It’s a relatively quiet time of year for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the NHL in general, but in a few weeks, the white-hot spotlight that always comes with playing in Toronto will fire back up again. And this season, there will be more pressure on a number of Leafs employees. Which ones have the most pressure? Let’s rank the top four below:
4. Jake Muzzin, D. It’s by no fault of his own, but Muzzin had a tough season in 2021-22, suffering two concussions in a five-week period beginning in mid-January. The 33-year-old clearly is on the back nine of an otherwise solid career, and he’s Toronto’s second-highest-paid blueliner at a $5.625 salary cap hit. In total last season, he missed 35 games, and as one of the Leafs’ most rugged performers, his absence was notable.
Muzzin did return to action in time for the playoffs, where he had a pair of goals and three points in seven games. However, Muzzin has got two more seasons left on his contract, and if he didn’t have a full no-trade clause, it’s possible Leafs GM Kyle Dubas would be actively seeking a new team for him. Regardless, the Leafs are hoping he’ll be fully healthy the entire year. Their defense corps is deep, but no one in the organization plays the type of game Muzzin plays. Obviously, his health is out of his control, but if he is healthy, Muzzin will be expected to play a sizeable role.
3. Nick Robertson, F. At only 20 years old, Robertson has a long professional hockey career ahead of him, and the Leafs would love to be the place where he blossoms into a top-shelf NHL scoring threat. But in a 10-game stretch with Toronto last season, Robertson had just a single goal and one point. That was markedly different than the very productive, 16-goal, 28-point campaign he had in 28 games with the American League’s Toronto Marlies. The organization still believes in him, which is one of the reasons why Dubas walked away from veteran wingers Ilya Mikheyev and Ondrej Kase this summer.
That said, everyone knows Robertson is not the type of player you recall to the NHL level only to put him on the third-or-fourth-line in a checking role. He’ll be given a long look, likely on the second line with John Tavares, out of training camp. If he doesn’t emerge as a high-impact player at that point, Robertson may be sent back to the Marlies, and his name will immediately surface in trade rumors. The team has him under contractual control for quite some time, but at some stage, he needs to assert himself as a bona fide NHLer, or be traded somewhere in exchange for a forward who can help the Leafs right away.
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2. Matt Murray, G. From the moment Dubas acquired him in a trade with Ottawa this off-season, the 28-year-old Murray has been the Leafs’ most-pressured on-ice asset. The hockey world has seen him thrive with the Pittsburgh Penguins, winning two Stanley Cups, and it has also seen him struggle, as he did last season when the Sens sent him down to the AHL to try and regain his confidence.
Murray has a decidedly better offense with the Leafs than he had in Ottawa last year, but make no mistake – with backup goalie (and fellow new acquisition) Ilya Samsonov waiting in the wings, Murray may not have long to demonstrate he’s back in peak form before Toronto looks elsewhere for a solution. Murray is under contract for this season and next season, but if he stumbles out of the gate, or has a poor stretch at any point in the season, Samsonov may take the starter’s job out of his hands.
In sum, Murray has very little room for error, and Leafs fans and media will be examining every save he makes – and every save he doesn’t make – so the pressure on him only mounts from here,
1. Kyle Dubas, GM. Dubas has held the reins of power in Toronto for more than four years now, and the 36-year-old has made his mark with a number of impressive moves. Still, as is the case with all NHL GMs, he is judged ultimately on how well his team performs in the playoffs, and on that front, things have not worked out for him. Despite an ever-changing group of complementary players, the Leafs haven’t made it out of the first round under Dubas’ tenure, and if they fail to do so again in the 2022-23 playoffs, there will be an uproar from disappointed fans calling for a new GM.
Now, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan isn’t going to give up on Dubas strictly because of fan unrest. Still, people will be furious if the status quo is maintained. At the very least, changes to Toronto’s core of talent will take place, and the question at that point will be whether Dubas deserves another chance to get it right. Other hockey minds have had less time in the Leafs GM position than Dubas has, so you’d better believe he’s the person with the most pressure on him in Toronto this season.
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