5 big questions facing the Maple Leafs in 2022-23

Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas addresses the acquisitions of goaltenders Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov as well as discusses the competition they have at the goaltender position.

Only games provide answers.

But the major questions that will swirl around and shape the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2022-23 season are readily available to debate, even as we wait one more week for training camp to begin.

Here’s a glance at the big-picture storylines set to unfold over the winter and — maybe, just maybe — deep into spring.

Will the double-down gamble on goaltending pay off?

Press conference bard (and former Leafs coach) Paul Maurice once questioned whether the NHL got its middle letter correct. Maybe hockey’s highest circuit should’ve been dubbed the NGL — National Goaltending League.

For that last line of defence wields such a disproportionate influence over who hoists silver and who gets fired.

To wit: In 2021-22, only four of hockey’s 16 playoff teams qualified for the tournament with a save percentage below the median (Minnesota, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Washington). None of them lived to see Round 2.

Today, with the Maple Leafs losing two No. 1 workhorses over two off-seasons, all eyes focus on their hopeful replacements, both of whom have plenty to prove. And must do so under a microscope that burns hot with criticism.

Of the 61 NHL goalies who made at least 20 appearances last season, the injury-plagued Matt Murray ranked 36th in save percentage (.906) with the Ottawa Senators. New backup Ilya Samsonov ranked 25th with a .911 with the Washington Capitals. Their former clubs had no interest in keeping them around.

Not-so-fun fact: Jack Campbell (now an Edmonton Oiler) secured more NHL victories last season (31) than Murray and Samsonov combined (28).

Thus, the new tandem’s redemption becomes GM Kyle Dubas’s great wager.

We’re not saying the high-scoring Maple Leafs need elite goaltending to thrive. Toronto scores in bunches and defends better than most would have you believe.

We are saying they need at least a healthy and dependable man in pads — either one — to make one more save than his opponent at the other end.

The Maple Leafs are actually good … but are they actually better? (And does it matter?)

While another bout of first-round sadness clouds the fact, 2021-22 marked the greatest regular season in Maple Leafs history.

The final tally of Toronto’s gaudiest 82-game campaign: 54 wins, 115 points, a plus-62 goal differential, the scariest power play in hockey, and 13 players registering career highs in points.

Entering ’21, Dubas correctly proclaimed that roster the best version he’d assembled under his tenure.

Unfortunately, that assessment may still hold true now.

While the defence corps essentially remains unaltered (we see you, Ilya Lyubushkin), it’s questionable whether notable losses in net (Campbell) and up front (Ilya Mikheyev, Ondrej Kase, Jason Spezza) have been upgraded with the arrivals of Murray, Samsonov, Calle Järnkrok, Nicolas Aubé-Kubel, and Adam Gaudette.

We’re not sure the Leafs will score as many goals as last season (315), but with Florida, Tampa Bay and Boston all expected to regress slightly, they might not need to.

Coach Sheldon Keefe has placed great emphasis on winning the Atlantic Division and securing home ice come spring.

Alas, outdoing Tampa in the winter doesn’t guarantee you’ll do so by the thaw.

Where the Maple Leafs fit and finish in what should be a less lopsided division will be a discussion. But it will be a moot one if the core can’t deliver in April.

How hot are those seats?

That historic 2021-22 showing began in a hole. Remember?

The Maple Leafs got thumped, in succession, by the Sharks, Penguins and Hurricanes last October and — fair or not — job insecurity was in the air.

With president Brendan Shanahan remaining loyal to Dubas, and Dubas sticking with his head coach and his core, after this group’s sixth consecutive one-and-done post-season, is management’s job on the line?

“I think it's a fair question. I feel it's on the line every year, and I'm judged at the end of every season. I don't necessarily feel there's more of a pressure; I just think it's a very important thing for me personally to help deliver for the organization,” Dubas said this summer. “Every day I'm getting up trying to do everything I can to help our organization, and obviously the end goal is that we're having success when it matters — in the playoffs.

“As much as we want to just fast-forward all the way there, if we skip all these steps, we’ll fall well short. So, I totally understand the question, but I don't treat it any differently. I put a lot of pressure on myself to deliver for the people who have hired me and the people that I work with. And that'll never change.”

The Leafs can’t win October.

If they start smooth, it’ll be, “OK, great. Wait till playoffs.”

If they stumble, panic could percolate well before Game 7, and Daniel Craig won’t be the only one promoting knives out.

What colour of cape should Matthew Knies pick out?

The top-heaviness of assistant GM Brendon Pridham’s balance sheet could benefit from meaningful contributions via homegrown young players still on their entry-level contracts or emerging out of them.

Is this the winter left wing Nick Robertson makes a permanent leap to the big club and punishes a few NHL goalies with his wicked shot? Can Timothy Liljegren and/or Rasmus Sandin not only continue their promising trajectory but vie for top-four minutes on the back end?

Or does Leaf Nation gradually build all of its anticipation for the conclusion of the University of Minnesota Gophers’ season and place its great expectations on new hope Matthew Knies, who aims to give the roster a boost heading into the post-season.

Will they win a freaking playoff round?

In truth, there is only one question that needs answering.

Yes, we’ll distract ourselves with fourth-line competition and John Tavares winger debates through the winter. Surely, external debate will be waged over how much bargains Michael Bunting and David Kämpf will command on their next contracts.

Yet the only thing that matters cannot be addressed for months.

Let’s recycle these words about the Maple Leafs, from Jon Cooper.

“I see a hell of a hockey team,” the Lightning coach said, prior to extending Toronto’s run of playoff futility to 18 years. “They have been a hell of a hockey team that has run into some bad breaks come the spring. And it seems that, for whatever reason, they haven’t got over the hump yet. But they have a team that definitely can.”

Yep, they can.

But will they?

7 bonus questions: Will Auston Matthews threepeat as Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy champ?... Can Mitch Marner snatch his denied 100-point campaign?... Is the possibility of a bold move — cough, Patrick Kane, cough — still in the cards?... Will Keefe try reuniting Marner with Tavares?... Who blinks first in the Rasmus Sandin contract standoff?... Do Justin Holl and Alexander Kerfoot skate out their current contracts in Toronto?... Does Zach Aston-Reese’s PTO lead to a roster spot?

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