With every new season there is excitement, hope and angst, the 2021-2022 season is no different and after a very dreadful playoff run last spring there is anger and a sense with some that the franchise should wave the white flag and start again.
I was extremely angry with how last season ended and if you asked me then what would I have done, I would have suggested to burn the whole damn thing down and gave walking papers to everyone involved in the latest playoff collapse.
As time has passed, I have cooled down from those sentiments and my renewed hope that this season can be and will be better has been restored. I am constantly reminded that success isn’t linear, best laid plans can still fail and some bad luck can torpedo even the best of seasons. This has in large part buoyed my fandom and has allowed me to focus on this season, leaving last year in the rear view mirror.
So why I am taking a more positive take for this season one may ask, well I am a big believer in the guys that were acquired in the off season. I had advocated for acquiring Michael Bunting for weeks leading into Free Agency, David Kampf offers a truly defensive mindset that should help to free up Tavares and Matthews for more offensive responsibilities. New additions of Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase, with aforementioned Bunting offer the Leafs and coach Keefe some depth and different looks depending on the opponent on any given night.
The addition of Petr Mrazek will help in goal and offer incumbent goalie Jack Campbell some additional support and help to settle the goaltending situation should Campbell not be able to replicate his performance from last season or find himself out for a stretch with injury. I suspect with a little less of a workload and hopefully a season without a major injury that Campbell can at least sustain similar numbers he had last year.
I also expect to also see growth from players like William Nylander, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Rasmus Sandin. These players are the engine of this team, where they go, so too does the fortune of the Maple Leafs. Seeing Nylander on the penalty kill was one development from camp that I would watch for as the season goes on. As for Marner and Matthews, I’d like to see them really take reigns of this team and have these results extend into the playoffs where both left much on the table. Sandin has shown growth on the defensive side of the game last year, so more of this play can only help to shore up the bottom two on defense where there is a hole left with Bogosian leaving in the offseason. The second power play unit could use a bump too, where his offensive skills can flourish and make the second unit a real threat as well.
Can this be the season that Matthews breaks Rick Vaive’s single season goal record? He has come close in back to back shortened seasons with a full 82 games to reach such a mark, I am positive that we will have a new franchise record set this season.
I also know there is some concern about returning back into the Atlantic Division with Tampa, Boston and the emerging Panthers for example with Montreal, Ottawa, Detroit and Buffalo trailing behind. I am not too concerned. This is a division that the Leafs have competed against in the past, for me the only competition comes from the two-time Stanley Cup winners Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins. With that said, those teams have seen some serious subtractions from their roster that could really make the top of the Atlantic Division a race all year.
Tampa lost their entire ultra-successful third line with Gourde, Goodrow and Coleman leaving via expansion draft and free agency respectively. Boston saw Krejci decide to return back to Europe, Rask will be injured to start the year, Montreal lost Weber all season and Jesperi Kotkaniemi to an offer-sheet to the Hurricanes, Florida will be a question mark as they too have disappointed for large stretches and finally teams like Ottawa, Detroit, Buffalo all in different stages of their rebuilds should open a path for the Leafs in where they could finish top two in the division this upcoming season.
But with all this said, the real determination of success this season will come next April and how this team fairs in the playoffs. The next 82 games will be grueling as we wait for the playoffs to start, but the real signs of progress will be made in the style of play the Leafs commit to.
For the Leafs to have a successful season and to shatter the playoff ceiling they seem to hit every year, they will have to commit to the pillars of success their rivals the Tampa Bay Lightning have which is a strong commitment to team defence, a willingness to do things that feel uncomfortable and to sacrifice some of the offence to play a more complete game. The other area that will need to improve from last season is on the Power Play. The team started like gangbusters last season on the Power Play and then saw it go dry for the back half of the season into the playoffs.
If they can commit to playing a more complete game up and down the line-up, if the Leafs top guns can keep a sustained level of success on the power play with some lucky bounces along the way as well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Leafs win the Atlantic Division and finally go on a run in the playoffs next spring.
I guess one final thought to close out the first blog of this upcoming season is to enjoy the ebbs and flows of the marathon that is the NHL regular season as I am sure there will be a lot of surprises along the way to what will be a season to remember and finally GO LEAFS GO!!