The Toronto Maple Leafs won their season opener over the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday night by a score of 5-3. There were areas that the Maple Leafs were lacking, but their patented offence led the charge.
With Toronto’s core under contract long-term, there are no longer any excuses for the team not to succeed this season. The team must make it beyond the first round this season and if they do not, there will need to be some major changes made in the organization.
Struggles Last Season
The Maple Leafs never quite got on track last season. The team still managed to make the playoffs but there was never a time when the entire team was firing on all cylinders. There was an endless list of excuses for why the team was failing to perform up to their potential.
The most glaring among them was William Nylander’s holdout. He was absent from training camp, preseason games and the first two months of the regular season. The holdout ultimately did no favours for either side as Nylander signed with the team on Dec. 1 and followed the signing with a horrendous performance down the stretch.
Missing training camp had a major effect on Nylander. He had to try to play catch-up with the rest of the league who was in mid-season form by the time he returned. His poor play caused a ripple effect throughout the Maple Leafs’ lineup as there was really no place to slot him in successfully. The only line not affected by the chaos was the Hyman-Tavares-Marner line, which was by far the Maple Leafs best line last season. Nylander finished last season with 7 goals and 20 assists for 27 points in 54 games.
The excuses for the team’s discombobulation did not end with Nylander. When he returned, Auston Matthews and Frederik Andersen both went down with injuries. When they both rejoined the team, Toronto went on a stretch of poor play that they never quite got out of. As the season neared its end, Jake Gardiner suffered a back injury and Travis Dermott injured his shoulder.
The Maple Leafs have not been known for their defence but losing Gardiner and Dermott put them up against insurmountable odds. The injuries forced the Leafs to give Igor Ozhiganov and Martin Marincin major minutes, hampering the team’s ability to keep the puck out of their own zone. The team went 5-7-3 in their last 15 games.
There was never a point last season where the Maple Leafs could be the team they were designed to be. Injuries and poor play were large factors in the team’s performance in 2018-19. As the 2019-20 season gets underway, there is little reason to believe that the team should be anything less than what they were built to be, a Stanley Cup contender.
It looked like the 2019-20 season would start in familiar fashion as Mitch Marner went through his RFA negotiations. The contract talks set the Maple Leafs fanbase ablaze during the offseason with some worrying that the star winger would not be signed by the start of the regular season. Thankfully for the emotional well-being of Toronto fans, he signed a six-year extension on Sept. 13.
The Nylander situation took a toll on the team’s overall production without a doubt, but it also served as a distraction. By getting Marner signed before the start of the season, it eliminated the distraction of waiting for an impending signing and it allowed him to prepare for the start of the season. He had a career-year last season playing beside John Tavares, scoring 94 points. Considering the amount being paid to him and his return to Tavares’ line, it should be expected that Marner will perform equal to or above his standard from last season.
Marner was the last of Toronto’s big three RFAs (Nylander and Matthews being the other two). With all three now under contract, there should be no excuse for any of them to play below their projections. None of them have to worry about playing for a new contract and none of them will be sitting out games amidst a holdout. Everyone wins.
Additionally, many of the Maple Leafs worst players from last season have departed the organization. Patrick Marleau has had a fantastic career, but his production took a major dip in 2018-19 as he entered his 22nd NHL season. He was unable to produce in the top two lines with Matthews and was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes and subsequently bought out. Without Marleau on the roster, there is now space for younger players with far more upside like Ilya Mikheyev.
This goes beyond Marleau as well. The Nikita Zaitsev experiment came to an end and the Maple Leafs offloaded his contract in a trade with the Ottawa Senators. Ozhiganov also left the team after a less than stellar rookie season. These were three of the players that had the biggest negative impact on the team last season. General manager Kyle Dubas went to work in the offseason and all three are no longer with the team.
“But what about the Maple Leafs defence?” you may ask. Dubas took steps towards improving that front as well. The Maple Leafs traded Nazem Kadri to the Colorado Avalanche for defenceman Tyson Barrie. Barrie is the right-handed defenceman Toronto has needed since becoming a playoff team once again. He is currently slotted in as the team’s second-pair right defenceman alongside Jake Muzzin. The Maple Leafs will miss Kadri’s production for sure but Barrie provides an immediate upgrade to the team’s defence.
The team has also promoted 2018 first-round pick Rasmus Sandin to the Maple Leafs’ roster to fill in the bottom pair defensively. It remains to be seen whether Sandin will stay with the team for the whole season and really it depends on the level of production he displays. For the time being, he is Toronto’s top prospect and if he produces anything close to what he did in the AHL, he will be a huge benefit to the team.
The Maple Leafs defence is far from perfect but with the improvements made this offseason, they are good enough to succeed. Toronto’s roster is the best it has been in generations and with no RFA talk to muddy the waters, there will be no excuses if the Maple Leafs do not excel this season. Whether success is measured by making it out of the first round, making it to the Eastern Conference Final, or winning the Stanley Cup is irrelevant. The bottom line is the Maple Leafs have been given the tools and have been put in the position to succeed, they just have to go play hockey.