Don’t look now but the regular season is just 24 hours away. It’s time to buckle down and get ready for what should be another electric NHL season after an eventful offseason. Beginning Wednesday, they play for keeps.
I wouldn’t go so far to say that the Maple Leafs’ 2018-19 season was a disappointment, but at the end of the day, there wasn’t much to celebrate. After a 105-point 2017-18 campaign and subsequent arrival of John Tavares via free agency, the club regressed to 100 points which set them up for another first-round series against the Boston Bruins – without home ice advantage. The rest is history.
Add in a frustrating William Nylander situation, more time without Auston Matthews and a blue line that regressed as the season moved along and it felt like that Maple Leafs left a lot on the table a season ago.
Expectations are high again this time around after a flurry of offseason activity from general manager (GM) Kyle Dubas and his staff. However, let’s go ahead and identify what factors will define the 2019-20 season as a successful one for the blue and white.
William Nylander Bounce Back Season
There’s little doubt that the Maple Leafs sport one of, if not the best group of top-six forwards the NHL has to offer. With Tavares, Matthews, Mitch Marner and an increasingly interesting Andreas Johnsson, there is going to be an abundance of production from the top half of the forward stable. A Nylander bounce-back campaign, however, would put this group over the top.
His contract stalemate that cost him 28 games last season and his subsequent lack of production is well documented. However, the silver lining was his domination at the World Championships a couple of short weeks after the conclusion of the Maple Leafs’ season. Nylander enters this season brimming with confidence, something we didn’t see in him a season ago.
Sure, the team would likely get back into the postseason without a fully-productive Nylander, but one who’s playing up to his potential is a tantalizing thought. After all, he posted 0.75 points-per-game through his first two full NHL seasons at the ages of 20 and 21. Perhaps more importantly, his chemistry with Matthews allowed the American pivot to tally a 40-goal rookie season and 74 goals through the first 144 games of his NHL career.
Should the duo regain that chemistry this season, it’s going to be awfully tough on opposing teams to shut this offense down. The chemistry has been spot-on in the preseason and with a breakout candidate in Johnsson on this line, the trio has looked dynamite. His wrister appears on point in the early going, as well.
It’s a Nylander bounce back season that could have the Maple Leafs competing for the best offense in the NHL.
Improved Blue Line
The offseason makeover is most noticeable on the Maple Leafs’ blue line as three new defenders will begin the season in the top-six including Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci and rookie Rasmus Sandin. After Dubas acquired Barrie from the Colorado Avalanche and Ceci from the Ottawa Senators on July 1, the blue line was looking new. Whether it had actually improved was another question.
Today’s NHL is fast-paced with a concrete emphasis on moving the puck. Out is the big, slow, physical blueliner and in is the fleet-footed puck-mover whose skills can be utilized to exit the defensive zone and attack at the offensive end. With Barrie and Sandin in the opening-night lineup, the team should be ecstatic that they have two new additions that can bring that type of skill set to the table.
Sandin was on the radar to make the team after a monster rookie season with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies in 2018-19, but he elevated himself to the opening night lineup with an extraordinary training camp. He became a lock to earn a roster spot well before the preseason’s final weekend and his emergence has Maple Leafs fans salivating at potential. He’s already a steal at 29th overall in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.
Head coach Mike Babcock has not only been impressed with Sandin, but also his new defense partner, Martin Marincin. Marincin has been given numerous opportunities from his head coach, but this time even Babcock is noticing something new.
The emergence of the new bottom pair lengthens the blue line, especially while Travis Dermott awaits his return from offseason shoulder surgery. With Morgan Rielly and Ceci on the top pair and Jake Muzzin and Barrie on the middle-pair, the Maple Leafs’ defense looks well improved from the group that finished last season at the TD Garden in Boston.
The GM has done his job in attempting to improve the team’s defense. The pieces need to fit together and the results , although very good thus far, won’t truly begin taking shape until Wednesday night. Nonetheless, there’s a new-found optimism surrounding the club’s 2019-20 blue line.
Of course, none of this means anything unless the team can perform when it matters and enjoy success past the first 82 games of the season. In other words, the team has to get over that first-round hump after three consecutive exits in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal.
That said, a second-round exit doesn’t sound all that appealing for a club boasting as much star-power throughout their lineup as the Maple Leafs. The forwards are elite, the defense has been revamped and Frederik Andersen has been one of the best goaltenders in the game in his Toronto tenure with his workload factored in. This is a full-blown Stanley Cup-contending team at this point. Winning a single playoff series isn’t a success considering what the club has at its disposal.
Of course, there are obstacles. Every team has them. Being this good on paper doesn’t guarantee anything, especially once the postseason rolls around. The Atlantic Division is stacked, as is most of the Eastern Conference. Finishing in the top three for the third straight season within the division is going to be no easy feat. Teams are gunning for the Maple Leafs.
At the end of the day, an appearance in the Eastern Conference Final is what will make the 2019-20 Maple Leafs season a successful one. One playoff win would be nice, however, if the team won a second series and were just one series away from the Stanley Cup Final, the city of Toronto would again be a madhouse after the Raptors did their thing last June. Only this Toronto-based team hasn’t won anything in more than 50 years.
A Nylander bounce back and improved blue line will get them to the playoffs. At that point, anything less than an Eastern Conference Final appearance would be ruled unsuccessful for a 2019-20 Maple Leafs team with its eye on the ultimate prize.