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HEALTHY SKRATCH: CAN MATTHEWS, MAPLE LEAFS TOP ALL-CANADIAN DIVISION?

Toronto had a good offseason. 

*dodges rotten tomatoes from all sides* 

Yeah, I said it, and I’m pretty sure I’m right too. They addressed their glaring issues with size, grit and leadership without sacrificing much scoring, and they did it without trading one of the Big Four (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and the other guy).  

They’ve improved on D in my estimation, though a lot will be riding on T.J Brodie’s ability to block out the noise and be on his game consistently.

They finally locked up a proven backup goalie in Jack Campbell, and will yet again have one of the NHL’s best in Frederik Andersen leading the crease.  

All in all, I see an improved & revamped roster that significantly boosts the team’s odds at advancing past the first round of the playoffs, though anything short of the Conference Finals will likely fail to quiet calls for a major trade from fans & media.

UP FRONT

I feel the additions of Jimmy Vesey and Wayne Simmonds have significantly more upside than they’re getting credit for, and while I don’t expect either to drop jaws, they’ve been written off as a depth player and a has-been-fourth liner, respectively. 

Vesey’s a guy who’s development has lagged in recent years, but he has the toolkit to be a 20-25 goal scorer and he’ll battle for a spot in the Top 9. 

Maybe Simmonds’ abilities really have fallen off a cliff, but his injury issues and multiple team changes (without finding a good fit) over the past two seasons lead me to believe the 32 year old shouldn’t be written off, especially coming  into this season fully healthy. I think he chips in 30-40 points in a Top 9 role. 

At cap hits of 900k and 1.5m respectively, just being a positive presence in the room and the Bottom 6 would make these signings a win. 

Ditto for Joe Thornton at 700k. He’ll add some much needed leadership to the  club and provide stability & modest offensive production in the Bottom 6. Not a cup winner, but he knows as well as anyone what it takes. 

With Thornton and Spezza locking down the Bottom 6 at centre, I think Alex Kerfoot takes the inside track for the open spot on Tavares’ wing. I like him for a bounce back, whether it’s here or on the third line. 

Last season, Ilya Mikheyev – who loves soup – completed a pass after realizing his wrist had been sliced by Jesper Bratt’s errant skate. He would later find out it sliced his tendon and artery. Call that what you want; impressive, stupid, instinct, but remember that he had 23 points in 39 games as a 25 year old rookie up to that point. 

Are his point totals, love for soup and ability to complete a pass with a severed artery related? Not even a little bit, though feel free to try. I just wanted to bring up all those points at once. He’ll compete for a Top 9 spot on the wing. 

Nick Robertson will be a part of the Top 9 competition as well. He looked promising in four appearances in the play-in round. His advanced stats weren’t pretty, but that’s understandable considering he’s played only four NHL games.

Many have him pencilled in for a Top 6 spot, and expectations are sky high. Let’s see what he can do. I’m expecting a bumpy rookie year with unreasonable scrutiny coming his way. Bold prediction, I know.

Despite the notable losses of Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, I think this offence improves. Marner, Tavares and Zach Hyman all missed a chunk of games to injury last season, with Tavares’ points-per-game taking a dip by season’s end.  

Alexander Kerfoot never seemed to find his footing or expected production levels. Production on the back end fell off. I fully expect this to be a motivated and pissed off forward group, with Matthews and Tavares leading the charge while playing like men possessed.

ON THE BACK END

Morgan Rielly lost over 20 games to injury last season and in turn saw his point production come back down to earth after exploding for 20 goals and 72 points in 2018-2019. Part of that can also be attributed to a change in power play strategy, not to mention his shooting percentage dipping to 2.4% (his career average is 4.9%).  

With Tyson Barrie gone, Rielly likely moves back into a heavier offensive role this season. I wouldn’t count on 20 goals and 72 points, but I think 7-12 goals and 50-60 points is a fair range for him. 

T.J Brodie was the big splash acquisition on D, and I like the fit in theory. If Brodie can play his game consistently and avoid becoming the next media scapegoat, I think it works out well for both player and team. He rediscovered his game in a big way after being scapegoated in Calgary for a couple years, so maybe he’s built up his mental game in the wake of that.

Jake Muzzin will continue to be leaned on heavily. He’s as steady as they come and is due for some positive offensive regression after seeing a dip last season. He formed a nice tandem with Justin Holl, and it’ll be interesting to see if they’re reunited.

If not, I’m curious about Holl’s ability to repeat his numbers from last season, where he took on tough (albeit limited) minutes on his way to being something of an analytics darling. 

Travis Dermott is coming off a difficult season in which he never seemed to get it going following offseason shoulder surgery. He’ll look to bounce back and may end up playing on his off-side, something he’s quite comfortable doing.  

He’ll be in a dogfight for one of the three D positions not nailed down. Beyond Holl, he’ll be battling Rasmus Sandin, Mikko Lehtonen, Zach Bogosian, Martin Marincin and Timothy Liljegren. 

Sandin and Lehtonen both intrigue me. I think both will surprise this year, putting up some nice secondary scoring while being difficult to bump from the lineup.  

Bogosian was a nice veteran depth add that brings some toughness to the team, and I think he’ll likely draw in and out of the lineup on a regular basis as needed. I expect Marincin to get similar usage. 

Liljegren is tough to gauge. He didn’t look ready for a full time NHL gig last season and didn’t receive any playing time in the play-in round. I’m tentatively  expecting that to carry over into this season, but at his age a significant step  forward over the offseason isn’t out of the question.

All in all, I see an improved unit, though I’m still expecting it to be about league average. With breakouts from Sandin and/or Lehtonen, this group would get a big boost.

BETWEEN THE POSTS

Freddy Andersen had the first down year of his career last season, on his way to posting 29 wins and a .909 save percentage. His SV% hadn’t dipped lower than .917 over the four prior seasons. Let that sink in. 

His playoff stats – save for 2017-2018 – are similarly impressive. The big narrative surrounding him is that he gives up bad goals at the worst times. And there are legitimate examples of him doing that. 

But there’s more to that story. 

If you put up a .936 SV%, like he did in this year’s play-in, and the team in front of you still can’t make up the difference, it’s not your fault for getting eliminated. I don’t care how bad the goal is. I’ll go a step further and say the same for his .922 SV% in 2019’s (second consecutive) first round loss to Boston.

With a team as loaded with talent as the Leafs, you shouldn’t need your goalie to post otherworldly numbers to avoid elimination. This isn’t the 2003-2004 Ducks. If you’re getting .920+ in the playoffs, your goalie is giving you ample opportunity to succeed.

With Jack Campbell staying in the fold, the Leafs finally have a backup capable of taking on more than 25% of the starts, and that will be huge in a condensed season. They also went out and got Aaron Dell, and re-signed Michael Hutchinson, which was smart business after the struggles they ran into in net last season.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The power play motored along to a 6th best finish last season, scoring at a 23% clip. The loss of Tyson Barrie should be mitigated by the sheer depth of high end talent, not to mention the fact that he had a down year.  

The penalty kill struggled, finishing 21st on their way to a 77.7% kill rate. The addition of T.J Brodie should offer some help there, though a middle of the pack finish is likely the best case scenario.

UNDER THE RADAR

I’m going a bit off the board here with Rasmus Sandin as their under the radar difference maker. Mikko Lehtonen got similar off the board consideration. I like both of these guys’ odds at impressing this year, but I think Sandin has the edge due to his upside and his three seasons of North American hockey experience. Finishing the season as a Top 4, impact player isn’t out of the question for him.

CAMP SURPRISE

Joey Anderson.  

Cap-dump throw-in Joey Anderson?  

That’s the one. I think a lot of hockey fans are going to change their view of that trade in the coming years. Which isn’t to say I think he’s definitely going to be as good or better than Andreas Johnsson, but he’s far from a throw in. Leafs fans should love this kid. He does just about everything well and has overachieved at every level due to the energy and work ethic he brings to the rink every day. Keep an eye on him at camp.

CONCLUSION

I’ve got the Leafs finishing first in the division (and advancing past the first round). Dubas gets big points from me for making strong moves to position this team for success without moving one of the Big Four. It may end up being necessary still, especially with Freddy Andersen set to become a UFA, but not many GM’s can tinker as well as he just did under difficult circumstances. Let’s see if it pays off.

1 comment

  1. Pains me to say it as a habs fan, but Toronto will be the team to beat in the ‘Scotia’ division this year.

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