The Toronto Maple Leafs have been one of the strongest regular-season teams in the NHL for the last two seasons, scoring 115 and 111 points, respectively. The Maple Leafs broke their long losing streak in the playoffs last year, beating the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round in six games. That deep sigh of relief you heard came from the team's long-suffering fan base. Maple Leaf fans hadn't seen their team win a series since 2004.
But after their first-round victory, the Leafs were unable to capitalize on the momentum. They met the Florida Panthers in the second round and were easily dispatched by the Stanley Cup finalists. As a result, there is still a major question hanging over this team as the 2023-24 season approaches: When will the Maple Leafs fulfill their potential and play like a dominant team in the postseason?
The truth is the Maple Leafs won't be able to start answering that question until April. However, this could be the year they take charge in the Atlantic Division after years of trying to play catch-up with the Lightning and the Boston Bruins.
They solved the Lightning during the playoffs and the Bruins appear to be a far different team than the one that set the NHL record for regular-season points with 135 a year ago. If the Maple Leafs finish first in the division, head coach Sheldon Keefe's team may start the playoffs with more confidence than it has in many seasons.
The Leafs as remarkable star power with Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander and Tyler Bertuzzi leading the way.
The key to their offense is Matthews, who has one of the best and most difficult shots to read in the NHL. Matthews had something of a down year in 2022-23 with 40 goals and 45 assists. He has already shown he can reach the 60-goal mark (during the 2021-22 season) and after losing the goal-scoring title to Connor McDavid, it would not be a shock to meet or exceed the 60-goal mark once again and regain his goal-scoring crown.
Marner is a quicksilver skater who is very difficult for opposing defensemen to hit. As a result of his ability to maneuver with speed and quickness, Marner can almost always find the open ice needed to either set up his teammates or score himself. Marner scored 30 goals and 69 assists last year, and exceeding the 100-point mark seems likely.
Tavares is a steady player who can score and play defense. He had 36 goals and 44 assists last year, and the Leafs would like to see a bit more demonstrative leadership from him. Nylander came into his own last year with 40 goals and 47 assists. He proved to be an opportunistic scorer who had the ability to come through in the clutch. Bertuzzi signed with the Leafs as a free agent. He spent the majority of his career with the Detroit Red Wings, and he was a positive addition to the Boston Bruins after he was acquired at the trade deadline last season.
While the Leafs have a powerful top 6 among their forwards, Keefe has to wonder what he will get from his third and fourth lines. The Leafs need players like David Kampf, Calle Jarnkrok and Sam Lafferty to step up. They also hope rookie Matthew Knies can show that he can be a consistent scorer in the NHL.
Can the defense step up?
The Leafs need their defense to rise to the occasion this season. On paper, Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie form a strong first pairing, but these two need to be better against the strongest forward groups they see.
Rielly excels at carrying the puck and he can find his open teammates, but he scored just 4 goals in addition to his 37 assists. The Leafs would like to see him put the puck in the net with greater frequency.
John Klingberg and Jake McCabe form the second pairing on the blue line, and Klingberg could prove to be a huge difference maker. While he is not known for his physical play, he has top offensive skills and could score 15 goals or more this season.
Goaltending has been an issue for the Leafs over the years, but they received solid play in net from Ilya Samsonov last year. He had a 27-10-5 record with a 2.33 goals-against average along with a .919 save percentage and 4 shutouts. There's no reason Samsonov can't meet or exceed those numbers this season.
Joseph Woll is scheduled to be the backup goaltender, and he was largely untested last year. He had a 6-1-0 record and a 2.16 goals-against average. The Leafs need their backup goalie to provide some relief for Samsonov.
New personality to team
One of the reasons the Leafs could assert themselves is an influx of toughness that has been missing in the past. In addition to Bertuzzi, they have added Ryan Reaves and Tie Domi. The Leafs have rarely been the more aggressive team on the ice, but that could change this year.
Reaves wants the Leafs to know that they are getting a player who will stand up for them and join the battle when that kind of presence is needed.
“I don't ever come into a locker room shy or quiet. I tend to come in and start chirping people right away. Just kind of get that over with,” Reaves said. “I don’t play a lot of minutes. I don't score a ton of goals. So, a lot of what I do as a physical player are making sure guys feel safe on the ice and chirping, getting guys space.”
Since the Leafs need to emphasize assertiveness, players like Jarnkrok and Lafferty could be in trouble when it comes to playing time or even making the roster. They willneed to demonstrate early in training camp that they bring significant value to the lineup.
Forwards: Tyler Bertuzzi, Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, Max Domi, John Tavares, William Nylander, Matthew Knies, Ryan Reaves, David Kampf, Calle Jarnkrok, Sam Lafferty, Dylan Gambrel
Defensemen: Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Jake McCabe, John Klingberg, Mark Giordano, Timothy Liljegren
Goalies: Ilya Samsonov, Joseph Woll