As the Maple Leafs prepare for Game 1 of their 2021-22 NHL regular season Wednesday against Montreal, both Toronto’s players and its management know this is going to be a season of consequence, one way or another. If the Leafs make the playoffs and win a round or two, management will keep the core together for additional runs at the Stanley Cup. If they fail to make the post-season or get steamrolled in the first round, all bets are off.
If there’s a spectacular breakdown, Leafs’ ownership may choose to let go GM Kyle Dubas; the trio of Auston Matthews (always untouchable), Mitch Marner and William Nylander (both talented, but a level below Matthews) may be moved; defenseman Morgan Rielly will leave via unrestricted free agency; and a page will be turned in Toronto’s game plan.
Now, even if the Leafs perform well this season, there could be a significant roster change. Rielly will be one of the more coveted free agents next summer, and command a pay raise from his current total of $5 million to somewhere in the $9-10-million level. With the salary cap not rising nearly enough in the next couple of years, that price tag may be too rich for Toronto’s tastes. There are almost always going to be cap challenges for teams that spend to the upper limit, and it just may be a way of life for the Leafs to allow veterans to walk away for no asset in return (other than the cap space, of course). But Dubas still has the bulk of his defense corps signed through the 2022-23 campaign, so Toronto can absorb a blow to the blueline.
What Toronto can’t afford is a setback with their new goaltending tandem of Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek. The spotlight is going to shine hard on the duo: Campbell is under immense pressure to replicate his 2021 season and give the Leafs a chance to win every game he played. Mrazek is under the gun to challenge Campbell for ice time, and be a lower-paid version of veteran Frederik Andersen, who departed Toronto this summer for Carolina. If he or Campbell grab the No. 1 reigns, that will be a good harbinger for the Leafs’ season. One of the two needs to seize the opportunity and thrive – and if they do, Leafs’ management will be able to turn its attention to Toronto’s biggest issue: depth on the wings.
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The Leafs’ depth at both wings has already been tested, as winger Ilya Mikheyev was injured at training camp and will be out for at least a couple of months. That opens up an opportunity on the Buds’ second line for impressive training camp performers Michael Bunting and Ondrej Kase. And the trickle-down effect on the wings means that a fringe NHLer like forward Michael Amadio will be tested out on one of Toronto’s bottom-six positions. There is plenty of opportunity in the Leafs’ forward group, and it’s up to head coach Sheldon Keefe to juggle the lineup and get his team to a place where they can contend with Atlantic Division frontrunners Boston, Tampa Bay and Florida on a consistent basis.
In this Olympics season, it will be crucial for the Leafs to hit the ground running and build up a standings points cushion to help get them through additional injuries and a losing streak or two. Their best players are going to be put through the wringer at the 2022 Beijing Games, and overall depth will be more important than ever in offsetting the toll taken on the stars. But the good news is they have that depth, and can compete with just about any opponent.
It all starts Wednesday, but the drama of it is already here. The stage is set for the Leafs to prosper, but we’ve said that before, and then bad things happened to them. Their goal this season is to ensure the positive vibes last through next April and into the early summer.
If they fail, consequences will come. And the Leafs team that skates out for the 2022-23 campaign will look dramatically different.
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