A new season for the Toronto Maple Leafs has started with training camp under way.
After the ugly finish to last season, blowing a 3-1 playoff series lead, and losing again in the 1st round, this is a team that needs a fresh start and a new beginning. They needed to get back to work and focus on getting back to normal, playing games (with fans) and striving to improve a poor playoff showing.
Understandably the focus of the team will be solely on what they will be able to do in the spring. Questions abound on whether or not this group can actually win big games and playoff series. And in a market such as Toronto, there is plenty of noise around and plenty of pressure on this group to get the job done.
With a new season upon us, many questions need answers, and many things need to be worked on. Its a tough league, and the Eastern Conference is no slouch. The Leafs will need lots of things to go right and bring their best games to the table to give themselves the best chance to achieve the success they seek.
Here are 10 issues, topics, questions and goals ahead for the Leafs.
3 rookies or top prospects, with varying degrees of NHL experience, are trying to make the team full time in Nick Robertson, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren.
The team also added 6 veterans in the off-season to replace many outgoing players. David Kampf, Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase, Michael Bunting, Petr Mrazek and Kurtis Gabriel are looking to add their unique talents to the mix and support the main core group of players.
2 new assistant coaches, Spencer Carbery and Dean Chynoweth, were brought in to add a few different voices to the mix. They will support head coach Sheldon Keefe who is actually running his very 1st full NHL training camp this fall.
Turnover is just part of the business in the NHL. But the Leafs have had a lot of it in the last 3 seasons. And that is not even including all the other unique adjustments they’ve had such as playing in a bubble, playing in an all-Canadian division and playing without fans.
It will be important for the Leafs to settle in back to a normal routine. It will be key for the veteran holdovers to help bring together the new players and work with them to help continue growing and develop their system and style of play. It will be important to establish some stability early on, decide on roles and build everyone up so that they are able to bring their best to the ice.
It is extremely beneficial though they have a main core group of 4 forward and 4 D all returning, with long time veteran leaders sprinkled in and all ready to lead this group. That kind of continuity will help immensely to drive home how they want to play and what they want to accomplish.
2. Build the Goalie Plan
The biggest adjustment the Leafs may have lineup wise is in goal. For 5 years we all knew Freddy Andersen was the team’s no.1 undisputed starting goalie to start the season and the team would build around that.
Instead, the Leafs have built a goalie tandem with the returning Jack Campbell and newcomer Mrazek both looking to be starters.
There is no clear cut no. 1 goalie here. Campbell showed a lot last season putting up excellent numbers and being the main goalie for the Leafs in the playoffs, starting all 7 games and playing every minute. But, this was his first go as a main starter at the NHL level and he still has things to prove.
Can he shoulder a semi-regular load rather than backup level games? Can he stay healthy and be able to string starts without the concerns of being overworked or potentially experiencing chronic injuries as seasons past?
It will be interesting to see how well Campbell can build upon what was a really good season for him last year.
Joining him will be Mrazek who comes from Carolina as a goalie very experienced in working in tandem with another. But, he showed earlier in his career he can be a 50+ game starter if need be.
He though has his own injury concerns to get over. He only played 12 games last season in the pandemic shortened season. Though he did return in the playoffs, he needs to show he is back at full strength and be able to shoulder a decent workload.
The Leafs will need to adjust significantly with how they plan out the starts as it will not just be on back to backs that the 2nd goalie will get in. It is going to be very intriguing to see how this plays out. Do they intentionally balance out the starts? Do they go with the hot hand? You can bet their sports science team will be a part of the decision making here.
3. Get the Left Wing Slots Right.
Gone is one of the Leafs biggest constants the last 5 years: Zach Hyman. Whether he was plaything right wing or left, whether he played the top line or the 3rd line, he was a prominent player in the Leafs lineup. His main role though was playing on the top line alongside Auston Matthews.
Now, the competition is open to play with Matthews and Mitch Marner on the top line, as well as with John Tavares and William Nylander on the 2nd line.
The options are: Robertson, Ritchie, Kase, Bunting, Ilya Mikheyev, Alex Kerfoot and Wayne Simmonds.
While a few of these names may be better suited further down in the lineup, they’re all legitimate options here.
Robertson is a darkhorse favorite because he has the skill to play in that role. He is the Leafs top prospect and has the offensive skill set to be a top 6 forward.
Ritchie would give them a completely different look they haven’t had on either of those lines. A big, burly winger who can be overwhelming physically, but has decent hands and touch to produce.
Kase was a former 20 goal scorer with Anaheim. He is very capable to play with higher end talent. He does shoot right though so maybe sliding in as a 3rd liner might be best.
Bunting scored 10 goals in 21 games last year. All of his goals came near the net. He is a greasy winger and likes to go into the dirty areas. That may be a beneficial skill set to add balance for either line.
Mikheyev reportedly asked for a trade this off-season due to a lack of opportunity. Maybe he gets a shot here to play on the top 2 lines. He brings some Hyman traits but he has stone hands. He seems best as a checking line winger.
Kerfoot may quietly be a very important piece for Toronto. His versatility will be a major necessity this year as he can play both centre and wing. He will certainly do both. He showed some capability though to play in the top 6 so he will get a strong chance.
Simmonds, before he got hurt, showed well as a power forward with some scoring ability. He needs to prove though he can be healthy throughout and will likely see spot duty up in the top 6. He is probably better as a stop gap option on the top lines.
Its going to be fun to watch how this all plays out. Each has some unique traits that will help the top lines and add something different to them at least. Hopefully they will be given time to build some chemistry and mesh with whatever uber talented pairing they are joined up with.
4. Play the Right Way
One of the many things overshadowed by the playoff failure was that the Leafs actually improved defensively last season.
They drastically reduced their goals against. They were in the top 5 in terms of giving up the least amount of shots. They reduced high danger scoring chances.
It was quite a turnaround from the previous seasons where they were borderline laughable defensively.
It seemed there was almost full buy-in to play a stronger defensive game. That is encouraging because after 5 years, 2 coaches have been painfully trying to get this to be part of their game.
They need to continue to build off that and be even better with how they play and continue to stick to it, if it works.
The challenge of course is with all the new personnel, it will take time for everyone to get slotted where they should be, and find the roles that suit them best. But, as mentioned earlier, with the core group still intact, they should be the ones to lead the way in terms of getting everyone to buy in and play the right way.
It will be important as they don’t have that Andrei Vasilevski or Carey Price type of goalie behind them. And, they won’t have the benefit of playing just 6 different teams and thus having the ability to better know your opponent by playing only them every 5 or 6 games.
There are some things they need to improve.
They could stand to have more variety in their breakouts. The Leafs like the long breakout pass. Throw in some variety. Its like Football. Run the ball to open up the passing game. Its similar here.
There are some mobile D, so skate it out of trouble. Try and do a better job using all of the ice to break out of your zone and move into the attacking zone. Do the work together and help eachother out with spacing, motion and giving more than 1 option for a pass.
The Leafs, specifically their top 4 forwards, are more suited to being open ice players who thrive in space. But maybe they need to adjust too and work in tighter spaces and succeed there. The best play sometimes can be the most simple of plays. This includes using the boards and glass as your friend. Dump or chip and chase. Use the glass to get it out and even break it out. Either way, be safety first for defence. It may not be pretty, but its a different look that they haven’t been all that successful with, either by execution or by not choosing that option.
If they safely defend their zone and get out of trouble smartly and consistently, that will open up their offensive game.
Maybe too they can actually employ a true checking line. They tried to build one last year, but Kerfoot wasn’t the right centre for the job and Hyman ended up being needed up the lineup. Maybe they can do that this year with Kampf and that may help them, especially against the league’s best players.
Yes, sometimes best line on best line is fine and warranted. But, the big 4 will be relied upon for much of the offence. Until proven otherwise by the rest of the lineup, they will probably need them to be focused on that, rather than defending top players each and every game. Maybe having a true checking line for those assignments can help it balance out.
The bottom line is ensuring the defensive zone is taken care of. Then, in the other 2 zones, limit mistakes and turnovers. Have more the attitude of “live to fight another day” when you have the puck and there just isn’t anything there.
It most certainly is more enjoyable to score pretty goals. But, hopefully the team realizes there is nothing better than winning. And winning in the NHL starts with strong defensive play and smart play in all 3 zones.
We shall see if they can continue buying in and show they can play winning hockey.
5. Fix the Power Play
The big elephant in the room in the 2nd half of last season was the Leafs powerplay that virtually disappeared.
In a word, it was ineffective. Another word to describe it was predictable. In the end, it was beyond fixable it seemed.
In comes Carbery who takes over for Manny Malholtra with the task of improving the generously 16th ranked powerplay.
Personnel doesn’t seem to be an issue. Tavares, Marner, Matthews, Nylander, all are world class and more than capable of forming a dominant power play.
Sure, there isn’t that big Shea Weber type of shooter at the point, but Morgan Reilly is a capable playmaker and Rasmus Sandin is a very intriguing option to run things at the point.
And, if the team wants to field 2 units, as they did for parts of last season splitting up their big 4 forwards, then so be it, either way should work.
Its all about structure and execution. The Leafs seemed to be very stuck in their ways and stagnant with what they were doing. Players wanted to stick with where they were stationed and that’s that. End of story. But, by doing that, it made it easy for other teams to simply figure that out and in the end, the Leafs were historically ineffective because of it.
Let’s use football again as an example. Some of the best minds like Andy Reid of the Kansas City Chiefs and Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints have put together a vast playbook and game plan each and every week their teams go out. Their team’s offences seem to have so many looks, it creates much confusion for opposing defences.
That is where the Leafs need to head towards. Put together different ways to score. Maybe load up on point shots. Maybe add more motion so no one player stays in the same spot of the ice. The best power play is one where the opponents are confused.
That is what the Leafs need to do. After the debacle last year, we can be fairly certain the players, even if they’re perceived to be stubborn in their own right, will buy in and do what works. We seen them actually change looks when they’re out 5 on 5, so logically you’d think these principles can be applied with the man advantage.
In the end, they need to be better as with their skillset, there is no excuse not to be.
6. Improve their Penalty Killing
As bad as their power play was, the Leafs PK wasn’t anything to write home about either. They did though show improvement later in the year.
There will certainly be some change here as a) their PK coach Dave Hakstol is now the head coach with Seattle, b) their top PK forward Hyman is gone c) they’ll have new goalies to work with and d) they did lose Zach Bogosian from their D so there is a hole there as well.
Chynoweth is in charge now of the PK and we shall see if he can make improvements. His units in Carolina, where he use to coach, were not bad so there is some hope.
One thing the Leafs should be better is winning face offs when shorthanded.
Kampf and Kerfoot should lead 2 of their PK teams and they have Spezza to take draws if need be. The Leafs stuggles started with puck possession or lack thereof with Hyman, who wasn’t good on faceoffs, or Marner, who was much worse, being out there together because they were their 2 best penalty killing forwards. They did use Spezza a lot last year, but Kampf is a stronger penalty killer and gives them their truest centre for the PK.
Likely Kampf, Kerfoot, Marner, Mikheyev, Spezza for faceoffs, Bunting and Kase will see some time on the PK. Matthews even dabbled in that too a bit last year and we’ll see if that experiment continues this year.
Hopefully with new coaching and different personnel, this will help improve a unit that was in the bottom 3rd of the NHL last year.
7. Find Some Help on D
The loss of the underrated Bogosian was big. It was less noticeable with the losses of Hyman and Andersen, long serving Leafs, but may be more impactful.
Right now the only physical presence is Jake Muzzin. Justin Holl brings size but is not overly physical. Carl Dahlstrom, who was added for minor league depth, is the only other blueliner with NHL experience who stands over 6’2.
They also have, among their top 6 D, only 1 right handed shooter in Holl. Liljegren very possibly could be a regular next year which would give them 2, but for now, it seems 2 guys, TJ Brodie and Travis Dermott likely, will be playing their off-side.
While Brodie is most comfortable there and should be perfectly fine, there is concern with Dermott playing there because he hasn’t shown much playing his regular side never mind his off-side.
So, on top of being a bit on the smallish side as a group, and having a bit of a lack of depth, they are also imbalanced.
They need to add a D. They likely won’t until we reach closer to the deadline after the Olympics.
Ideally the player is in the mold of Bogosian, big, tough, experienced and reliable. There weren’t many other options in free agency and they struck out in trying to find that type of player.
So, they will have to search for that at the deadline.
But too, there is no guarantees with Liljegren and Sandin making it as regular or more concerning, being able to stay healthy for a full season to contribute as they’ve yet to show good health yet. So the need may not be just for 1 guy on the back end.
A trade will be the answer but the Leafs lack draft capital for 2022 with just 4 picks available to them. Unless they wish to dip into their prospect pool, the Leafs don’t have as much to offer for a defenceman as other teams.
For example, last year, David Savard went to the cup champion Lightning for a 1st rounder. Those have been the going prices for rental and good defenceman for a while now. So, it will be interesting to see what the Leafs can table and what kind of player they can acquire to improve this obvious need.
Improvements and good health from their prospects will go a long way to decide what will be needed going forward. But, ideally, the Leafs find their next Bogosian.
8. Morgan Rielly
On top of defensive needs for this year, those may expand to next year because of the unknown status of Morgan Rielly.
Rielly is a pending UFA. Based on the interviews on the 1st day of camp, it seems Leafs Management and the player seem to be on the road of riding it out and wait to see what develops.
He’s a core piece and he’s seen other core pieces of this team get paid. He’s also seen others leave.
As much as he may want to stay, he’s going to want to be rewarded, especially if he has a good season.
Several other defencemen have gotten big contracts this summer and while they’re not necessarily in the same grouping, they can be comparable.
So where would Rielly fit? $7 million? $8 million? $9 million? 6 years? 7 years? 8 years? He’s definitely in that wheelhouse. There may be some discount but it won’t be deep. He’s going to want what’s his.
It’s a difficult dilemma for GM Kyle Dubas. After seeing Tyler Bozak, Jake Gardiner, James vanRiemsdyk, Leo Komarov, Hyman and Andersen all leave as free agents, we can assume he is comfortable with watching players finish their contracts and head to free agency. But certainly it can’t be easy or won’t be easy to see one of the Leafs cornerstones leave without any return.
Ideally you don’t allow it to a) get to this point and b) have too many good players leave without any return. At some point you have to either take the plunge and aggressively get players re-signed or determine early on that you’re ready to move on.
Rielly though, because of his importance to the team and the D over the years, is probably the one, among all those who’ve left, who really deserves the Leafs best efforts to keep him.
With making the playoffs and playoff success this year topping the Leafs to do list, the team needs Rielly now and so next year will have to wait.
9. Learn From Past Mistakes
Ensure your game is consistent. Don’t get too high or too low. Avoid those lapses we’ve seen in past years where their play has sagged at various points in the season. You will lose games, but avoid those stretches where you’re bad for a couple weeks. Limit the damage. The Leafs were better last year not having lengthy stretches of poor play.
Take no one for granted. If they have a team on the ropes, take it too them. We’ve seen the Leafs lay eggs when they’ve had an advantage on a team. We’ve seen them believe things will be easy and take their opponents for granted. That has to stop. There’s nothing easy in the NHL. Everything is basically earned.
Don’t get blown out. Those bad, embarrassing losses just leave everyone wondering the makeup of this group. Sure, there’s nights where you just don’t have it. But the Leafs have had their share of embarrassment the last few years with this core group and that simply needs to change. Don’t make til tok or video games or whatever other distractions the story for poor play.
Cut being cute. Find that balance to allow their top 4 forwards to show their skill and do what they do best. But, at the same time, ensure there’s a time and place for it. Pick your moments. When it matters, ensure the puck is protected and opposing chances are earned, not given.
Don’t get out coached. It’s happened in each playoff and that needs to change. Whether it’s not making adjustments or making too many, you have to put forth the right game plan and make changes as you go along with purpose. Take more action than be reactionary when it’s too late. Remove stubbornness out of your thought process and make smarter decisions.
10. Succeed in the Playoffs
Some how, some way, the Leafs need to win some playoff rounds.
They were up 3-2 to Boston but failed to close them out.
They made a miraculous comeback down 3-0 late in game 4 to force a game 5 vs Columbus and despite all the momentum and energy, fell woefully short and lost the play-in series.
Then last year they gave up a 3-1 series lead and blew it against Montreal.
The Leafs are 0-7 in their last 4 playoffs where they had a chance to win and eliminate their opponent.
Of course first they need to get back to the playoffs. But if they’re there, they absolutely need to win.
No one has the right answer for them. Players, management, the media, they’ve all had some theories and have put forth their opinions, but today, it’s clear they haven’t figured it out.
Whether it’s structure or style, will and effort, a stronger mindset and a killer instinct, or more luck and good fortune, you can point to all of it as something the Leafs need more of.
Add in more consistent play, smarter decisions, better special teams, good teamwork and great goaltending, and that could give them the chance to finally win a series.
They need to make sacrifices. They need to stop talking about it and actually do it.
Can they? With a cap impacted lineup and sometimes fragile confidence, can they win? It’s really up to them. And until the spring rolls around, we’ll have to wait and see how their progress over the next several months plays out to see if it puts them in the position for maximum success.
No one has said they can’t. But they need to show us they can.
Author: Allan Chow