Maple Leafs open season in Montreal with a lot on the line

By Lucas Casaletto

The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won an NHL playoff round since 2002-03 and haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967. Let’s get all of that out of the way.

The Leafs will open the new season on the road in Montreal against the Canadiens with a lot on the line. Sure, the regular season matters, but it’s all about the playoffs for Toronto. Should everything go according to plan — the Leafs are one of the league’s best teams on paper — they will exorcise their playoff demons and win at least one round.

But we’re talking about Toronto.

The Maple Leafs have qualified for six-straight playoff rounds, dating back to Mike Babcock’s second year coaching the team. Every time, a first-round exit ensued. Stop me now if you have heard this before, but this time, this year, it should be different.

Toronto played well enough against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round last season despite losing in Game 7. A loss is a loss, and it won’t matter until the Leafs win, but there were many positives to take from that series, notably the performances of a few key players.

With some roster turnover and one of the best first lines in hockey, the Maple Leafs are all in for a Cup. Here is what you need to know as the Maple Leafs embark on a new season.

GM Kyle Dubas’ job is on the line

Dubas has taken a lot of heat during his tenure as Maple Leafs general manager. That comes with the territory in a hockey market such as this, but Dubas’ analytically predominant view of the game of hockey hasn’t satisfied all Toronto fans.

Dubas enters the new season in the last year of his contract. For a team that has qualified for the playoffs every year under his watch, you may question why that is, but as mentioned, the only thing that will count as a successful season in Toronto is a playoff series win.

Kyle Dubas

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas. Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS.

“We are an organization that preaches accountability. In my position, I don’t view myself as any different. In fact, I think I have to be held the most accountable,” Dubas said a few weeks ago. “With that said, I fully expect to be judged on the full body of my work over the five-year term of my contract. I have zero issues with being evaluated over the entire body of work here.”

The 36-year-old executive has done an admirable job in the role. He came through on a promise to extend his big three stars: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. He lured John Tavares to Toronto. He’s hit on a few free agents, namely Michael Bunting, David Kämpf, Jason Spezza and T.J. Brodie, and hired a good head coach in Sheldon Keefe.

There have been some misses — the Nazem Kadri trade, Petr Mrazek signing and the acquisition of Nick Foligno, to name a few — but overall, Maple Leafs fans should be confident in Dubas. Whether he sticks around is a question for another day.

New faces in key places

Goalies Jack Campbell and Mrazek are out, and Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov are in. Much was made about Dubas’ decision to let Campbell walk and replace him with Murray — a goalie that has struggled in recent years.

The risk is there with Murray, but his prior track record in Pittsburgh leaves some hope for a rebound. He’ll battle with Samsonov, a goalie with a tremendous pedigree that hasn’t quite lived up to the billing. Only 25 (he’ll be 26 in February), Samsonov could push for more starts if his play improves behind a solid Maple Leafs team defense.

We’ll soon find out if Dubas’ big bet on the Murray-Samsonov tandem improves on the Campbell-Mrazek one.

The goalies aren’t the only new faces in Toronto. Dubas and the front office did a good job shoring up the bottom six by replacing Ilya Mikheyev, Spezza (retired), and Ondrej Kase with Nicolas Aubé-Kubel, Calle Järnkrok, Zach Aston-Reese and Denis Malgin.

Aubé Kubel is coming off a Stanley Cup win with the Avalanche, while both Järnkrok and Aston Reese bring experience and two-way play to Toronto. Malgin was terrific throughout the pre-season and earned a spot on the initial roster after coming over from Switzerland.

2019 Maple Leafs second-round draft pick Nicholas Robertson, who also performed well well in pre-season play, should also get an extended look this season.

Can Tavares still play at a high level?

The Leafs’ captain enters the new season coming off an oblique injury that has sidelined him for a few weeks. He’s expected to play in Wednesday’s opener in Montreal.

Now 32 years old, Tavares’ play has been under a microscope of late due to what has been perceived as a decline in his play.

This is still a player that finished with 76 points in 79 games a year ago. He also added six points in seven playoff games.

Toronto Maple Leafs' John Tavares

Toronto Maple Leafs captain and centre John Tavares. Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS.

While a slowdown is to be expected at age 32, hockey data analyst and writer with The Athletic, Dom Luszczyszyn, says Tavares is still a more than adequate player in this league.

“Aging curves point to players peaking in their early-to-mid 20s before trending down in their late 20s and declining more rapidly in their 30s. At 32, Tavares is unquestionably in that downswing,” Luszczyszyn writes.

“But even after what many would point to as a disappointing year because he couldn’t finish his chances consistently enough, Tavares is still producing at the rate of a low-end first-line center at almost a point-per-game pace, with positives below the surface.”

Luszczyszyn adds that Tavares is still one of the best second centres in hockey that will take him as far as his linemates go, which will likely include Nylander and a mix of Alex Kerfoot, Robertson and Jarnkrok.

Will the defense hold up?

Morgan Rielly is still one of the league’s better overall defenceman, while Brodie has been an anchor since joining Toronto’s blue line as a free agent. But there is still some uncertainty on the back end.

Jake Muzzin, who turns 34 in February, missed a significant portion of last season with multiple concussions. Back issues have also popped up of late. It might be unrealistic to expect a full year of Muzzin logging heavy minutes.

Timothy Liljegren and depth defenceman Jordie Benn are both dealing with injuries and open the season on long-term injured reserve. That will mean more minutes for Rasmus Sandin and 39-year-old Mark Giordano, who re-signed with Toronto this offseason. Justin Holl will also fill a void for now.

It remains to be seen who will be the odd man out once Liljegren is healthy. The cap-crunched Maple Leafs will likely need to move on from someone via trade. As a result, Holl, a right-handed defenceman earning $2 million this year, could be dealt.

Muzzin’s minutes will likely be monitored during the grind of the regular season.

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