps could have Buffalo knocking on the door this time around.
There isn’t a single obstacle facing the 2019-20 Maple Leafs bigger than their intra-division competition. These are some very good hockey clubs and the Maple Leafs will have their hands full in retaining their top-three positioning in the Atlantic for a third consecutive season.
We knew bodies would be moving on and off the roster this offseason with the Maple Leafs’ projected cap situation, but I’m not sure we anticipated this much action from general manager Kyle Dubas.
The defense is one area where unfamiliarity poses the biggest question mark. Dubas acquired both Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie in separate blockbuster trades this summer and both are presumed to slide into the top four on the right side. There’s no guarantee that Morgan Rielly and Ceci will mesh on the top pair and while Jake Muzzin and Barrie have played together internationally for Team Canada, a season-long fit is far from guaranteed. Add in top prospect Rasmus Sandin possibly cracking the opening night lineup and there will be a minimum of three new defensemen in the team’s top-six this season, and surely three brand new defense pairings.
The forward group is largely untouched in the top six, especially when Zach Hyman returns in November, but the bottom six has seen quite the turnover. In as the third line centre is Alexander Kerfoot while newcomer Jason Spezza and returnee Frederik Gauthier are likely to combine for fourth-line centre duties. Furthermore, Russian important Ilya Mikheyev is a new face on the wing and potential bottom-six winger Nic Petan played just five games with the Maple Leafs last season. There’s also a chance that an offseason depth signing will crack the bottom-six as well.
Regardless of how you slice it, there are fresh faces aplenty up and down the Maple Leafs’ lineup this season. Perhaps the fits are seamless, but it could also take time. Nonetheless, it’s something the 2019-20 Maple Leafs will have to deal with.
Can They Stay Healthy?
By no means is this exclusive to the Maple Leafs, or any professional sports team for that matter, but health is an issue from the get-go for this team.
I noted that Hyman is set to miss at least the first month of the regular season, and defenseman Travis Dermott will join him. Hyman is recovering from offseason ACL surgery, an injury suffered in Game 4 of the Maple Leafs’ first-round series against the Bruins in April. Dermott underwent offseason shoulder surgery, an injury originally sustained when he went into the ice and boards awkwardly after a hit from Edmonton Oilers forward Brad Malone in late February.
Dermott missed more than a month with the shoulder injury, but returned for the final four regular-season games and skated in all seven postseason contests as well.
The Maple Leafs will also look to keep goaltender Frederik Andersen healthy throughout the season with a likely decreased workload in store. Andersen’s 192 starts over the last three seasons is the most in the NHL, and he’s started a whopping 66 games in two of those three seasons. To keep their No. 1 netminder healthy and fresh, it’s a prudent move to hand more starts to presumed backup Michael Hutchinson this season.
Auston Matthews, Barrie, Hyman and Dermott missed at least 11 games last season. While the Maple Leafs were fairly healthy overall with just 118 man games lost to injury, they are dealing with a pair of notable injuries to begin the 2019-20 season and will look to keep their stars healthy across the lengthy 82-game regular season.