2021 TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: TIME TO CASH IN
Source: The Canadian Press/Chris Young
Coming off of three straight 1st Round exits, the Toronto Maple Leafs 2019/20 campaign ended in disappointment after an up and down year. In the bubble, their season ended in a 5-game “play-in” series, falling in 5 games to the Columbus Blue Jackets. While we will never know what would have happened had the season ended normally, the Leafs still had the same bad habits when they returned from the pandemic layoff.
Blown leads, sloppy defensive play in front of the sure-handed Freddy Andersen, bad turnovers, and just being too easy to score against were all daggers to the Leafs cup hopes. There is no question of whether they have the firepower up front, they are as stacked as any team in the entire NHL, but it is disturbing for all of us in Leaf Nation when you have one of the top 10 goalies in the league and somehow still manage to finish with one of the worst goals against in the league.
With that said, is this the year the Leafs are finally going to cash in on all that promise?
Hyman – Matthews – Nylander
Kerfoot – Tavares – Marner
Mikheyev – Thornton – Simmonds
Vesey – Spezza – Engvall
ALSO: Robertson, Boyd, Anderson, Barabanov
(These would be the forward lines if I were the coach)
When I say they have the firepower up front and are as good as any team in the league, I’m not kidding. The 1-2 punch at center with Matthews and Tavares along with the 1-2 punch at right wing of Marner and Nylander is second to none. There is a lot of the criticism surrounding this core of players, mainly due to their 40 Million Dollar price tag, but these four guys are the engine that drives this bus that is today’s Toronto Maple Leafs.
These core four have the ability to score in bunche, orchestrate a deadly power play, and just be difference makers. However, what they needed was some different type of players around them, and not too much of the same style of skilled forwards on all four lines. By adding the likes of Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds and Jimmy Vesey they have added size, strength and veteran leadership.
In my opinion, Keefe needs to leave the top guys on the first two lines to do what they do; it is (and has always been) important to mix in some bigger, stronger, veteran players on the 3rd and 4th lines to be able to help protect leads and have tougher penalty-killing units.
Rielly – Brodie
Muzzin – Holl
Dermott – Bogosian
ALSO: Lehtonen, Sandin, Liljegren
(These would be the defence pairs if I were the coach)
On an annual basis this area of the team always proves to be the weakest. Although, they do have a legitimate #1 defenseman in Morgan Rielly, his surrounding cast has always come into question. It's no coincidence the Leafs are usually at the bottom of the league in terms of goals against, and always seem to struggle keeping the puck out of the back of their own net.
However, bringing in the likes of T.J. Brodie, Zach Bogosian, and re-upping Jake Muzzin gives Toronto more size, strength and veteran experience back there. They have the offense, but these signings are a step in the right direction. It is part of a culture of the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise that they will need to clean up if they ever want to go on a deep playoff run and win the big one.
For the past few years now Freddie Andersen has kept the team in games and single-handedly won them games on many different occasions. He's been the best player on the team at any position, the 1st star of the game and the MVP. What he has failed to do is advance the team beyond the 1st round of the playoffs, and while that may be entirely his fault, he enters the final year of his contract with a lot to prove.
Behind him will be Jack Campbell. Campbell should allow Andersen to get more rest, and is someone who can definitely hold his own when called upon. This position, like scoring up front, is a major strength of this team and they will need them to be at their best given their style of play; And with Mr. Andersen looking for a new contract, that may be exactly what he and the team needs right now.
BUILT TO LAST
There is no question that this is a team is built to contend on an annual basis and could ultimately win the Stanley Cup. Drafting Morgan Rielly with the 5th overall pick in 2012, William Nylander with the 8th overall pick in 2014, Mitch Marner with the 4th overall pick in 2015, and of course Auston Matthews with the #1 pick in 2016. Add in Liljegren in 2017 and Rasmus Sandin at in 2018, it's obvious the Leafs have done their job at collecting young talent.
Oh and don’t forget there’s Captain John Tavares, a #1 overall pick in 2009. I know they didn't draft him, but how many teams have we seen roster two superstar centres on the same team like Matthews-Tavares?
In my lifetime that I’ve ever seen I can count them all on one hand, mostly from the past; Gretzky-Messier, Lemieux-Francis, Sakic-Forsberg, Yzerman-Fedorov, and of course in recent times Crosby-Malkin. That’s it. If I’m missing any since the 1980’s by all means, please feel free to let me know.
HAVING A UNIQUE ADVANTAGE
It's a tough thing to say, but COVID has made the Leafs lives easier (from a playing standpoint). Why? 56 games or 2/3 of a normal regular season means less fatigue for starting goalie Freddy Andersen, an All-Canadian division means they can get to at least the Conference Finals without having to worry about the Boston or Tampa Bay, and a flat salary cap has forced a lot of veteran free agents to make tough decisions and sign for less.
Being the world’s largest hockey team, they can attract players who are home-grown in Ontario (Thornton, Simmonds, re-signing an RFA like Dermott) for cheap. Adding quality veteran players for the same cap hit as your average minor leaguer is an advantage that is unique to this team that you may not see anywhere else.
TIME TO CASH IN: THE WINDOW TO WIN
If the Toronto Maple Leafs do not win the Stanley Cup this year it won't be the end of the world – but it would be a blown opportunity for the reasons I have stated above. With the core that they have in place, this Leafs team is going to be a contender for the next several years, especially for the 1st half of this decade between now and 2025. If it was ever the time for this franchise to win it all for the first time in over 50 years, now is the time. But whether it’s this year, next year or whichever year in the 2020’s – it’s time to cash in. Drop the puck and let’s Go!!!