The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. We’ll examine best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Toronto Maple Leafs.
2020-21 Season Review
• Record: 35-14-7 (77 points) first place in North Division
• Postseason: Lost in First Round to Montreal Canadiens in seven games.
• Offensive leader: Mitch Marner (55 games, 20 goals, 47 assists, 67 points)
• Free Agent Additions: Ondrej Kase, David Kampf, Michael Bunting, Petr Mrazek
• Free Agent Subtractions: Zach Hyman (Edmonton Oilers), Joe Thornton (Florida Panthers), Frederik Andersen (Carolina Hurricanes), Alex Galchenyuk (Arizona Coyotes)
Biggest question facing the Toronto Maple Leafs?
• Is Jack Campbell for real?
Campbell took over the Maple Leafs’ crease late last season and put together a 17-3-2 run to close out the regular season and then played great in their First Round loss to the Canadiens. He played so well that Toronto was content to let Frederik Andersen leave in free agency (Hurricanes) and will go ahead with Campbell and Petr Mrazek (signed from Carolina) in goal. Both goalies will play a lot, but there is a great deal of pressure for Campbell to at least come close to repeating what he did a year ago.
He has shown flashes of potential throughout his NHL career but is entering his age 30 season and never been more than a backup.
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If he can consistently play at that level the Maple Leafs will be in good shape when it comes to contending. If he does not it creates a pretty big question mark at the most important position. Mrazek is a solid safety net, but they might need more than just him.
What’s the salary cap situation?
It is pretty well known that Toronto’s salary cap situation is tight given the major contracts to their core players — Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares. They are pressed to the cap ceiling and have to find ways to piece together complementary players around them. That sort of salary cap structure can absolutely work, and has worked on pretty much every Stanley Cup winning team in the salary cap era.
They have three $10 million players in Matthews, Marner, and Tavares. Nylander makes just over $6 million.
Their next big contract is going to have to be defenseman Morgan Rielly, if they want to keep him. That might take some maneuvering to get him re-signed. If the Maple Leafs lose early in the playoffs again you can be certain that at least one member of the core is going to be traded, so that would certainly create some additional room if it gets to that point.
The Maple Leafs are not really a young team anymore and most of their young players have already had their breakout season. Sandin seems like the next logical candidate if he can secure a spot on the blue line. The 2018 first-round pick has appeared in 37 games so far in his career and still has a ton of potential. The hope is that he can blossom into a top-four defender in short order to not only help improve the defense, but perhaps be a long-term replacement for Rielly if the Maple Leafs can not get him re-signed.
It is simple. The best-case scenario here is Campbell and Mrazek are able to solidify the goalie position and everything comes together for them in the playoffs and they finally accomplish something and win a round, something they have not done since the 2003-04 season. Time is running out for this core, coaching staff, and front office and it can no longer be acceptable to simply make the playoffs and lose in the First Round. They are now more than six years into this thing with this group and all they have to show for it is five First Round exits. That is ridiculous given the talent level of this team. They have to do something meaningful.
Honestly, it would be doing what they always do — finish in third place in the Atlantic Division and lose in the First Round of the playoffs. That might be a boring analysis, but this is the last thing Maple Leafs fans — or the Maple Leafs front office and organization — wants to see.
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.