29
Photo Credit: (L-R) Richard Lautens/Toronto Star; NHL.com; Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports. Graphic by Mike Gould.

Know the North: Toronto Maple Leafs 2021 Season Preview

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas spent the off-season tinkering with the supporting cast of his roster after it bowed out of the 2020 playoffs at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the qualifying round.

With many of his moves, Dubas prioritized experience, toughness, and salary flexibility. He traded Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson to fit under the cap, replacing them with a committee of reclamation projects and breakout candidates. He added Joe Thornton, one of the oldest players in the league, and evoked one of his predecessors by signing the truculent duo of Wayne Simmonds and Zach Bogosian.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Of course, Dubas’ biggest acquisition of the summer came at the expense of the Calgary Flames. We’ll dig deeper into TJ Brodie’s move to Toronto, and how the Flames could get their revenge against the Leafs in the North Division, down below.

Toronto Maple Leafs

2019-20: 36-25-9 (3rd Atlantic, 8th Eastern)

Captain: John Tavares

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Coach: Sheldon Keefe

General Manager: Kyle Dubas

Key additions: F Joe Thornton, F Wayne Simmonds, F Travis Boyd, F Jimmy Vesey, F Joey Anderson, F Alexander Barabanov, D TJ Brodie, D Mikko Lehtonen, D Zach Bogosian, G Aaron Dell, G Michael Hutchinson

Key departures: F Kasperi Kapanen, F Andreas Johnsson, F Kyle Clifford, D Tyson Barrie, D Cody Ceci

Morgan Rielly finally has his partner. In Brodie, the Leafs brought in a player who showed in his long tenure with Calgary that he could help make his teammates better on a consistent basis.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Brodie spent parts of 10 seasons with the Flames, most notably playing as Mark Giordano’s partner during the Flames captain’s Norris Trophy season in 2018-19.

“When you look at Morgan Rielly’s career since he was drafted by the Leafs and came up to the Leafs, he’s been played with subpar partners,” said Nick DeSouza, a contributor at TheLeafsNation.com. “Rielly’s always kind of had to carry the load in terms of puck-moving and doing anything offensively. I wouldn’t say Brodie is an offensive defenseman by any stretch of the imagination but I do think he can hold his own in both ends of the ice.”

Still, Brodie is just one new piece in a revamped Maple Leafs defensive group. Even beyond the Jake Muzzin/Justin Holl unit, which DeSouza characterized as a “great shutdown pair,” the Leafs have depth with upside at the position.

At this point, the Leafs’ third pairing looks to be made up of two new faces. Zach Bogosian is a familiar entity in the NHL, having toiled through long tenures with the Atlanta Thrashers, Winnipeg Jets, and Buffalo Sabres before his Stanley Cup win with Tampa Bay in the bubble.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Meanwhile, Mikko Lehtonen is a big question mark. He’ll be 27 on Jan. 16 but he’s never played a professional game in North America, having spent much of the last decade playing on Finnish pro teams in various leagues—most recently, the KHL.

“It is a little difficult to get a read [on] how KHLers come over to the NHL. I know that a lot of people were excited about Nikita Zaitsev a few years ago and then he came over here and didn’t really impress in the top-four,” said DeSouza. “I think things are different this year with Mikko Lehtonen. There’s not really a clear avenue or a need for him to play in the top-four this year with the Leafs. I think he’s going to be on that third pairing. I think he’s going to really cement himself.

“It’s not a bad thing to have over-qualified players in your third pair. I just think that when it comes to that depth, they have some different looks,” DeSouza added. “With Zach Bogosian, as well, I know the Leafs want to get a much better penalty kill, something they’ve really struggled with in the past. If you can have Zach Bogosian to go onto that penalty kill, then I think it would help them.”

Up front, the Leafs’ “big four” persists, with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander all sprinkled between the team’s top two lines. In 2019-20, Matthews nearly became the fourth Maple Leaf ever to score 50 goals in a season, recording 47 in just 70 games.

The Leafs’ top offensive star will have a legendary playmaker on his line to begin the 2020-21 season: long-time San Jose Shark and NHL 2K7 cover model Joe Thornton. “Jumbo Joe” has 1,089 career assists to his name and could add a lot more to that total if he sticks around next to the Leafs’ elite sniper.

Another new veteran face in the forward corps? Wayne Simmonds, who will be looking to rebound after battling through a strange 2019-20 season. Once one of the league’s most feared power forwards, Simmonds has taken a couple of steps back in recent seasons but he could be key in helping the Leafs compete physically against the likes of Milan Lucic and Josh Anderson.

Then, there’s the Leafs’ duo of Russian wingers. Ilya Mikheyev enjoyed a successful transition to the NHL in his rookie season last year, posting eight goals and 23 points in 39 games before suffering a wrist injury that ended his regular season. North American newcomer Alexander Barabanov will likely find himself slotted directly behind Mikheyev as the team’s fourth-line left wing; Barabanov shares agents with Mikheyev and showed great offensive ability in his KHL career with SKA St. Petersburg.

In short, the Leafs have a lot of options up front. As DeSouza noted, versatility will be important in a “random,” shortened season, particularly with the taxi squad involved.

“The Leafs have so much NHL depth this year,” said DeSouza. “Last year, when the Leafs ran into injuries, their bottom-six wasn’t pretty on many nights. So, when you have guys like Pierre Engvall and Nick Robertson kind of as your thirteenth and fourteenth forwards, ready to come in, I think that’s a good thing for this year.”

Coming off his worst NHL season, Frederik Andersen will have something to prove in 2020-21. He’s entering the final year of his contract before he hits unrestricted free agency and he has a recently-acquired backup in Jack Campbell who will undoubtedly be pushing for starts.

The Maple Leafs acquired Campbell from the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 5, 2020. He has a career .916 save percentage in 62 games and is under contract until the summer of 2022. But Andersen is entering his fifth season as the Leafs’ starter and will need to rebound for the Leafs to remain consistently competitive.

“Goaltending matters a lot in a regular season, and especially in a shortened season,” said DeSouza. “When it comes to Andersen, he’s been one of the most consistent goalies over the last couple of years. He’s always been riding around .917, .918 in his save percentage and then, last year, it was down to around .908, .909.

“I’m sure management is just hoping that’s an outlier when you look at his whole career. He can bounce back and I think it’s in his best interest considering it’s in a contract year,” DeSouza added.

DeSouza agreed that the Maple Leafs are the main contender for the North, er, “Scotia North” Division crown, owing largely to their top-six up front and their restructured top-four on defense. But he also identified some of the Leafs’ main competition for that first place spot.

“The main competition I would say for the first place would definitely be Calgary, and I’m not just saying that,” said DeSouza. “They obviously lost TJ Brodie. I did like the signing of Chris Tanev, we’ll see if he can stay healthy this year.

“The other team I would say is Montreal. I just think that they’re a really well-coached team. Last year, they, in terms of things like expected goals differential, they were very good, one of the best teams in the whole league. They outplayed teams every single night.” DeSouza added. “This year, their depth, especially forward depth, is looking really good.”

Projected Lineup:

Joe Thornton Auston Matthews Mitch Marner
Jimmy Vesey John Tavares William Nylander
Ilya Mikheyev Alex Kerfoot Zach Hyman
Alexander Barabanov Jason Spezza Wayne Simmonds
Nick Robertson Pierre Engvall
Morgan Rielly TJ Brodie
Jake Muzzin Justin Holl
Mikko Lehtonen Zach Bogosian
Travis Dermott
Frederik Andersen (starter) Jack Campbell

Projected Taxi Squad:

F Kenny Agostino F Travis Boyd F Nic Petan
D Calle Rosen D Martin Marincin G Aaron Dell