In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I share thoughts about what the team’s philosophy might be heading into the regular season. I’ll also look at both the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division to suggest how these might change this season.
Third, I’ll look ahead at one of the little things I will enjoy this season about the team. Fourth, I’ll speculate about what might be a tipping point in the Maple Leafs’ success in 2022-23 – the coaching.
Item One: Will the Maple Leafs Enter the Season as an Unfinished Team?
I keep waiting for the Maple Leafs to pull off the big trade. It is quiet, almost like a lull before a storm. But what if the team doesn’t do anything? It could happen that the Maple Leafs enter the season knowing that they might be an unfinished team.
The upside of this team’s powerful forwards and solid players at most positions – yes, there are holes – is that they can probably win enough during the regular season to ensure they’ll make the postseason. It’s hard to bet against an Auston Matthews team not making the playoffs. Last offseason before the 2021-22 regular season started, many fans were predicting dire warnings that the team would not even be able to make the postseason given what had been assembled. The team did make the playoffs, and easily.
This offseason, I’m hearing none of those same dire predictions. Almost every Maple Leafs’ fan expects the team to make the postseason (and I agree), but the question is how far can they go into the playoffs. At that point, the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the Maple Leafs begin.
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Could it be that the team’s management is going to enter the season with the team in an unfinished state? Is this a season where there truly is a chance some of the prospects could rise to prominence?
I still expect something (like a big trade) to happen, but now I’m wondering if it might not.
Item Two: A Leavening of Point-Getting in the Eastern Conference?
This regular season might be completely different in the Eastern Conference than last season. Last regular season, the East was a Beast. The Florida Panthers put up 122 points. The Carolina Hurricanes put up 116 points. The Maple Leafs 115. The Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Rangers each collected 110 points. The Boston Bruins put up 107 points. The Pittsburgh Penguins 103 points. Finally, the Washington Capitals put up 100 points even.
Then there was a huge dropoff to the other teams – 25 points in the Atlantic Division to the Buffalo Sabres (to 75 points) and 16 points in the Metropolitan Division to the New York Islanders (to 84 points). I expect the races to be much closer this season.
It’s going to be a bigger challenge for the top teams to put points on the board. I also don’t think every team in the East that enters the playoffs will have 100 points. This regular season might not see a changing of the guard (although I don’t expect the Bruins to make the playoffs this season), but the guard will be changing soon.
The questions for this season’s top teams in the Atlantic include: Will the Maple Leafs’ gamble on goalies pay off? How will the Panthers do with Matthew Tkachuk in and Jonathan Huberdeau out? Paul Maurice is a proven head coach, and that helps. Finally, is this the season where the Lightning have now just lost too much of its solid middle core of players? Like the Maple Leafs (and others), the Lightning had to get rid of good players to salary-cap issues.
Item Three: Holy Mackinaw, I Like Some Things About the Maple Leafs Season
There are a number of little things I’m looking forward to when the regular season begins. Although I try to watch the Maple Leafs on television as much as I can, I’m not always sad when I can’t.
I enjoy the televised games. However, because I live on Vancouver Island, I’m not always able to arrange getting a television feed for every game. In fact, sometimes even if there is a televised feed, I listen to Joe Bowen and Jim Ralph on the radio.
Listening to these two (instead of watching on television) on the radio is a joy. I just enjoy their banter and the way they see and call the game. Not a thing against anyone on television, but the radio team of play-by-play commentator Bowen and analyst Ralph is one of my little treats and why I enjoy game nights. I encourage other Maple Leafs’ fans who might not have tried their broadcast to do so. It’s great fun!
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
In a way too early look ahead to the postseason, the Colorado Avalanche was a lesson in how a team can win the Stanley Cup without having either Andrei Vasilevskiy or Igor Shesterkin as a goalie. They played stifling defense and took advantage of opportunities. The Avalanche had great players, but they also had the will to win.
In speaking with hockey coaches at Canada’s university level, I’ve come to believe good defense can be taught. The static salary-cap era almost makes it difficult for any team to be solid in every spot. There always seems to be a weakness somewhere in the lineup. These weaknesses can be covered, but it takes good coaching.
As a result, I’m as interested in seeing how the Maple Leafs’ coaching staff approaches the season as I am watching the players. The growth of their skills could be the tipping point for the team.