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What’s Next: Toronto Maple Leafs

Auston Matthews

Auston Matthews

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to our 2022-23 Preview series. In each article we’ll be focusing in on a different team, reviewing how they did last season, what their summer has been like, and what their outlook is for the 2022-23 campaign.
We’ve already covered the Florida Panthers, so we’ll continue our look at the Atlantic Division today by diving into the Toronto Maple Leafs.

2021-22 Season in Review

For a team that went 54-21-7, earning the best point percentage in the Maple Leafs’ long and storied franchise history, their campaign was more of a journey than a pleasure cruise.

Let’s start with the positives, because there were many. Auston Matthews had one of the best campaigns that we’ve seen in the salary cap era. He scored 60 goals and 106 points in 73 contests and was so dominate that he actually managed to net 51 goals in 50 games played from Nov. 24-Apr. 9. It might not qualify for the NHL’s list for 50-in-50, which has to be from the start of the campaign and counts games missed due to injury or suspension, but it’s a rare and spectacular accomplishment none the less.

He wasn’t the only Leafs player who shined either. Mitch Marner had 35 goals and 97 points in 72 games, William Nylander had 34 goals and 80 points in 81 contests, and John Tavares finished with 27 goals and 76 points in 79 games. Through in a 68-point showing from defenseman Morgan Rielly, a rookie campaign from Michael Bunting good enough to earn him a Calder Trophy nomination, and a career-high 51 points from Alexander Kerfoot and it’s easy to see why the Maple Leafs had the second-best offense in the league, behind only the Florida Panthers.

Toronto got off to a 2-4-1 start, but after that they never had a losing streak of more than three games. On the surface they were consistently winning. So, what was the problem?

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Well, for one thing, the wins weren’t always clean. The most obvious example of that came on Feb. 26 when the Leafs held a 7-2 lead over Detroit going into the third period before allowing the Red Wings to come back within one at 7-6 and 8-7 before eking out a 10-7 win. Two points, but two points that were more stressful than they aught to have been. On March 7 Toronto went up 3-0, but won 5-4, and on March 8 Toronto blew a 3-1 lead to Seattle before coming back to win 6-4. There were also examples of those late game struggles costing Toronto points. Two notable examples were on Jan. 8 when Toronto blew a 4-1 lead to Colorado en route to a 5-4 overtime loss and on April 5 when Toronto held a 5-1 lead against Florida before losing 7-6 in overtime.

An argument can be made that pointing out those kinds of blown leads or nearly blown leads is just nitpicking, but it does feed into this narrative that’s emerged that the Leafs are a team that struggles to play the full 60 minutes.

The other big question mark for the Maple Leafs was their goaltending. The Maple Leafs signed Petr Mrazek to a three-year, $11.4 million contract in July 2021 under the assumption that he would be a great backup goaltender for them and even a potential starter if anything went wrong with Jack Campbell. Nothing could have been further from reality. Mrazek was a disaster in Toronto, posting a 3.34 GAA and .888 save percentage in 20 games. What’s noteworthy is that Mrazek still had a 12-6-0 record, highlighting again how these areas of concern weren’t actually costing the Leafs in the regular season.

The Leafs’ goaltending concerns weren’t isolated to Mrazek though. Early in the campaign, Campbell was looking like a potential Vezina Trophy contender, but that evaporated quickly. From Dec. 1-Apr. 14, Campbell was actually no better than Mrazek between the pipes. Over that stretch, Campbell had a 3.45 GAA and .889 save percentage – and yet, in keeping with the pattern, that didn’t slow down Toronto either. Campbell still had a more than respectable 16-5-4 record over that span despite his struggles.

So entered the Maple Leafs: A clearly great team, but one with concerns and a history of playoff disappointments. Unfortunately for Toronto, those concerns materialized in their first round series against Tampa Bay. Now let’s be clear: The Maple Leafs almost won the series and when facing a team like Tampa Bay, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’d be an oversimplification to paint their seven-game defeat as just another first round loss. At the same time, Toronto’s struggles to play the full 60 minutes were seen again in that series and Toronto failed to capitalize on their 3-2 series lead.

So, the Maple Leafs entered the summer with some positives to latch onto, but also a fanbase and core hungry to see progress after failing to win a playoff series in any of their six consecutive postseason berths.

How has their summer gone?

It’s been something of a mixed bag so far. Toronto did get rid of Mrazek, but the penalty for pushing his cap hit onto Chicago was accepting that the Blackhawks would have the 2022 25th overall pick (Sam Rinzel) in exchange for the 38th overall (Fraser Minten). Not a bad price to pay for the cap savings, but it’s a price Toronto only had to pay because their decision to sign Mrazek in the first place blew up in their face.

Toronto also watchEd Campbell sign with Edmonton, meaning that they needed a new pair of goaltenders. The Maple Leafs opted to acquire Matt Murray from Ottawa and ink Ilya Samsonov to a one-year, $1.8 million contract. Those two are question marks. Murray had some strong showings last season, but it was an up-and-down campaign for him that both featured time in the AHL and injury woes. Still, Murray is a two-time Cup-winning goaltender and with some encouraging underlining stats in 2021-22, the hope is that the 2022-23 campaign will be a comeback season for him. Meanwhile, Samsonov struggled in Washington to the point where the Capitals didn’t even present him with a qualifying offer, but he’s 25-years-old and not that far removed from a time when he was a highly regarded prospect. Maybe the change of scenery will do him some good.

Ultimately though, Toronto’s goaltending was questionable last season and it’s far from certain that it will be any better – or even as good – in 2022-23.

On the plus side, Mark Giordano signed a two-year, $1.6 million contract back in May. He’s showing his age, but he’s still a solid defenseman who is easy to love at that price.

Toronto also replaced some of the forward depth they lost with the departures of Colin Blackwell and Ondrej Kase by signing a pretty reliable middle-six forward in Calle Järnkrok to a four-year, $8.4 million deal and a good fourth liner in Nicolas Aube-Kubel to a one-year, $1 million deal.

2022-23 Outlook

As mentioned above, Toronto’s big X-Factor entering the season is their goaltending. By contrast, their defense is looking solid. A full year of Giordano, even if he’ll be 39 in October, seems pretty good. Combine him with the established group of Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, TJ Brodie, and the up-and-coming Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin (Justin Holl is also still with Toronto at the time of writing, but he might end up traded) and an area that was once a weakness for the Maple Leafs is a strength. They could use some more defensive depth, especially if Holl is traded, but that’s an area that might be addressed later in the summer. It is worth noting that Toronto did add Jordie Benn and Victor Mete to one-year deals at the league minimum so perhaps one of them can step up and serve as the seventh defenseman and fill in adequately in the event of injuries.

Then there’s Toronto’s offense that should continue to dominate. Tavares might have lost a step, but he’s still excellent and the trio of Matthews, Marner, and Nylander will lead the Leafs to plenty of victories. There is an issue looming in the horizon though. Tavares and Marner have three years left on their contracts with Matthews and Nylander are down to their final two campaigns. Year-after-year, Toronto has come up short of its goal, but has stuck with this core in the belief that eventually, they’ll be able to capture the Cup. Their contract status makes one wonder how many more times Toronto will even be able to attempt it with this group. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the 2022-23 campaign is a critical one for Toronto.