The Toronto Maple Leafs had themselves an interesting offseason after another season of disappointment. After a promising regular season in 2021-22, the Stanley Cup Playoffs were once again a letdown, as the team was bounced in the first round by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Will next season be different? That’s the $40 million question Leafs Nation anticipates the answer to.
While there have been a lot of headlines made this summer by general manager (GM) Kyle Dubas, who was active in the free-agent market, next season will be a different beast. Let’s dive into three storylines worth following as the 2022-23 season creeps closer to puck drop.
Future of Dubas Hangs in the Balance
The pressure is on for the Maple Leafs GM as he does not have a contract for the 2023-24 season. Dubas has been in the role for over four years and, so far, does not have one series win during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He’s taken a ton of flack over having four players make over $40 million and now all the attention is cemented on the Maple Leafs’ crease as Dubas went back to a familiar face by acquiring Matt Murray as his new starter.
It’s worth pointing out that Frederik Andersen will make $4.5 million with the Carolina Hurricanes next season. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs had the Ottawa Senators retain salary and still are paying Murray $4.6 million. You have to wonder if Toronto’s GM would like a do-over on how he handled Andersen’s departure.
If the Maple Leafs get off to a slow start in 2022-23, expect to hear the rumblings roar as Dubas’ seat will be getting hotter and hotter by the day. He’s done a great job this summer by adding pieces where he can and filling out the bottom six of the lineup. The likes of Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds are going to be in tough to make the team next season and Dubas has created a solid amount of internal competition, not only for depth spots up front but also on the blue line and in net.
Make no mistake about it, Dubas is front and center this upcoming season as there’s going to be a giant spotlight cast on his team. He’s going to need to be creative when adding talent in 2022-23, as the team should be going all-in once again at the trade deadline. He has shown in the past that he’s not shy to make a bold move, so expect much of the same next season. The only issue is, if the bold moves stop working, upper management is going to need to make one themselves.
Goaltending is the Biggest Question Mark in Toronto
Speaking of some of Dubas’ work, both Murray and fellow newcomer Ilya Samsonov are going to feel the heat next season in Toronto. It’s been quite the surprise to see how the crease of the Maple Leafs has played out over the course of the past two seasons, as not many expected they would be in this position with two question marks in goal.
Murray is signed for two more seasons at $4.6 million; meanwhile, Samsonov, a former first-round pick of the Washington Capitals, is under contract for next season at $1.8 million and is a pending restricted free agent. Considering Murray is 28 years old and Samsonov is only 25, there’s potential that one of them takes the reigns and transforms into the ‘goalie of the future’ in Toronto.
Expect to see Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe let the competition play itself out in training camp and early on next season and whoever is the hotter hand will play. Toronto will once again be using this tandem approach after they tried the same setup early on last season after signing Petr Mrazek – and we all witnessed how that turned out.
Personally, I think they should have kept Andersen for a couple more seasons as he is still in his prime and has shown what he’s capable of last season with the Hurricanes. The health of his knee was a question mark and one Dubas wasn’t willing to risk. Now, the risk is in the hands of Murray and Samsonov and we’ll have to wait and see if either of the netminders can bounce back in a big way and become the number one in Toronto. If they can, look for a fan favorite to blossom overnight as Leafs Nation will have their feelings heard in a big way as the fan base loves supporting talent and doesn’t mind holding underperforming players accountable.
The Time is Now for a Few Maple Leafs
Three players to watch next season are, Nick Robertson, Timothy Liljegren and restricted free-agent defenseman Rasmus Sandin. All three Maple Leafs need to step up in a major way and Robertson especially, needs to make an impact on the roster from day one in training camp and run with it.
The speedy winger hasn’t been able to stay healthy when it’s mattered the most so far in his young career and in 2022-23, expect to see him given a chance to battle for left wing positions on either the second or third lines. Last season, Robertson managed to appear in 10 games with the big club, unfortunately only producing one goal. He was a point-a-game player in the American Hockey League and the Maple Leafs want to see his speed and skill translate into NHL production. If things don’t work out this season in Toronto, look for Dubas to gauge the trade market on him.
As for Liljegren, he re-signed a two-year contract extension this summer and the 23-year-old right-handed defenseman is looking to build off his best season to date. The former first-rounder set career highs with 61 games, five goals, and 23 points and logged an impressive plus-14 rating. He’s due to leapfrog Justin Holl on the team’s depth chart and it’ll be interesting to see if Keefe starts him with Mark Giordano come training camp. The two had some serious chemistry in 2021-22 and could be a solid pair next season in Toronto.
The last of these interesting three includes Sandin, who was once the prized jewel of Dubas and company. Now, he sits without a contract on a team that’s $1.4 million over the salary cap. It’s obvious contract talks aren’t going that well as we sit here without a deal being announced. However, the Maple Leafs need to lock up Sandin as he has all the tools to be a solid top-four defenseman in the league.
The 22-year-old blueliner is someone Dubas has known for many years and the expectation is a deal gets done before training camp begins. There’s no question the team’s blue line is crowded at the moment with seven options to play each and every night. Personally, I am putting a high priority on playing the likes of Liljegren and Sandin over Holl seven days a week. We’ll see if the Maple Leafs’ coaching staff feels the same way early on next season.
Buckle up, Leafs Nation, you are in for another entertaining season, as the 2022-23 campaign will be a pressure-packed, emotional roller coaster. The Maple Leafs are set up with internal competition at almost every position, lofty expectations up and down their lineup and several storylines that will unfold with each passing game.