The 2020-2021 Season
The Toronto Maple Leafs 2020-2021 regular season was a dominant 56 Game stretch where we saw the Leafs win the North Division as the top Canadian Regular Season team and also finished tied for fifth in the NHL with 77 points. Their core players also took major steps to become stars. Auston Matthews won the Rocket Richard Trophy by leading the NHL in goals with 41 in only 52 games, Mitch Marner finished fourth in league scoring with 67 points in 55 games, and William Nylander really showed up and produced in the playoffs scoring five goals in seven games.
Overall the Leafs had a great offensive season as a team, they ranked sixth in the NHL in goals for per game, averaging 3.32. But their defensive play is where they really took that next step as a team. They ranked tied for seventh in goals against per game with a mark of 2.64. The Leafs also allowed the fifth least amount of shots per game with 27.8. The Leafs being outshot was an issue in previous years, so the structure they have been playing with under Sheldon Keefe seems to work.
But, all of this positivity went right out of the window when the Leafs lost in the first round of the playoffs blowing a 3-1 series lead against the Montreal Canadiens. If there was a year for the Leafs to win a playoff round, this was the year. Defensively the Leafs only let in 14 goals in seven games, and they were very solid defensively. But, they didn’t get goals when they needed specifically from Matthews and Marner.
With that being said, there is reason for optimism for this upcoming season. The Leafs best players are still here, they did address the forward depth (TBD if this works), and they have a solid goalie tandem with Campbell and Mrazek. But if they don’t win a playoff round, there could be big changes not only to the team on the ice but with Management and the Coaching Staff.
In this season preview, I will be looking and breaking down each player who is hopeful of making the team this year and providing a hot take for each player. Then I will preview different line combination scenarios that Keefe could go with and provide my final prediction. Enjoy!
Forwards (Games- Goals-Assists-Points)
Auston Matthews (52-41-25-66)
The 2021 Maurice Rocket Richard Trophy winner, Auston Matthews, led the NHL with 41 goals last season. Matthews also finished second in Hart Trophy voting, given to the league’s Most Valuable League. Matthews took a significant step the previous season as a force in the defensive zone and solidified himself as a top- five player in the NHL.
Hot Take: Matthews starts off slow after wrist surgery and fails to reach the 40-goal mark
John Tavares (56-19-31-50)
After focusing on his defensive game in the first half of the season, Tavares took off in the second half of the season. He became a lethal two-way centre who can also really be an offensive force.
Hot Take: Tavares leads the team in goals with 45.
Mitch Marner (55-20-47-67)
Yes, he had an underwhelming playoff, but you cannot look past what he did in the regular season. He ranked fourth in the league in points, all while becoming the team’s top penalty killer. He will overcome his lack of playoff success, and one day we can appreciate Marner more than what this fanbase thinks of him.
Hot Take: Marner ranks top five in Selke Voting and reaches 100 Points.
William Nylander (51-17-25-42)
Nylander had a great regular season and continued that success into the playoffs, where he had eight points in seven games. This year, Nylander should get an opportunity to play on the top powerplay across from Matthews on the left circle to have two shooting threats, which will only help his offensive game.
Hot Take: Nylander leads the NHL in Powerplay goals with 17.
Alexander Kerfoot (56-8-15-23)
It was a struggle for Kerfoot last season as we saw an underwhelming offensive season with only eight goals in 56 games. His Corsi percentage also dropped from 54.5% in 2019-2020 to 47.4% in 2020-2021. This negatively affected Corsi was mostly from Head Coach Sheldon Keefe wanting Kerfoot to become that defensive-minded third-line centre.
Hot Take: Kerfoot continues to struggle and gets traded at the Trade Deadline for that solid top-six forward.
Nick Ritchie (56-15-11-26)
Ritchie signed a two-year contract with an AAV of $2,500,000 this offseason. The Orangeville, Ontario native was rumoured to be selected by the Leafs in the 2014 draft, but luckily the Leafs picked William Nylander. Playing in the top six hopefully, Ritchie can become close to a Hyman replacement to do the dirty work behind the goal line and bang in rebounds in front of the net.
Hot Take: Ritchie takes over perfectly as a Hyman replacement on the first line with Matthews and Marner and scores 25 goals.
Ilya Mikheyev (54-7-10-17)
There have been reports that Mikheyev has requested a trade out of Toronto, which seems very strange. He averaged 14:13 in ice time last season, which seems more than he should be getting. However, Mikheyev is an effective penalty killer and can use his speed to his advantage.
Hot Take: Mikheyev capitalizes more on his chances but is still used in a defensive role and requests a trade out of Toronto by January.
David Kampf (56-1-11-12)
Many fans see this move as a head-scratcher, and rightfully so. Kampf only scored one goal in 56 games last season, but he is a very defensive-minded centre. Last season Kampf had a 52.8% faceoff percentage and started 75.5% of his shifts in the defensive zone. This is the type of player the Leafs need in a fourth-line centre role, occasionally moving up to the third line.
Hot Take: Kampf scores more than one goal this season.
Ondrej Kase (3-0-0-0)
One of the more under-the-radar signings, Kase signed a one-year contract worth $1.25 Million. This can become that low-risk, high reward signing as Kase had a 20 goal season in 2017-2018. But he does have some injury problems, only playing in nine games total the past two seasons. Nevertheless, Kase has the tenacity to get under the skin of opponents.
Hot Take: He finds chemistry with Tavares and Nylander on the Second Line and returns to his 2018-18 form scoring more than 20 goals.
Pierre Engvall (42-7-5-12)
At best, Engvall should be this team’s 13th forward. Barring multiple injuries, Engvall shouldn’t be playing more than fourth-line minutes with some penalty kill. However, he can use his speed to his advantage and can be relied upon defensively if needed.
Hot Take: Engvall is traded for a 5th Round Pick before the start of the season.
Michael Bunting (21-10-3-13)
Bunting came over from the Coyotes this year, signing a two-year deal worth $950,000 per year. The Scarborough native scored ten goals in 21 games last season, riding an absurd 26.3% shooting percentage. There have been rumours that he is starting riding shotgun with Tavares and Nylander.
Hot Take: Bunting becomes a fan favourite as he gets under opponents’ skin and becomes a pest.
Wayne Simmonds (38-7-2-9)
Simmonds had a great start with the Leafs scoring five goals in his first 12 games with the club before injuring his wrist in February. However, Simmonds intangibles are more important to the Leafs than his offensive productions. A problem with the Leafs the past couple of seasons is the bench has been quiet with chirping other teams during the game, and Simmonds brings this element to the team to add some of that Grit and toughness.
Hot Take: Simmonds gets into eleven fights this year.
Nicholas Robertson (6-0-1-1)
Robertson had an outstanding Development Camp. He is too good for junior. I can see him start as the 13th Forward but get a more prominent role in the top nine throughout the season, just like Kapanen and Johnsson did when they got called up.
Hot Take: At the start of the playoffs, Robertson starts on the second line with Tavares and Nylander.
Jason Spezza (54-10-20-30)
For most of the fourth line, Spezza had an excellent season with 30 points in 54 games. Spezza was also very reliable in the faceoff dot, having a 56.9% faceoff percentage. Spezza loves playing in Toronto as he keeps signing for league minimum year after year and should be appreciated more than he is.
Hot Take: He gets a statue outside of Scotiabank Arena for signing at league minimum year after year.
Jake Muzzin (53-4-23-27)
Muzzin has been an absolute stud since coming to the Leafs. He has been that steady force on the backend, which can be relied upon defensively on the penalty kill, against other team’s top lines, and protecting a lead late in a game. An interesting stat is that Muzzin had a +16 in Penalty Minute Differential last season, which is very positive to give the team more powerplay opportunities.
Hot Take: He is named as the last defenceman to make team Canada at the Olympics.
TJ Brodie (56-1-13-14)
The Leafs best 2020 Free Agent Acquisition did not disappoint last season. He was a great two-way defenceman playing with Rielly. Several times last season, Brodie broke up a large amount of 2-1 opportunities last season using his great stick work.
Hot Take: When injuries happen, Brodie gets a powerplay opportunity and thrives in the PP1 role.
Morgan Rielly (55-5-30-35)
The Leafs best offensive defenceman last season, Rielly led the all Leafs defencemen with 6.8 Created xGoals. Rielly also had his highest Corsi of his career at 55.5. With paired up with Brodie, Rielly can take his offensive game to the next level as he knows he has a reliable defensive partner.
Hot Take: Rielly signs a seven-year deal worth $7 Million per season.
Justin Holl (55-2-18-20)
Holl didn’t have the best season last year as he looked better than he is playing with Muzzin. With that being said, he plays very tough minutes against other teams’ top lines and started 57.9% of his shifts in the defensive zone. I want to see Holl use his big 6-4 frame to his advantage, being a pest in front of his own net in the defensive zone.
Hot Take: Holl becomes an underrated offensive threat as he always carries the puck up the ice and uses his big frame to create offensive chances. He scores more than eight goals this year.
Travis Dermott (51-2-4-6)
Playing the majority of last season with Zach Bogosian, Dermott will have to be the more defensive part of the Leafs, likely third pair this season playing with Sandin or Liljeren. Dermott’s biggest issue is he is way too hesitant with the puck. He needs to use his first instinct and do it rather than holding onto the puck too long, which causes issues.
Hot Take: Dermott replaces Bogosian on the Penalty Kill and eventually plays on the top pair with Rielly at even strength.
Rasmus Sandin (9-0-4-4)
This is the year Sandin should play more than 60 games with the Leafs. The Leafs could send him down briefly to the Marlies to increase his confidence, but Sandin should be up at the NHL the whole year. Keefe should give Sandin all the offensive starts as possible to see his offensive potential. I can see Sandin taking an extra shift or two with Rielly in the offensive zone throughout a game.
Hot Take: Sandin starts the season on the Leafs top Powerplay but gets demoted throughout the season.
Timothy Liljegren (2-0-0-0)
At 22 years of age. This can be a make-or-break season for Liljegren. He needs to be given more opportunity with the Leafs playing at least 30 games this year. Then, maybe when the Leafs are playing a weaker opponent, we can see Liljeren and Sandin paired together on the third pair and rush the puck up the ice as much as possible.
Hot Take: Liljegren doesn’t get the chance with the Leafs and is in a package in a trade for a top-six forward.
Goalies (Games-Wins-Losses-Overtime Losses- SV%-GAA)
Petr Mrazek (12-6-2-3-.923-2.06)
The song Hot n’ Cold by Katy Perry is a great way to explain Mrazek’s play. There have been stretches where he can be a #1 starter for a contending team, but there are also instances where he can barely be a #2 starter. But having Mrazek in a tandem situation can provide him with more rest to have more quality starts.
Hot Take: Mrazek is the Game #1 Playoff starter.
Jack Campbell (22-17-3-2-.921-2.15)
Campbell had an outstanding 2020-2021 season. He should be more of the 1A goalie between him and Mrazek, but that can always change. Campbell did run into some injury issues last season, and this is where a tandem situation that can help him not feel the pressure as much to be relied upon as the starting goaltender.
Hot Take: Campbell makes the United States Olympic Team as their third goalie.
Michael Hutchison (8-4-2-1-.919-2.42)
When fans think of Hutchison, there is often a sour taste in their mouth from the 2019-2020 season. But when needed, he was a very solid #3 goalie on the team. He came in and made starts where he kept the Leafs in the game and had a positive winning record. That is more than what you can expect from your #3 goalie.
Hot Take: Hutchison starts more than 15 games this upcoming season.
Projected Line Combinations
BREAKDOWN: I believe this is what Head Coach Sheldon Keefe will start with on the opening night. Our top six groups have two new additions with our core four in Bunting and Ritchie, which can be productive. The new third-line shutdown line with Kampf will be effective in the defensive zone, but I worry about the offensive production. Adding a playmaker in Kase with Spezza and Simmonds can make the fourth line a more offensive threat than previous years. The defensive pairs speak for themselves as this is what they rolled with (without Bogosian) for most of last season.
BREAKDOWN: Taking away that third defensive line gives the Leafs two number-one lines while having a very good third line that can be good offensively. Having Ritchie on his line can be a good thing as he does have a shoot-first mentality- which is why playing with two playmakers with Kase and Kerfoot can be good for his production. As well, the Defense pairs are different. The Rielly-Dermott pair can be the offensive pair, Muzzin-Holl will be the shutdown pair, and the Brodie-Sandin pair will allow Sandin to rush the puck while Brodie can stay back in the play.
BREAKDOWN: This can be an interesting lineup, but ice time allocation is one issue. Moving Nylander down to the third line can limit his ice time which isn’t ideal because you want your best players playing more. But, on the other hand, you now have three quality lines with the offensive threat. Moving Dermott to the top pair with Rielly means they are the offensive pair, Muzzin and Brodie are the shutdown pair, and having Holl there with Sandin allows Sandin more offensive freedom with Holl taking the defensive duties.
3rd in the Atlantic, 102 Points, Lose in Round 3Embed from Getty Images