Hey, here’s a fun question to throw out to some Torontonians: are the Leafs gonna be good this season?
I say “fun question” in the way that it might be “fun” to wrap your limbs with bacon and sprint around your local dog park. It might be a legitimately good time at first, but eventually the pack’s gonna take you down, and regret will follow.
For science, I decided to wrap a tweet in bacon and throw it out there on Twitter though, and yeah: I didn’t have a great time.
Twitter is a terrible proxy for this sort of thing, but I exist in other spaces too, and public consensus seems to lead two places on the Leafs these days:
1. Sure, in the regular season, but y’know…
2. Who cares, which is just code for “I’m not yet ready to be hurt again.”
I wouldn’t view those as positive outcomes were I managing the Leafs brand, but hey, let people down enough times and you can’t fault them for not trusting you with their heart.
Still, I can’t help but feel recent disappointments have clouded reality a bit, which is evidenced by the pre-season gambling lines. Emotion doesn’t exist for sports books, and just about anywhere you look the Leafs are among a handful of teams with odds that reflect contender status. The below is from Coolbet:
Granted, you get lower odds on the Leafs because people are going to bet it anyway, so the books protect themselves a bit. But that’s still a big jump between them and the Bruins.
(Did I look at the above and immediately bet on the Islanders? Why yes, yes I did.)
The thing about my question here is that the Leafs were good last season -- a point that’d be foolish to argue -- but we’ve entered the San Jose Sharks territory of the 2010s, where people have stopped caring what they do in the regular season entirely. And that’s fair! Toronto let a series slip away and have lost the benefit of the doubt after tough eliminations in the first round five straight years now.
To bring it back to reality though, it’s really hard to win in the NHL. It’s hard just to make the playoffs, and there’s only a few teams league-wide we assume will find their way in each season. Safe to say those teams tend to earn the label “good.”
There are a few reasons I expect this Leafs team to be very good, beyond the usual “they have a handful of elite top-end players.” Let’s pick through those reasons, and try to pin down this team before the season gets under way.
The first full-season of Sheldon Keefe
This topic is what actually inspired this column. Working with Keefe for two seasons allowed me to see how he operates, which means I’ve seen what he does between seasons using the previous year’s game tapes. It’s extensive. In-season the grind forces you to move on to the next game and the next period and the next flight and the next practice, and it doesn’t stop. Going in-depth on unusual questions you may have (“Do we generate more chances when we move the puck corner-to-corner in the O-zone or low-to-high,” or whatever) is nearly impossible. And so you get set to work on those things in the off-season, something Keefe hasn’t yet had the opportunity to do in full.
This may be his “third” season as coach, but in his first year he took over a .500 hockey team in November, in the wake of Mike Babcock’s departure. That year was then shut down for y’know, the pandemic, which lead to a janky restart in the bubble in front of no fans, followed by a shortened off-season and shortened season (with no pre-season) in front of nobody.
As excuses go, not being able to set up his team and prepare for a full season seems like a pretty legitimate one for Keefe. This will be his first proper season as the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I expect him to be able to use pre-season to evaluate who he has on his team, to run different line combinations together, set up a plan for his goaltending deployment, and just get started on the right foot.
Speaking of starting on the right foot...
They can take advantage of their schedule out of the gates
It seems likely that Auston Matthews will be in uniform on night one for the Leafs despite the recent procedure on his wrist. John Tavares is by all accounts feeling fantastic and looking good. Who knows what the pre-season will bring, but the Leafs look to open their season healthy and at home against the Montreal Canadiens, who I expect to be a team that fights for a playoff spot this season, but not much better than that. Whatever you may believe there, the Leafs will undeniably be favourites in that game. Then they’re off to Ottawa the next night to face the Senators, who are still likely to be a bottom-third team in the league.
After that, the Leafs have a three-game home stand against Ottawa, San Jose, and the Rangers. There’s a really good chance to get some positive vibes going before they head out on the road to play more formidable opponents in Pittsburgh, Carolina and Chicago (more formidable, but not without question marks of their own), before returning home for a game against Detroit, who should also not be great.
I’m a big believer in the snowball effect. If you get some wins early and start to feel good about what your team can do, it develops a confidence that leads to better plays and more goals and more wins shortly after. The opposite is true, too. But with that opening it’s not hard to see the Leafs winning six of their first nine. That would take them into a three-pack of tough, tough games (Vegas, Tampa and Boston) before a series of six games against teams who missed the playoffs last year. All told over their first five weeks of the season Toronto has 18 games, only six of which are against teams that made the playoffs in 2020-21.
It’s impossible to predict how every team will look over the full season ahead, but it seems like the Leafs have the chance to get themselves in a good spot heading into December.
Prime-aged “prove it” players
It’s very easy to get excited about talented prospects in a team’s system who are likely to take a step. The Leafs have been doing it for years. But until that step is taken, it’s not guaranteed. That’s why I like the players the Leafs have brought in as UFAs this past summer. They’re prime-aged players who’ve shown they can contribute in the NHL, and are likely to give you the best years of their career.
Nick Ritchie is coming off 15 goals in 56 games during his 25-year-old season. Michael Bunting has put in his development years in the minors and at age 25 showed he can score in the NHL, potting 10 in 21 games last season (that’s not oblivious to the whole “he can’t keep up that pace” angle. Obviously not. But he can contribute). Ondrej Kase is a good gamble given that if he’s healthy, great, and if not, he’s not on the salary cap anyway. He’s -- guess what -- 25 years old, and has had a 20-goal season in the NHL.
Of all these names, David Kampf might have been the guy the Leafs' front office coveted most. He’s also around that prime age at 26, he’s 6-foot-2, and a guy who’ll be asked to do a lot of what Zach Hyman did for the club on the defensive side of the puck. He’s a proper centre, reliable, and they like him a lot. Given his age and development, he could give them a high value year.
I don’t know how many of those guys need to hit for the Leafs to have had a successful off-season, but if even two can have good years the Leafs will be plenty deep up front.
When you expect to win every night, wins aren’t a huge deal. They come and go without much celebration. Good teams get to a point where they win on nights they don’t play great, and they move on. The Leafs were that last regular season, and I expect some element of that this year, too.
Their division gets talked up because of the top-end teams in it, but they’ll still see a steady diet of Ottawa, Detroit, and Buffalo this season. It’s easy to take for granted a team that’s been good in the regular season for years, but when you look at the schedule and say “They should beat this team” more often than not, it’s safe to say you’re talking about a good-to-very-good team.
In the end I see a 100-point-plus team and likely first-round “favourites,” whatever the heck that’s worth in the NHL. So to answer my own question, yes, I think the Leafs are going to be good. Setting the bar at “Yeah but what will they do in the playoffs” may be fair in the big picture, but there’s a whole marathon to run before they get there.
At least on the way, Leafs fans should expect to see some good hockey this season.