Toronto Maple Leafs season preview: Can they break through in 2021?

Shawn McKenzie and Chris Johnston look at how Sheldon Keefe's approach with the Maple Leafs has changed, and how the team can take advantage of not bring in a division with the likes of the Bruins or Lightning.

“You don’t have forever,” Kyle Dubas proclaimed after tweaking and setting his Toronto Maple Leafs roster for the sprint that will be 2020-21.

“We had big expectations coming into [last] year, and to lose in a qualification round is disappointing. It’s far short of the goal that we've set for ourselves and the standard that we hope to attain — that we will attain in time here.”

Short of the standard has been the Maple Leafs’ story for so long that losing playoff series is the most familiar of pains for the city’s hockey fans.

The window for this talent-loaded core won’t always be open — Auston Matthews, UFA 2024! — and their chance to dominate may never be this great.

2019-20 regular season record: 36-25-9 (13th)

2019-20 season finish: Lost 3-2 to Columbus in playoff qualification series

Top 2020 draft pick: Rodion Amirov (15th overall)

Additions: T.J. Brodie, D; Joe Thornton, C; Jimmy Vesey, LW/RW; Wayne Simmonds, RW/LW; Mikko Lehtonen, D; Zach Bogosian, D; Alexander Barabanov, RW/LW; Joey Anderson, RW; Travis Boyd, C/RW; Aaron Dell, G

Subtractions: Kasperi Kapanen (traded to PIT), Andreas Johnsson (traded to NJD), Tyson Barrie (UFA to EDM), Cody Ceci (UFA to PIT), Kyle Clifford (UFA to STL), Frederik Gauthier (UFA, PTO with ARI)

Outlook: Cautiously optimistic. But absolutely optimistic.

Finally freed of juggernauts like Boston and Tampa Bay, Toronto will be presented with its best shot at a divisional title, first-round home ice, and some dang confidence heading into the post-season.

Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe are preaching urgency and regular-season success, and the roster has been overstuffed with athletes who have something to prove. Jobs, legacies, contract extensions… plenty will be laid on the line.

Depth has been added from the crease on out. Brodie and Bogosian, in particular, give an oft-criticized blue line a safer, more defensive look. Thornton, Simmonds, and the return of Jason Spezza add a second layer of wisdom and scar tissue.

Ultimately, however, the success or failure of the ’21 Leafs will fall on its stars. Can Matthews and Mitch Marner and John Tavares and William Nylander and Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen turn four years of disappointment into dogged determination? Can they elevate their battle level the way Tampa stars Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Victor Hedman did in 2020?

“I think the guys are starting to realize here they're not 18, 19 anymore,” Dubas said. “If we want to set ourselves up as best as possible going into the playoffs, we cannot let our foot off the gas in the regular season.”

The onus will fall to Keefe to not only manage a new staff (welcome, Manny Malhotra and Paul MacLean) but mix the proper lineup and convince his team that the sum can be greater than its parts.

“The experience we had in the qualification round, the loss that we had there, we still feel that,” Keefe said.

Fans should hope so.

The key for a core with so much promise and so few results?

“Really embracing the fact that this is a wonderful opportunity. If they're willing to sacrifice a little bit in each of their own individual realms,” Dubas said, “then we’ll really reach our full potential.”

X-Factor: Frederik Andersen

Toronto’s undisputed No. 1 goaltender is following up his worst season (if you’re judging by save percentage) with his most important one. Four consecutive post-season series losses have brought the talented Dane and the Maple Leafs to a crossroads clouded by trade rumours.

One path leads to another early ouster and the sides parting ways. The other could result in an on-ice breakthrough for this roster and the potential for a contract extension for its backbone. The carrot of a Jacob Markstrom-like off-season windfall dangles before the first-time UFA, while the mental pressures and internal competition (Jack Campbell, Aaron Dell) thrust on Andersen’s plate have never been greater during his Leafs tenure.

“If I play well, things are going to be easier for me going forward. And if I play well, it’ll be good for the team,” Andersen says of his contract year. “My focus right now is just having fun with it. Enjoy being part of this group.”

Soar or sink, Andersen will be a chief protagonist in the 2021 Leafs’ story.

Player who could surprise: Nick Robertson

What was more telling: That the teenage Robertson elected not to travel home and spend the off-season surrounded by the comfort of family? Or that the skilled winger was not loaned to Team USA for the world juniors because the tournament overlapped with Leafs training camp?

There is a fierce hunger and great opportunity here for Robertson — ineligible for the AHL, nothing left to prove in the OHL — to not only make the pro roster but fight through a more experienced crowd and carve out regular minutes in Toronto’s top nine.

The 19-year-old will need to outperform familiar names and bigger bodies to stick (and avoid an entry-level contract slide), but after 55 goals in 46 games for the Peterborough Petes in 2019-20, the hype is real.

Can the rookie with the fierce internal drive and the newly shortened stick make an immediate impact? Or will he have to wait, taxi and develop before asserting himself as a full-time Leaf?

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