With the start of the 2018–2019 NHL season only days away, it’s time to make one thing crystal clear: the Toronto Maple Leafs are good — in fact, they are very good.
After the team broke the record for franchise wins and points in the 2017–2018 regular season, the Leafs again lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Boston Bruins in game seven of the first round of playoffs.
The offseason saw the departures of Tyler Bozak, James Van Riemsdyk, Leo Komarov, Roman Polak, and older General Manager (GM) Lou Lamoreillo. It also marked the beginning of a new chapter in Leafs history, with the promotion of 32-year-old Kyle Dubas to the GM chair and the acquisition of homecoming superstar centre John Tavares.
Leafs fans will undoubtedly be hoping for this new chapter to end with the hoisting of the Stanley Cup in June, and a parade down Yonge Street.
Tavares joins a team with high hopes for the upcoming season. Auston Matthews is a budding superstar of the league, who, despite dealing with nagging injuries last year, managed to score 34 goals in 62 games. Nazem Kadri is coming off consecutive 30-goal campaigns, and with the majority of opponents focused on shutting down Tavares and Matthews, we can expect Kadri to dominate any matchups he faces.
While the Maple Leafs forward corps is among the most dangerous in the league, their defense is more of a question mark. Boasting 50-point defensemen Morgan Reilly and Jake Gardiner, who is in the final year of his contract, the Leafs have two players who can put up points from the back end.
In the second year of a seven-year extension, Nikita Zaitsev is looking to bounce back after a disappointing sophomore campaign. Ron Hainsey will presumably play as a dependable defenseman as always. The final two spots on the blue line are less clear.
Travis Dermott, Calle Rosén, Connor Carrick, and Igor Ozhiganov are all vying for the the last two spots in the opening lineup. Dermott played in 37 regular season games last year, as well as all seven of their playoff games. He appears to have a leg up on the competition, but as we know with head coach Mike Babcock, nothing is certain.
That leaves one spot up for grabs, and it will likely go to Ozhiganov. The 25-year-old Russian will be an NHL rookie after spending the last few years in the Kontinental Hockey League. Babcock was heavily involved in his recruitment and was happy with his performance in camp this year.
When it comes to goaltending, every Leafs fan’s favourite Dane will be looking to continue his winning ways. Posting 38 wins in the regular season, Frederik Andersen has had historically shaky starts in October. He will no doubt be aiming to change that narrative this season. The backup position will likely find Curtis McElhinney resuming his role as Andersen’s deputy.
So, what should Leafs fans expect from this team? With a handful of players genuinely talented enough to win the scoring race, one of the best coaches in the league behind the bench, and a young GM determined to think outside of the box, the Maple Leafs should find themselves with one of the most potent power-play units — a terror to match up against in a five-on-five and above average in league goaltending.
Seemingly one of the most talented in the entire league, this team has genuine cup-contending aspirations.
The Leafs have failed to make it out of the first round of playoffs in the past two seasons, losing to Boston in seven games last year, and to Washington in six games the year before that. The team was pardoned, chiefly due to their youth and how unexpected their success was. But a first round exit this year would be considered a failure, and rightly so.
The 2018–2019 Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to compete for the Stanley Cup and bring a level of success and excitement that this city has not seen in years.