In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at what might happen next season with players on the current roster. First, I’ll wonder how well Michael Bunting will play. Can he keep up (or surpass) the totals he had last season?
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Second, I’ll look at John Tavares and how his summer in 2022 was different from his summer in 2021. Third, I’ll speculate about what awards Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews might be able to win next season. Can they continue to improve and come to carry toward their goal of a Stanley Cup win?
Item One: Can Michael Bunting Improve on Last Season’s Totals
Funny how a single season can change things. Last season, Maple Leafs’ fans were wondering what Michael Bunting might do with the team. Could he translate his goal-scoring blip from his short time with the Arizona Coyotes into a regular-season job with the Maple Leafs?
This season, after scoring 23 goals and adding 40 assists (for 63 points) in 2022-23, Maple Leafs’ fans just sort of take for granted that Bunting will be able to match and improve his statistics from last season. In fact, given his skillset and the simplicity of his game, he should.
If his two first-line partners (Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews) continue to play as they have, he’ll be carried along in that offensive wave. And, given their elite talent, that seems a given. If anything, Matthews and Marner seem to be ready for further improvements. Why not, then, Bunting?
The upside is that the Maple Leafs’ first line is one of the best in the NHL. And Bunting seems to fit that line perfectly. He can keep up. He’s smart enough to know the best offensive places to hang out. And his skill set and hand-eye coordination are good enough to collect points.
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What should the team expect from Bunting in his second season with the team? Bunting belongs on the first-line and adds great chemistry. I can’t see him being moved unless something unexpected happens (like an injury). There seems to be no sophomore fall off for him.
Can Bunting score 30 goals? That number might be a stretch, but 25 seems possible. Being with Matthews and Marner all season will help. There’s no reason to believe Bunting won’t become a 70-point scorer and perhaps even a point-a-game player. He won’t drive the offense, but he will take advantage of his opportunities.
He’s that kind of guy. I hope Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas re-signs him during the season for 2023-24 (and beyond).
Item Two: John Tavares Ready for 2022-23: What Other Choice?
The 31-year-old John Tavares is constantly dismissed for his lack of skating speed and declining skills, but he still puts up the points during the regular season and the postseason. During the seven-game series loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, he scored three goals and three assists (for six points). He played quite well.
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What a difference from the 2021 postseason and offseason. He didn’t make it out of a period against the Montreal Canadiens during the 2021 postseason and he had lots of rehab to get ready for 2021-22.
For Tavares there’s no other way to proceed than to get ready for another kick at the can. He noted recently that “We’ve got to just keep finding our way.”
As Tavares noted, we have to “Keep putting the work in and keep banging on the door. And obviously, we believe in our group. We believe that the core of our team is really special. So, let’s keep staying at it.”
When thinking about the roster around him that will start this regular season, Tavares said, “It’s tough to see guys leave, but management has done a good job the last few years of keeping the core together and filling the holes.”
He’s excited about the upcoming season “and the mix we have.”
Item Three: Will Auston Matthews Win the Selke Trophy
Auston Matthews had a great season last year and was rewarded by voters – regardless of who they were – for his play. In the end, he was awarded the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, the Ted Lindsay Award, and the Hart Memorial Trophy. There’s a chance he can win these again.
In addition, is this the season he’ll win the Selke Trophy? The Selke Trophy is awarded to the best defensive forward, as voted on by the professional hockey writers. Matthews has become one of the NHL’s most complete, 200-foot players. He’s just as good without the puck as he is with it.
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I’m looking forward to seeing how he amps up his defensive game this season. I’m convinced that he’ll get better and better. And, I can’t wait to watch his continued growth.
Item Four: Can Mitch Marner Win the Lady Byng Trophy?
Last season, Mitch Marner finished fourth in Lady Byng Trophy voting. With both Matthews’ and Marner’s growing defensive skills, it seems as if Marner will get the kind of playing time that will further showcase his defensive skills.
As well, Matthews had been receiving consideration for the Lady Byng. However, he’s growing in his physicality on the ice. He no longer seems willing to take a beating without retaliation. That increasing propensity will move him downward in Lady Byng voting and might in contrast propel Marner upwards.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
I’m getting the idea that I’m unlike most Maple Leafs’ fans. I’m disappointed the team didn’t go further into the postseason, but I don’t think it’s going to be the train wreck fans keep predicting. And, I’m getting excited to see what happens.
For his part, Matthews is getting better every season. I’d be surprised if he didn’t fight the Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl for the goal-scoring championship. Few people match his skill level. And, he’s entering the regular season without any injuries that we know of.
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I’m looking for Matthews to score 100 points again, with at least 50 goals. I’m looking for Marner to reach the 100-point plateau. And, I’m hoping Bunting can become a point-a-game player.
Other predictions from the THW readers?