By: Evan Brown
2021 has already seen many all-time streaks broken in the world of sports. The Browns and Bills both made the playoffs and won playoff games. The Patriots didn’t make the playoffs after losing Tom Brady. Even the New York Mets are projected to end their long stretch of losing seasons. Why not add another historic franchise to that mix? While the Toronto Maple Leafs likely won’t be ending their Stanley Cup drought that’s lasted since 1967, this could be the year they at least win a round in the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Here’s what to look forward to now that this 2021 season is finally underway:
Offseason Grade: A-
The Leafs didn’t go out and have the best offseason, however, Kyle Dubas did a great job of getting this team cap compliant and addressing their needs. Unfortunately, it cost him Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson in the process although the 15th overall pick (Rodion Amirov) and Joey Anderson (depth forward) is a decent return. Overall, looking at who Dubas got this offseason, he did what he set out to do: make the Leafs harder to play against. It’s hard to argue that he didn’t do that and silence a few of the many complaints about this team.
“We need toughness, grit, and leadership!” How does Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds sound? “Slow,” you might respond, which, yes, they are but they’re also effective. They will bring grit, heart and veteran leadership on cheap deals for the blue & white.
“The defence is too weak!” Dubas went out and signed T.J. Brodie for four years, along with veteran Stanley Cup winner Zach Bogosian and promising KHL D-man Mikko Lehtonen. Brodie is guaranteed to be on a pair with Rielly which is an upgrade over any other pair Rielly has been on, and the other two will battle it out all season for ice time.
Kyle Dubas had to do a lot of gymnastics to work around their cap situation and managed to fill in the holes that have been evident over the past few years which is kudos to him. Now this team isn’t perfect by any means (Goaltending is a question mark, special teams have to be better, etc.) but it’s better than what it was and that’s thanks to Dubas and company.
Key Storyline to Watch: Depth (Finally) & Improved Stars
It’s been a while since we’ve seen a Leafs team as deep as this. Sheldon Keefe has many tools he can use in his first full season as head coach.
Forward wise, the big guns will always be there and hopefully continue to perform at an elite level but it’s the mix of vets and young guns that will be interesting to follow. Guys like Thornton, Simmonds and Spezza will act as tough leaders who will do anything for the team, truly making this team harder to play against which was the motto of the offseason. Whereas new, fresh faces like exciting rookie Nick Roberston, gritty Alexander Barabanov and intelligent Jimmy Vesey will have to prove themselves and earn their ice time.
On D, the Leafs see eight NHL ready potential starters this year. Young Rasmus Sandin and Travis Dermott will serve as spark plugs for a kick of speed and offense on the bottom pair. Veteran Zach Bogosian will bring some Stanley Cup experience and “you don’t wanna mess with me” attitude. And Mikko Lehtonen is an intriguing piece who will have to show his ability to transition to North American ice after being the KHL’s top scoring defenceman last year. With any luck, all this depth means this won’t be another year where we see more Martin Marincin (sorry Marty).
Auston Matthews & Mitch Marner will also be key this season because of their new improvements to their games. Matthews will be a part-time penalty killer this season and will focus on not only his elite scoring touch but also his two-way game. To be one of the best centers in the league you have to do it on both ends of the ice and Matthews has that potential. Opposite to Matthews, Marner will be shooting more this year. His elite shot has never been used to its full potential and on a line with Matthews and Thornton, this is the perfect year for Mitch to do that.
In conclusion, depth will be the name of the game for the Leafs this season and with a global pandemic, shortened season and shortened training camp, all factors combined it’ll have to be all hands on deck in this unique year but Toronto’s big stars have to show up as well and continue to improve.
Division Rank: 1st in North
Ceiling: Stanley Cup Final
Floor: First-round exit
Prediction: Conference Finals
Final Thoughts: The Canadian Division will be tough but Dubas has added the right pieces and addressed the complaints. All that’s left is to go out and do it. If this team can reach its full potential, they should run their division and at least win a round. If not, they are at least a solid playoff team that is more built for the playoffs than ever before. It’s go time.