Image: Wikimedia commons / Auston_Matthews_9
Image: Wikimedia commons / Auston_Matthews_9

Toronto Maple Leafs are the best team in Canada, 2021 will be the year they prove it

Several factors have combined during the offseason to intoxicate me to the extent that I hold this article’s headline to be true: the Toronto Maple Leafs are Canada’s best hockey team. That, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean the Leafs are going to win the North Division… although they probably should.

With three days until pucks fly in the NHL, this is your Toronto Maple Leafs season preview.

Division Realignment: 

The Toronto Maple Leafs have benefitted the most as a result of the NHL’s temporary realignment. With cross-border play discouraged by state, provincial and national governments, the NHL elected to place all of its Canadian franchises in the same division. As a result, the league will look different this season:

  • East: Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington
  • Central: Carolina, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Chicago, Florida, Nashville, Tampa Bay
  • West: Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Minnesota, San Jose, St. Louis, Vegas
  • North: Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg

Changes to the NHL’s structure mean Toronto won’t face the likes of Boston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh during the regular season. All in all, that’s a huge plus for the Leafs – who face a much easier route through the playoffs as a result. That said, there are numerous reasons not to take the North Division lightly.

Calgary has solved their goaltending situation, making the Flames a real contender. The Edmonton Oilers have the world’s best player on their books. Montreal is blessed with great team depth. Vancouver enjoyed a strong run in the playoffs last term. The Jets have kept the world’s best goalie in Winnipeg. 

According to The Athletic, Toronto has a 94% chance of making the playoffs and are projected to accrue 73 points throughout the regular season. The Colorado Avalanche are the only team to have better odds at this stage. Whatever happened last year, the Leafs are in an enviable position due to the composition of this season’s schedule. 

Roster:

As I argued back in November, the Leafs’ recruitment has been impressive. Kyle Dubas has overseen a minor overhaul of Toronto’s roster, adding quote-unquote “grit” players to an organisation which lacked exactly that in 2020. 

The team’s most important addition is on the blue line. T.J. Brodie is a player who can bring solidity to the Leaf’s top four, filling a noticeable weakness on the right side of defence. At long last, Morgan Reilly can finally look forward to playing alongside a defensive partner befitting of his quality

Elsewhere, the Leafs have added the likes of Wayne Simmonds, Jimmy Vessey, Joe Thornton, and Zach Bogosian. Mikko Lehtonen also joins the roster after being signed from KHL outfit, Jokerit Helsinki. Nick Robertson – still a teenager – also has a shot of getting a look in this year after playing well against Columbus in the playoffs.

With that in mind, it should be no surprise that Dubas is hoping to see the Leafs improve in the regular season this term. “We finished 7th in 2017-18, and that has been our best finish,” Dubas told reporters earlier this week

“We think we need to become a team that is a great regular season team to set ourselves up well. I think the real positive about that is that all of the teams are likely feeling the same way. It is going to make for great television and great athletics and great coverage for you all.”

For the first time in a while, Toronto has options. Keefe could load his top eight forwards like this:

Zack Hyman – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner

William Nylander – John Tavares – Alex Kerfoot

Alternatively, the Leafs could spread love across their lines and create a defensive-offensive unit in the process.

Joe Thornton – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner

Jimmy Vesey – John Tavares – William Nylander

Ilya Mikheyev – Alex Kerfoot – Zach Hyman

Wayne Simmonds – Jordan Spezza – Alex Barabanov

It needn’t be said, but Toronto is in win-now mode with Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander on their roster. The team’s $11 million captain and trio of mega-rich kids account for nearly half of Toronto’s cap space. 

Of Toronto’s magic four, I’m most interested to see how Tavares gets on in 2021. The Canadian centre secured a 52% expected goals rate last season, a figure dragged down as a result of his injury-scuppered start to the campaign. Tavares did, however, improve considerably following Keefe’s arrival on the bench. 

A huge season awaits netminder Frederik Andresen. The Danish goalie endured the worst year of his career last term and is set to become an Unattached Free Agent (UFA) at the end of the season. It’s likely that Andresen will not return to Toronto for the 2021-22 campaign, a fact of life that puts him under more pressure – not less. The next phase of Andersen’s career will be determined in the months ahead, he must improve under this pressure.

All of those things combine to give me the impression that Toronto is set for a positive year. The Maple Leafs shouldn’t get ahead of themselves, we’re all too long in the tooth to think their Cup-less run will end in 2021 – but I do see signs of life in this organisation under Keefe and Dubas. 

Toronto host Montreal on opening night, we’ll have a better idea of how both teams will stack up come the end of the season by the final buzzer.

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