After 54 years is this finally “The Season!”

SUNRISE, FL - APRIL 10: Two Toronto Maple Leafs fans wearing paper bags over their heads watch third period action against the Florida Panthers at the BB&T Center on April 10, 2014 in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers defeated the Maple Leafs 4-2. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

It has been 54 years since the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs hoisted the NHL’s holy grail. Not since the original six have they even had a seat in the Stanley Cup finals. They’ve seen many stars come and go and over and over it has been the same thing from Leafs fans “this is our year.” The Sittler/McDonald era saw them have hope but three straight ousting’s from the Philadelphia Flyers Broad Street Bullies left the Leaf’s licking their wounds and heading home early after the second round. 1978 they made the conference finals for the first time in 11 years only to be swept by their bitter Rival Montreal Canadians. It wasn’t until 1993 that the Leafs fans had a reason to get excited again. Armed with Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, Dave Andreychuk and Felix the Cat Potvin the Leafs had the perfect combination of offensive skill, grit, and great goaltending. However, the infamous blown call by referee Kerry Frasier, that left Wayne Gretzky out of the penalty box and Doug Gilmour forced to leave the ice because of the blood drawn from a Great One’s high stick still haunts Leafs fans to this day.

Fast Forward to the 2021 Pandemic shortened season and the Leafs being locked in a division with the other 6 Canadian teams, fans were truly believing once again that “this is our year.” With Rocket Richard winner Austin Mathews, dynamic play maker Mitch Marner, solid two-way captain John Tavares and speedy slick handed winger William Nylander up front it was apparent the Leafs had the offensive power to fill the net. Previous years it had always been defence and goaltending woes that had hindered the Leafs playoff hopes, but this year with the additions of T.J. Broadie and Zach Bogosian, along with the solid emergence of Justin Holl to go along with the likes of Morgan Riley and multiple Stanley Cup winner Jake Muzzin, the Leafs were dressing their best defensive core in arguably two decades. With the emergence of Jack Campbell as a legitimate number one goalie Leafs nation wholeheartedly felt that they were poised for a long playoff run. Bare minimum the thought was the Buds would make it out of the North division and be set for a final four showdown. After a quick 3-1 series lead on the Montreal Canadians, Leaf fans were already planning the parade route, and just like so many previous years in Leaf history that is where the wheels fell off. Thanks to strong play by Carey Price and a double tough defence core the Montreal Canadians did the unthinkable and came back to take the next 3 games from the Leafs. With John Tavares being injured in the first few shifts of game 1 and Jake Muzzin leaving in the middle of game 6 with a lower body injury, the supposedly more powerful Maple Leafs were crumbling apart at the seams. Trade deadline acquisition Nick Foligno was non-existent during the series, free agent signings Joe Thorton and Wayne Simmonds didn’t live up to expectations and the ever-powerful offence of Mathews and Marner had all but dried up, only scoring 1 goal between the two of them. Leaf’s fans were once again left stunned and dismayed as they watched their team go down in flames to their archrival Canadians, and there was even more salt put on the wounds as Leaf Nation had to watch the Canadians make their way to the Stanley Cup finals. After the dust had settled and the smoke had cleared like many teams the Leafs headed into the offseason with a plethora of free agents to be signed and only a handful of pennies under the salary cap to sign them. No free agent exit probably hurt more than watching beloved fan favourite Zach Hyman heading west to join Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers. Joe Thorton was showing his age late in the season and is probably better off moving on. Nick Foligno never lived up to his hype due to injury, but what stings the most is the loss of the 1st round pick the Leafs sent to Columbus to acquire him. Alex Galchenyuk who was a reclamation project of sorts actually faired well, and along with William Nylander and Alex Kerfoot lead the Leafs offensive attack during the playoffs. However, he was left unsigned and at the time of this writing is still currently searching for an NHL contract. Bogosian has moved on back to Tampa Bay, removing some much-needed sandpaper from the blueline and Goaltending mainstay Freddy Andersen received an offer a little too rich for the Leafs pocketbooks and has made his way to Carolina. After all the hype and heart Leaf fans had for last year’s playoff run it is hard to feel like the 2021-22 Leaf s are going to be a better team. This offseason was left with only 3 picks in 7 rounds of the draft, and the first one didn’t come until number 57. The prospect pool is running thin, but there are a few who have the potential to make big strides in the NHL this season (I’ll touch on those in future articles) for now let’s look at the offseason free agent signings and see where they may be able to slot into the Leaf’s lineup. A basic who’s out and who’s in from last season to this one. During game 1 of the playoffs last year, the Leafs lineup looked like this.

 Forwards 
  Zach Hyman  Austin Mathews  Mitch Marner
  William Nylander  John Tavares  Nick Foligno
  Ilya Mikheyev  Riley Nash  Alex Kerfoot
  Joe Thorton  Jason Spezza  Wayne Simmonds
   Defence 
  T.J. Brodie   Morgan Riley
  Jake Muzzin   Justin Holl
  Rasmus Sandin   Zach Bagosian
 Goaltenders 
Jack Campbell Freddy Andersen
 Taxi 
Alex GalchenyukPierre EngvallAdam Brooks
Travis Dermott Ben Hutton

The Leafs have not announced their projected line combinations yet but based off who has already solidified themselves in certain roles this how the new look lines could potentially pan out.

 Forwards 
  Michael Bunting  Austin Mathews  Mitch Marner
  William Nylander  John Tavares  Ondrej Kase
  Ilya Mikheyev  David Kampf    Alex Kerfoot
  Nick Ritchie  Jason Spezza  Wayne Simmonds
   Defence 
  T.J. Brodie   Morgan Riley
  Jake Muzzin   Justin Holl
  Rasmus Sandin   Travis Dermott
 Goaltenders 
Jack Campbell Petr Mrazek
 Taxi 
Nick RobertsonPierre EngvallAdam Brooks
Timothy Lijegren ?

I know there could be a ton of different combinations Sheldon Keefe could roll out this year, but just assuming this is the lineup for opening night, things may not be as bad as some may think they seem, including myself. The X factor here is definitely the one responsible for filling the gaping hole on the wing alongside Mathews and Marner that was recently left with the departure of Zach Hyman. As far as the 3rd line centre position goes Kampf is a definite improvement over anyone they have used not named Nazem Kadri in the last 10 years. Ondrej Kase is either going to be boom or bust on the second line with Tavares and Nylander. If he can regain even a smidge of what he was in Anaheim this could be the steal of free agency for the Leaf’s. However, if he remains the injury plagued player we have seen since his venture east to Boston we may see Nick Robertson given the 2nd line opportunities. Nick Ritchie is going to bring some grit and be a more durable addition to the 4th line, although Ritchie does have the potential to be slotted in much higher in the lineup depending on what Keefe has planned. If given the opportunity Ritchie could build off of his career best season from last year and become the player, he was expected to be when drafted 10th overall by the Ducks in 2014. Petr Mrazek is a capable NHL starter who has seen a lot of time in a playoff crease and is the perfect choice to join Jack Campbell in a 1A-1B scenario. Losing Bogosian is definitely going to put more work on Sandin and Lijigren. If there ever was a time for these two to step-up and make their presence known as legit NHLers now is their moment to shine. The depth chart definitely took a hit and if injuries creep in the Leaf’s could be in trouble, but as long as these two prospects can turn potential into regular minutes in the NHL the leafs may not be lacking much on the backend compared to last year, especially if Sandin can turn the corner and become the top pairing minute muncher he is supposed to be. In the grand scheme of things all the lines should project to be better and stronger than they were last season with the exception of one. The first line X factor of Michael Bunting is either going to make Leaf fans sing, or cry in their beer. Hyman was loved he’s not going to be easily forgotten, but if Bunting is capable of contributing at even half the pace, he did with the Arizona Coyote’s last season he will potentially be a 20 plus goal scorer making less than a million dollars a season. If he can chip in physically and bring the intangibles that Hyman possessed this may turn out to be a brilliant signing by Dubas and company. If he fails to deliver on the first line it allows opportunity for Ritchie or Robertson to try and earn their keep in a more prominent role. This version of the Leafs roster may not shout the Heart of Zach Hyman or have the prestige of such names as Thorton or Foligno, but it does carry a lot of we have something to prove players that may just be what the team is looking for to get over the hump this coming season. Kase, Kampf, Bunting and Ritchie may all prove to be worth a lot more than their pay checks are stating, and could be ready to leave Leafs fans once again believing “This is our Year!”  

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