Prospect tournaments are underway, training camp is near and the preseason is quickly approaching for the start of the 2023-24 season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs went through a lot of changes in the offseason, from the front office to the on-ice product. With those changes, there’s going to be a debate on how well this team is going to perform. Overall, the team looks more competitive as a result of their offseason signings.
On a season preview of the podcast I co-host, Sticks in the 6ix, Maple Leafs beat writer for The Hockey News David Alter has the Maple Leafs winning the division. As a result of the changes happening with the competition, they could very well be on top when it’s all said and done. Everyone makes their preseason predictions– including us at The Hockey Writers– and the Maple Leafs appear to be the favourite. While the season needs to play itself out, there’s reason to suggest that they’re the team to beat.
Maple Leafs Remain Lethal
When you have an offense like the Maple Leafs, they’re always going to be a threat. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares all reached 80 points last season with all four being in the top-30 in league scoring, the highest being Marner with 99 points. Nylander had a career season with 40 goals and 87 points, which is why the Maple Leafs need to do everything they can to keep him in the fold. Despite getting some heat about his contract, Tavares still produced at a point per game rate with 80 points in 80 games.
Last season the secondary scoring went cold at times. Michael Bunting was the next productive forward with 49 points, a big drop from his 63 in 2021-22. Even Alexander Kerfoot saw a drop from 51 points to 32 despite still seeing top-six minutes. Calle Jarnkrok looked great with 20 goals as a middle-six forward, but he needs to continue that going forward. The additions of Tyler Betruzzi and Max Domi will definitely help as they look to be consistent secondary scorers as fixtures in the top-nine. Even with Matthew Knies in the fold, that could be an even bigger addition.
Morgan Rielly is looking to replicate his dominant postseason heading into 2023-24. Even though he was injured midway through last season, he was inconsistent with his decision-making and shot selection. If playoff Rielly arrives for the start of the season, it could be huge for the Maple Leafs.
The biggest question mark is going to be the team’s defense. It was a big strength for them as they allowed the seventh fewest goals against per game with 2.68 and fourth fewest five-on-five goals against with 142. Losing Luke Schenn is a big subtraction so a lot of the focus will be on Jake McCabe and T.J. Brodie to provide strong shutdown defense. The hope is that Timothy Liljegren takes a big step forward now that a spot on the right side has opened up for him. If he finally breaks out, he can be impactful as a two-way defender.
When looking at the playing field, it’s clear that the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Boston Bruins could still be in the mix for the top spot.
The Lightning are coming off a loss to the Maple Leafs in the playoffs. Andrei Vasilevskiy seemed to have looked human, as the Maple Leafs got into his lane and took advantage of his weak blocker side. While their core is still intact, key departures in Alex Killorn and the fourth line of Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Pat Maroon could be a huge difference maker as those were players that set the tone during their strong run of playoff success. You should never count them out, but this is a team where their depth could be challenged.
The Panther’s run to the Stanley Cup was impressive taking down the Bruins, Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes in the process. This largely is due to the performances of Matthew Tkachuk and Sergei Bobrovsky. Coming off a 109-point regular season, Tkachuk had 24 points in the playoffs, dominating every game and came up clutch with key goals at critical moments. He dealt with an injury during the Finals, but a healthy Tkachuk is definitely going to be a problem offensively once again.
Bobrovsky has had difficulty living up to the massive contract he signed back in 2019. After struggling during the regular season, he was standing tall in goal with a .915 save percentage in the playoffs. If he’s able to find that consistency like he did in the postseason, he can definitely be a reason why the Panthers are back on top.
The Bruins are definitely going to be the biggest wild card. With Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci retiring, there’s a big hole to fill up the middle of the ice. While the offense will still be carried by David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, other players like Pavel Zacha, Jake DeBrusk and Charlie Coyle are going to have to step it up even more. Marchand’s 67 points last season is considered a down season, but he’ll definitely find that extra gear in him.
The one thing the Bruins have going for them is that their defensive unit lead by Charlie McAvoy and goaltending tandem of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman remains. Yes, they lost Dmitry Orlov, but the names they had before are still going to play a key role. Will the defense be the reason they stay in the mix?
Competition on the Way
The Buffalo Sabres are the one team that can surprise everyone and push one of these teams out of a playoff spot. Tage Thompson broke out last season with 47 goals and 94 points and Jeff Skinner had a very strong 82-point season as he’s starting to get back to being a dynamic threat. Rasmus Dahlin is looking to continue his dominance on the backend plus the invasion of their young stars is underway with Jack Quinn, JJ Peterka and Owen Power. Let’s not forget Devon Levi as he’ll be looking to be one of the goaltenders to be a part of their success.
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The Ottawa Senators are also looking to take a big step as they made the moves to be competitive. They lost Alex DeBrincat but they still have the offense to make up for it as Tim Stützle, Brady Tkachuk and Claude Giroux lead the way. Jakob Chychrun was a big addition at the 2023 deadline, though his health is still a big concern. The signing of Jake Sanderson shows that he’s on the right path with his development. There are some question marks in net as Joonas Korpisalo has been subpar throughout his career and Anton Forsberg looks to push as the starter after tearing both MCL’s last season.
Even though the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens are on the right track with their drafting and development, they’re still far from being competitive like the other teams. While they may still generate some buzz, there isn’t as much confidence as the Sabres or Senators to make a big push and improve.
While most of the teams saw some major subtractions and are dealing with some internal questions, the Maple Leafs are the only team that still made some big additions without being impacted by the loss of their subtractions. They brought in some top names that can bring the mix of grit and offense in order to make them even more competitive. Even though they lost some defensive depth, key pieces remain as they still look to upgrade that position throughout the season.
This might be the best chance for them to win one of the toughest divisions in hockey as the competition is going to be intense as the season starts.