Expectations are again high for a re-jigged Toronto Maple Leafs roster leading up their series opener on Oct. 2 against the Ottawa Senators. With plenty of new faces aboard, it will take some time to get used to the new-look group, but there’s little doubt that the Maple Leafs remain one of the NHL’s best teams – on paper for the time being.
In order to be among the best, however, you’ll need players to step up. The Maple Leafs can certainly expect reliable production from their star players such as Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen. These are the stars and their production is largely a given. However, it’s the remaining tiers of players that can turn this team from really good to great, or perhaps even championship-caliber.
There’s a handful of players that can provide vital contributions to the club if they are able to do their job and thrive in the 2019-20 season. I call these players the x-factors. The ones that aren’t relied upon to do the heavy lifting, but rather provide the club with value in their respective roles.
Here are my top five x-factors for the 2019-20 season.
1. William Nylander
After a 2018-19 season marred by a contract stalemate and subsequent lack of production, the 2019-20 campaign has the potential to be a statement season as he looks to reward the front office for their long-term investment.
The 23-year-old Swede is brimming with confidence entering this season, and the Maple Leafs will hope he can parlay that confidence into production in a role to the right of Matthews. After recording a healthy 0.75 points-per-game across the first two seasons of his NHL career alongside Matthews, Nylander slipped to a 0.50 mark in 2018-19 after missing the first 28 games of the season.
The Maple Leafs will be looking for Nylander and Matthews to re-ignite the chemistry they displayed prior to the former’s down 2018-19. An elite goal-scorer in Matthews needs a winger with vision to get him the puck in ‘Grade A’ scoring positioning. While he and Kasperi Kapanen produced well together in Nylander’s absence, Kapanen doesn’t boast the same play-making skills as Nylander.
The Maple Leafs need Nylander to find his game and help create another elite offensive line alongside Matthews and fellow breakout candidate Andreas Johnsson. If he can’t, the team will be looking for answers in their top six. That’s why the new No. 88 is the biggest x-factor on the 2019-20 Maple Leafs.
2. Cody Ceci
The Maple Leafs weren’t expecting Cody Ceci to become their best defenseman when they acquired him on the first day of July in a blockbuster trade with the Senators. However, if he can play up to his potential, Ceci could give the club’s blue line a massive boost.
The plan is to play Ceci alongside Rielly on the team’s top defensive pairing, a crucial spot on the roster to be sure. After a couple of down seasons on some bad Senators clubs of late, Ceci’s stock is at an all-time low, as are expectations anywhere outside the hockey hotbed in Toronto. Still, when you look at the alternatives if he can’t produce, his value gains clarity.
With Travis Dermott out for at least 12 games to begin the season, the Maple Leafs are already missing a key cog on the blue line. If Ceci can’t succeed on the top pair, the replacements are thin in quantity. He and Tyson Barrie are the lone right-shot defenders on the club, and putting another offensive defenseman in Barrie next to Rielly makes little sense. Martin Marincin is not a top-pair player and 19-year-old Rasmus Sandin – increasingly likely to make the team – is another left-shot that the Maple Leafs do not want to expose to the opposition’s top players on a nightly basis.
Therefore, quality defending on Ceci’s behalf all the sudden gives the Maple Leafs length on the back end. Sandin and Marincin can slide into a third-pair role and the team can spread Rielly and Barrie out among their top four. He’s looked capable in the preseason, but the real test starts when Ceci takes on his old team in the season-opener next week.
3. Alexander Kerfoot
Still being lost in the blockbuster trade with the Colorado Avalanche is the value that Alexander Kerfoot can bring to the Maple Leafs. Early in the season, his ability to produce at the offensive end is a key component to the club’s offense as a whole.
With Zach Hyman also set to miss at least the first month of the season, the team has moved Kapanen up the lineup to fill the void alongside Tavares and Marner. As a result, the third line loses a key offensive contributor and the team’s depth up front takes a hit. That’s why Kerfoot needs to be at his best in the early going.
The likeliest of scenarios has Kerfoot centring a line in between newcomer Ilya Mikheyev and Trevor Moore or Nic Petan. While we are unsure of Mikheyev’s ability to produce at the NHL level after four seasons in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, Petan has never produced at the NHL level and Moore isn’t likely to match the lost production of Kapanen on this line.
As a result, it will be up to Kerfoot to step up, carry his line and give the Maple Leafs the depth scoring they have received from their third line for a few seasons now. Remember, James van Riemsdyk scored 36 goals from the third line in 2017-18 while Nazem Kadri managed 0.60 points per game as the third line centre last season. Similar output to Kadri’s would be acceptable on Kerfoot’s part until the fun can really begin alongside Kapanen moving forward.
4. Michael Hutchinson
An attempted backup goalie battle between Michal Neuvirth – signed to a professional tryout (PTO) this summer – and Michael Hutchinson is no longer after the Maple Leafs released the former from his PTO earlier this week. As a result, the backup goalie job is firmly in the grasp of Hutchinson. The role figures to be an increased one from previous seasons in Andersen’s reign as the club’s No .1.
With plenty of talk surrounding a likely decrease in Andersen’s workload, Hutchinson appears to be in line for a good chunk of action as the backup this season. Andersen’s 192 starts over the last three seasons are the most in the NHL and he’s faced the most shots on goal in that time, by a country mile. Given Andersen’s overwhelming value to the team, it’s prudent to protect his health and keep him fresh throughout the season.
Andersen fell to 60 starts last season from 66 in each of his first two campaigns in blue and white, largely due to a groin injury suffered just before Christmas. That said, expect his workload to fall towards the mid-50s this season – a number that would put Hutchinson in line for roughly 25 starts. That’s more than a quarter of the regular season.
Needless to say, Hutchinson’s production becomes an important cog in the Maple Leafs’ success. He performed well in Andersen’s absence last season, posting a 2.64 goals against average and a healthy .914 save percentage across five starts with the team after a mid-season trade from the Florida Panthers. He already has a 38-save shutout against an NHL-laden Montreal Canadiens team to his name in the preseason.
Whether he’s up to the task remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: the backup goaltending job in Toronto is taking on increased importance in 2019-20.
5. Rasmus Sandin
When training camp opened in mid-September, it was fair to wonder whether Sandin could make the leap to the NHL after a wildly successful inaugural pro season with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies in 2018-19. Now, it appears he’s on the cusp of doing just that.
With Dermott’s injury, the bottom defense pairing was wide open at the outset of camp. While I had predicted an opening night pairing of Marincin and Justin Holl, Sandin could become another x-factor is he’s able to indeed snag one of those spots.
With a never-ending emphasis on puck-possession in today’s NHL, a puck-moving defenseman is of enormous value to a team, especially a team like the Maple Leafs who have built one of the league’s largest analytics departments. Rather than a high flip to centre or going off the glass and out, puck-movers allow for clean breakouts, stretch passes and ultimately, increased possession. That’s exactly what Sandin brings to the table and something that Marincin, Holl or any of the other replacement-level depth defensemen in camp do not.
While we can’t predict what happens when Dermott returns – especially with Babcock’s appreciation for Marincin – a bottom-pair tandem of Sandin and Dermott looks awfully appetizing from multiple standpoints. Dermott is a puck-possession beast with a 54.9 Corsi For percentage at even-strength through his first season and a half with the Maple Leafs. After witnessing Sandin’s rookie AHL campaign last season and his work thus far in the preseason, it appears the advanced metrics will be kind to him as well.
If Sandin can make the team and deliver on his puck-possession promise, it benefits everyone involved, including an elite group of top-six forwards that will get clean zone exits on a regular basis and an increased opportunity to attack at the other end. That’s precisely why Sandin is a top-five x-factor on the 2019-20 Maple Leafs.