The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to be in tough to repeat their division-winning ways of the 2021 NHL regular season – not simply because they’re moving back to the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division (along with the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning, but also with the impressive Florida Panthers and always-up-for-a-good-showdown Boston Bruins), but because the 2021-22 campaign will be compressed significantly by the NHL’s projected participation in the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, China. If the league and Olympic Committee do figure out a way to finalize the NHL’s participation in the 2022 Games, it will put a weight on all teams as they try to squeeze in an 82-game regular-season schedule without a wealth of player injuries, energy-drained competition, and more.
Chief among the other pressures that will vary from team to team is the sheer number of players from each roster who will remain in a hyper-competitive bubble for the Beijing Games as they represent their respective homelands. And when it comes to rosters that will be depleted by participation in the Games, the Leafs’ roster will be one of the most taxed.
In a way, that’s a notable compliment on the lineup Leafs GM Kyle Dubas has put together; if the Leafs were terrible, their individual performances would likely be just as bad, and far fewer International Olympic Team GMs would come calling for them for Beijing. But at the same time, having a slew of talent that gets far less rest and recuperation time than other teams presents a unique issue that Toronto is going to have to deal with.
Consider: by conservative measures, the Maple Leafs are almost assuredly going to send at least seven members to the Winter Games: centers Auston Matthews (U.S.) and John Tavares, wingers Mitch Marner (Canada), and William Nylander (Sweden) and defenseman Morgan Rielly (Canada), and goalies Jack Campbell (U.S.) and Petr Mrazek (Czech Republic). If winger Ondrej Kase (Czech Republic) makes his country’s roster, which he is likely to if healthy, that will raise the number of Leafs in Beijing to eight – a full one-third of their NHL roster, and obviously, the very best third of that roster.
There are other elite NHL teams that also will have a high number of competitors in Beijing – the Lightning (eight potential members), Colorado (seven), Vegas (seven), Dallas (six) and Chicago (five) – but no team will feel the Olympic hangover more than the Leafs will. That means the Buds are more likely to have their lineup decimated by injuries, either directly from OIympic play, or from the cumulative effect of playing a high-impact, high-emotion tournament in the middle of the regular-season. And that’s why getting off to a solid start to the year will be so crucial for Toronto: the last thing they’ll want is to dig themselves a hole early on, then be forced to lean on their already-burdened top players to dig them out of it after the Beijing Games. Building a padding in terms of standings points will give Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe the opportunity to cut back on the minutes and/or games for his stars, and mix in some of the organization’s depth components to help shoulder the load until the playoffs begin.
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There really is no getting around this challenge – NHLers have always spoken publicly about their desire to play in the Olympics, and only a complete breakdown in negotiations between the league and the International Olympic Committee will stop them from taking to the ice in Beijing. Once they do finalize business terms – and never forget, ultimately, this is a business we’re talking about here – the pressure will immediately ratchet up on countries like Canada and America to improve on their disappointing showings at the 2018 Games in South Korea, and there will be equal amounts of pressure on nations like Russia (the defending gold medalists in men’s hockey), as well as Sweden and Finland, to get their players to the medals podium.
All of this will be footnotes to the 2021-22 season, of course. There will be no asterisk attached to the ring on the Cup Trophy simply because the Olympic Games were carried out in the same season. But there will be an effect – partially physically, partially psychologically, given the COVID-19 professional bubble NHLers will have to exist in for the duration of the Beijing Games – and the way teams cope with that effect will help dictate how much success, in NHL terms, the league’s best teams will generate.
The Leafs, on paper, at least, remain one of the league’s best teams. Because of that, their players will feel the impact of the Winter Games as much as anyone. The best their fans can hope for is a gold medal for a few team members, and good health for the rest of the regular-season.