It’s that time of year again. Hockey is back and the Toronto Maple Leafs training camp is already underway. After another disappointing playoff performance where the Maple Leafs had the best chance for a deep run, it was a long offseason wondering what might the 2021-22 season offer.
There was a lot to take in at the team’s press conference on the first day of training camp. From goaltending, to the logjam on the wing position, it’s going to be a very interesting few weeks leading up to the start of the regular season.
In August, fellow THW Maple Leafs writer Shane Seney wrote a great piece on three burning questions for the upcoming season. Based on what was said at the press conference, I thought we should take a look at three more burning questions for the Maple Leafs this season.
How Will a 1A/1B Go In Net For The Maple Leafs?
Even after Jack Campbell’s remarkable season in net, taking over as the starter from Frederik Andersen, goaltending still remained a big question mark. Campbell went 17-3-2 with a 2.15 goals against average and a .921 save percentage in 2020-21. Those are very impressive numbers for a player who has come a long way to earn the title as starter. He had a better goals saved above average (number of goals saved compared to league average) at 7.82 compared to Andersen who was below league average at -8.54.
With Andersen’s inconsistent play, Michael Hutchinson and David Rittich seeing game time as well, the depth in goal didn’t quite cut it. They went out and signed Petr Mrazek to a three-year deal worth $3.8 million per season in order to provide that consistency in net. Despite starting in only 12 games with the Carolina Hurricanes (missed time due to a thumb injury), he had 2.06 GAA and a .923 SV% in 2020-21. Compared to Andersen, Mrazek did have better numbers in fewer games and managed to bring him in at a cheaper cap hit.
The Toronto Sun’s Terry Koshan tweeted out a comment by general manager Kyle Dubas where he says that if one of them “runs with it”, it’s going to be great for the team as they’ll have a strong tandem in net. Both are capable of running away with the starter and can come in for the other if needed.
We’ve seen this situation before where fans saw a 1A/1B in the crease with Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer from 2013-14 to 2015-16. I mentioned this comparison on the Maple Leafs Lounge in regards to the current goaltending situation, as it didn’t work out as well in the past. It’s very similar considering that Campbell had a strong season the same way Reimer did before Bernier became a Maple Leaf.
This time around, it’s different as both Campbell and Mrazek have a much better defense in front of them compared to Reimer and Bernier. Even if we’re comparing overall play, Mrazek and Campbell serve as a better pair in net. Mrazek had great success with the Hurricanes, and while Campbell’s sample size isn’t as big, he has shown great consistency to be a starter going forward.
Even without an elite name, the Maple Leafs have two very reliable goaltenders to provide a strong presence in the crease and split the workload down the middle. With the improvements made on defense the season before, they could very well be the answer to the team finding success. The Maple Leafs have a great balance in goal with players that have strong mindsets.
How Will Competition on the Wing Unfold?
Losing Zach Hyman was a big loss for the Maple Leafs as he brought great energy and the ability to establish the forecheck. He was an extremely key piece to the team’s offense and is a player that many teams would want to have.
Dubas went out and brought in a number of quality wingers that can fill the void of Hyman at cheaper cap hits as they all bring something to the table. Michael Bunting brings the energy and speed. Nick Ritchie is physical and can be a strong net-front presence. Ondrej Kase, when healthy, has the ability to gain possession and establish an attack.
In regards to the competition on the left side, head coach Sheldon Keefe said that, “We think we have a number of options both in the players that we have added and the players that are returning on the left side. That is something that we are excited about here.” At the moment, Bunting appears to be the front-runner to be on the top line, but it’s still early and anything can happen.
There’s also top prospect Nick Robertson, after he brought a high level of energy and skill during the development camp and rookie tournament. His play definitely puts him into the conversation on whether he deserves a spot on this team with a crowded group of players eyeing for limited spots. We’ve seen his confidence continue to grow and is definitely eyeing a spot in the top-six.
Josh Ho-Sang and Nikita Gusev were brought in on PTO’s as both players have an opportunity to prove their worth and earn a contract. Ho-Sang didn’t get a fair chance with the New York Islanders and he’s as motivated as ever, skating at the Maple Leafs training facility for six weeks according to captain John Tavares.
Ultimately, it will come down to how well Bunting, Ritchie and Robertson will play to get those spots on the left wing, more importantly, on the top line. Gusev wants to get back to where he was when he scored 44 points with the New Jersey Devils in 2019-20. On the right side, Ho-Sang is in a tight battle with Kase and even Wayne Simmonds for a depth role.
This is certainly something to keep an eye on.
Is This the Last Chance for the Core Four?
The biggest question in the offseason was that if there’s another disappointing result with a team that includes Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, will a major move happen to shake up the core four? Is this the season where it’s a last ditch effort to prove everyone wrong and find success?
No matter what the fans say, Dubas reaffirmed his confidence in his core group despite the multiple first-round playoff exits. He has always shown faith in his team and he continues to do so no matter what.
“I believe in the group in the room deeply,” Dubas said according to Sportsnet’s Luke Fox. “It is easy to say you believe in something when it is at the beginning, and it is relatively easy and everyone is very optimistic, but true belief is tested when things get a little bit hard — when you struggle, fall, and need to pick yourself up and continue to move on. That is how I feel about the group in the room.”
By making only depth moves in the offseason, Dubas is banking on his star players to be at their best. Not just in the regular season, but beyond, as the hope is to make some noise and finally exorcise their playoff demons. Their captain is leading the way once again.
“We know how competitive and tight our league is. We just want to keep banging on that door until we knock it down,” Tavares said according to Koshan. “We believe this group has what it takes to do that.” (from ‘Matthews’ participation delayed as fight for forward spots at Maple Leafs camp heats up’, The Toronto Sun – 9/22/21)
You can say that the words don’t mean anything, until there are results. But his tone shows that this team means business this season. While the confidence is there amongst players and staff, time is running out. If things don’t change this season, big changes will be coming and someone from the core four might be gone.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.