As the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2021-22 roster begins to take shape, and training camps now are in full swing, Leafs’ fans anxieties are going to start swelling to the surface. After the way Toronto’s previous season ended, it’s only natural that their supporters are on edge. If they start this coming season with a string of losses, people will be like souped-up traceurs – you know, the parkour people – running up walls in sheer panic.
But they should save some of that angst for where it really belongs: the playoffs, which is where the Leafs are going to ultimately be judged on their merits. Unless something catastrophic happens health-wise, Toronto is still largely the team that won its division last year and still has the type of talent core many other teams would happily swap rosters for. Although Leafs GM Kyle Dubas has tweaked his franchise’s lineup, there’s still plenty of reason to expect the Buds will be a playoff team.
On paper, at least, the Leafs have a healthier Auston Matthews this season. His off-season wrist surgery should make him a more complete competitor, and head coach Sheldon Keefe is going to give him all sorts of time and opportunity to show there’s still growth in his game. People forget sometimes, Matthews is just 24 years old. The best for him is yet to come.
Same goes for William Nylander and Mitch Marner. The former is 25 years old; the latter, 24. Both of them have dealt with some unfair criticisms of their individual games, but both will need to be producers come playoff time to avoid calls for at least one of them to be traded. But in the regular season, Keefe will give them long leashes to hit the ground running and build up their confidence for the post-season. All three of Matthews, Marner, and Nylander will represent their respective homelands at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, so Keefe can’t run them into the dirt. But what Dubas, team president Brendan Shanahan and the rest of Leafs’ management are hoping that, by improving their performance in a best-on-best tournament, they’ll be more focused on sustaining that level of play right through season’s end.
Wrestling: Extreme Rules 2021 Predictions
As we’ve noted before, the biggest competition at Leafs’ camp is going to come on the wings, where the departure of Zach Hyman has left a large hole a new face like Michael Bunting or Kurtis Gabriel will be seeking to fill, and the competition for winger jobs will trickle down through all four lines. And there should be some healthy battling between presumptive starting goalie Jack Campbell and off-season unrestricted free agent acquisition Petr Mrazek for the job of serving as Toronto’s playoff No. 1. Health is a major factor here as well, but the two netminders have enjoyed lengthy hot streaks, and they’ll be playing behind an experienced, balanced defense corps. All in all, this remains a pretty deep team.
The Leafs’ doubters can point to the fact they’re now back in the Atlantic division – a much more difficult group of teams that includes the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champion-Tampa-Bay-Lightning, the improved Florida Panthers, the veteran Boston Bruins, and last year’s conference-winning Montreal Canadiens – as the reason the Buds will struggle this season. While it’s not going to be as easy as it was for them in the 2021 campaign, Toronto will still enjoy the benefits of playing in the same division as a few relative lightweights – in this case, the Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, and Ottawa Senators. They’ll have to capitalize on games against those three teams, but the Leafs have enough skill to do just that.
Of course, there are no guarantees the Leafs will even make the playoffs. If that happens and they’re on the outside looking in come mid-April, all bets are off when it comes to their core’s future in Toronto. Dubas may not even be around if that’s the case.
But let’s not let the disappointment of last year completely overshadow the Leafs’ oncoming regular season just yet. This is still a terrifically talented team. They should still win many more games than they lose. The panic button needs to be hidden away for a while.