Can Matthews, Maple Leafs finally make a big playoff run?

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In an ESPN interview partially promoting his NHL 22 cover role, Auston Matthews touched on recent Maple Leafs’ playoff torment. While Matthews admitted the Maple Leafs’ playoff disappointments keep hitting “harder,” he pictures the joy of getting over that hurdle.

“The only way is forward,” Matthews told Greg Wyshynski. “[The playoff loss] sucked. There’s no other way to put it. Extremely disappointing. But it’ll just feel that much better when we eventually get to the top.”

Following that up, Matthews seemed pleased to point out that, for the most part, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas stuck with the core.

From a volume standpoint, the Maple Leafs will look different. The electrons changed instead of the neutrons, though.

A lot can change between Saturday, Aug. 21 and when the Maple Leafs hope to begin a run in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. There are even nightmare scenarios where the Maple Leafs miss the playoffs altogether.

But let’s (dangerously) assume that the Maple Leafs make it to the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Which factors are most likely to make-or-break a playoff run? Which external factors changed? Where do the Maple Leafs need to improve from within?

Let’s break down a number of factors. What needs to go right/could go wrong as the Maple Leafs hope to finally wake up from their long playoff nightmare?

Maple Leafs must shake off losses of Hyman, Andersen

Again, accounting for every Maple Leafs offseason addition and subtraction might feel dizzying.

It’s most likely to boil down to two factors: a key change in net, and ripple effects revolving around losing Zach Hyman.

Goalie change: Andersen out, Mrazek in

Considering how last season ended, it’s not surprising that Frederik Andersen is no longer with the Maple Leafs.

For years, Andersen was a remarkable workhorse for the Maple Leafs. Maybe that workload took its toll? From 2016-17 through 2018-19, Andersen tied Devan Dubnyk for the most games played (192), faced easily the most shots in the NHL (6,221), and delivered impressive results (107 wins [third overall] and a sturdy .918 save percentage).

Things slipped in 2019-20 (.909 save percentage, -0.4 Goals Saved Above Average), then the bottom really fell out last season (.895 save percentage, -8.5 GSAA, just 24 games played).

 

While Andersen went from reliable-and-sturdy to perhaps a steady decline, Mrazek’s trajectory is even harder to trace.

[2021 NHL Free Agency Tracker]

For years, it wasn’t even clear that Mrazek would truly find a steady NHL job. (At least as anything more than a backup.)

Mrazek flourished this past season with the Hurricanes, generating a .923 save percentage … albeit in just 12 regular-season games. The “book” on Mrazek is that he’s a goalie of extremes: his highs are high, yet his lows can be quite low. That might explain his career turbulence, and meshes reasonably with a solid-but-unspectacular career save percentage of .911 in 275 games.

Strangely, the Hurricanes and Maple Leafs essentially “traded” Mrazek and Andersen.

While it’s easy to understand Toronto moving on from Andersen, Mrazek’s contract (especially a three-year gamble) opens up more debate.

Neither Mrazek nor Jack Campbell have ever really put up No. 1 goalie numbers, at least when it comes to workload. The Maple Leafs’ goaltending hopes rest on a tandem with flashes of brilliance, but bumpy paths through the NHL. Toronto’s netminding duo is tough to forecast, even by the cloudy standards of NHL goalies.

Maple Leafs may struggle to replace Hyman

Did Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner boost Zach Hyman’s counting stats? Almost definitely, but Hyman also almost certainly made life easier for that dynamic (waits for “until the playoffs”) duo.

 

Between Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase, Michael Bunting, and maybe some other wild card (Josh Ho-Sang? Nicholas Robertson?), the Maple Leafs boast a lot of options, post-Hyman. None of them seem like seamless replacements, though.

Perhaps it would be best to accept a drop-off on that top line, while hoping for better things elsewhere?

Being that they’re all 25 years old, the Maple Leafs mostly went young with supporting cast tweaks in Ritchie, Kase, and Bunting. (Ho-Sang, intriguing despite a long stint in hockey purgatory, is also somehow just 25.)

That translates to a younger group, and with the addition of David Kampf, the Maple Leafs might be more versatile. As Jonas Siegel explained in great detail at The Athletic (sub required), the Maple Leafs may feel less-forced to wedge Alexander Kerfoot into a center spot. Players like Kase and Ritchie could fall into any number of alignments. Kase and Ritchie even often played on the same line during their Ducks days.

So, the Maple Leafs could weather the storm of losing Hyman, possibly by committee. Hyman will likely be missed, but Toronto hopes to limit that damage.

Could a Maple Leafs playoff push boil down to luck?

It’s human nature to want to control things. Enough talk of “random luck” might drive someone to existentialism and/or nihilism.

So, a lot of people won’t want to hear about luck, especially when it comes to the Maple Leafs’ playoff woes. But hockey is still a very fluke-friendly sport. Just look at the Lightning, who were shocked by a first-round sweep (including an unlikely Nikita Kucherov suspension, and an injured Victor Hedman) only to become repeat Stanley Cup champions.

Credit the Lightning for blocking out calls to panic. We’ve discussed Maple Leafs’ changes, but the big picture remains similar.

To some extent, they simply need more from Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in a potential playoff push. Some luck wouldn’t hurt, either, though.

  • For a top-heavy team, losing John Tavares was indeed pretty rough.

Yes, that exposes major flaws of the Maple Leafs’ structure. They weren’t able to dynamically change that during the offseason. That plan could look a lot better if Tavares’ line could take some of the heat off of Marner and Matthews, however.

  • Jake Muzzin‘s quietly been one of the Maple Leafs’ best defensemen since joining. Losing him during both playoff runs seems like extra-bad luck.

(That said, as an aging player, Muzzin isn’t immune to more injuries. Health isn’t always fair.)

One big factor: competition

When you can’t even win a playoff series, excuses only mean so much. The Maple Leafs’ playoff hopes might boil down to who they face, though.

  • After losing Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Tyler Johnson, and others, will the Lightning take a step back? (Their ability to endlessly unearth gems makes that a dangerous thing to count on.)
  • Yes, the Bruins brought back Taylor Hall. They lost David Krejci and will at least begin the season without Tuukka Rask, so they could be vulnerable.
  • Are the Canadiens and/or Panthers for real, or did one or both teams ride a wave of flukes?
  • It’s probably too early to expect big growth from other Atlantic Division teams … right?

On paper, the Atlantic Division looks daunting, at least at the top level. There’s a scenario where the Maple Leafs do a lot right, yet they fall to a strong team in a 2/3 seed first-round series, anyway. That scenario is as cruel as it is feasible.

Yet, there’s some room for luck to go Toronto’s way. The Lightning have piled up a lot of wear-and-tear, and much of their core is getting older. One can only imagine the groans of agony if the Maple Leafs draw the Bruins again … but slippage is possible for Boston.

[Bruins won’t have Krejci this season]

Even a tough scenario could be a blessing in disguise. What if the Maple Leafs fall to a wild-card spot, but one outside of the Atlantic bracket?

If that happened, they could test their offseason of changes in an especially dramatic way: maybe facing their pal Frederik Andersen and the Hurricanes?

Nothing about this Maple Leafs offseason is likely to drastically change how people feel about their playoff chances. There are plenty of reasons why things might work out, and just about as many counterpoints for continued agony.

It’s the sort of things that might make Maple Leafs fans prefer simulating it all in NHL 22 instead.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.