Hey, here’s a funny question to ask some Torontonians: Will the Leafs be good this season?
I say “fun question” in the sense that it might be “fun” to wrap your limbs in bacon and run around your local dog park. It might be a good time at first, but eventually the pack will bring you down and regrets will follow.
For the science, I decided to wrap a tweet in bacon and toss it on Twitter, and yes: I didn’t have a good time.
Twitter is a terrible proxy for this sort of thing, but I exist in other spaces as well, and public consensus seems to lead to two places on the Leafs these days:
1. Of course, in the regular season, but you know …
2. Who cares, that’s just the code for “I’m not ready to be hurt again yet.”
I wouldn’t consider this a positive outcome if I managed 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 think that recent disappointments have clouded reality a bit, as evidenced by the pre-season play lines. Emotion doesn’t exist in sports betting, and pretty much everywhere you look the Leafs are one of a handful of teams whose odds reflect competitor status. The following is from Coolbet:
Granted, you get lower odds on the Leafs because people are going to bet it anyway, so the pounds protect themselves a bit. But it’s still a big leap between them and the Bruins.
(Did I watch 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 would be silly to argue – but we entered 2010s San Jose Sharks territory, where people have stopped caring about what they’re doing in the regular season entirely. And that’s right! Toronto has dropped a streak and has lost the benefit of the doubt after tough first-round eliminations for five consecutive years now.
To bring it back to reality, it’s really hard to win in the NHL. It’s tough to qualify for the playoffs, and we’re guessing only a few league-wide teams will find their way through each season. We can say that these teams tend to earn the label “good”.
There are a number of reasons I expect this Leafs team to be very good, beyond the usual “they have a handful of top elite players”. Let’s go through these reasons and try to pin down this team before the start of the season.
The Complete First Season of Sheldon Keefe
This topic is in fact what inspired this column. Working with Keefe for two seasons allowed me to see how he performs, meaning I saw what he does between seasons using the previous year’s game tapes. It is vast. During the 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. It is almost impossible to delve into any unusual questions you might have (“Do we generate more chances when we move the puck from corner to corner in O zone or bottom to top”, or whatever) is almost impossible. And so you’re gearing up to work on these things in the offseason, something Keefe hasn’t had a chance to do in full yet.
This may be his “third” season as a coach, but in his first year he took over a .500 hockey team in November, following the departure of Mike Babcock. That year was then shut down for you know, the pandemic, which led to a choppy reboot in the fanless bubble, followed by a shortened offseason and a shortened season (with no preseason) in front of anyone.
As an excuse, not being able to put together your squad and prepare for a full season seems legitimate enough for Keefe. This will be his first real season as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I expect he can use the preseason to assess who he has on his squad, execute different line combinations together, put together a plan for his goalie deployment and start off on the right foot.
Speaking of getting off on the right foot …
They can enjoy their schedule outside the doors
It seems likely that Auston Matthews will be in uniform on the first night for the Leafs despite the recent intervention on her wrist. John Tavares feels good and feels good. Who knows what the preseason will bring, but the Leafs are looking to start their season healthy and at home against the Montreal Canadiens, who I think are a team fighting for a playoff berth this season, but not by many. better than that. Whatever you may believe there, the Leafs will undoubtedly be the favorites in this game. Then, they will travel to Ottawa the following night to face the Senators, who are still likely to be among the bottom third in the league.
After that, the Leafs play three home games against Ottawa, San Jose and the Rangers. There is a very good chance of having some positive vibes before heading out on the road to take on more formidable opponents in Pittsburgh, Carolina and Chicago (more formidable, but not without question marks), before heading home. them for a game against Detroit, which shouldn’t be great either.
I am a big supporter of the snowball effect. If you get a few wins early on and start to feel good about what your team can do, it builds up a confidence that leads to better games and more goals and more wins soon after. The opposite is also true. But with this opening, it’s not hard to see the Leafs win six of their first nine. That would get them into a tough three-game pack (Vegas, Tampa and Boston) ahead of a six-game streak against teams that missed the playoffs last year. In total, in their first five weeks of the season, Toronto has 18 games, including just six against teams that made the playoffs in 2020-21.
It’s impossible to predict what each team will look like in the coming season, but it looks like the Leafs will have the chance to place themselves in a good position before December.
‘Prove it’ players in the prime of their lives
It is 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 this for years. But as long as this step is not taken, it is not guaranteed. That’s why I love the players the Leafs recruited as UFAs last summer. These are the prime players who have shown that they can contribute to the NHL and are likely to give you the best years of their career.
Nick Ritchie scored 15 goals in 56 games during his 25-year season. Michael Bunting put his developmental years into the minors and at 25 he showed he can score in the NHL, winning 10 in 21 games last season (which is not oblivious to the angle ” he cannot keep up with that rhythm. ”Obviously, no, but he can contribute). Ondrej Kase is a good bet considering that if he’s healthy it’s fine, and if not, he’s not on the salary cap anyway. He’s – guess what – 25 years old, and had a 20-goal NHL season.
Of all these names, David Kampf was perhaps the one the Leafs front office coveted the most. He’s also around the age of 26, 6-foot-2 and a guy who will be asked to do a lot of what Zach Hyman has done for the club on the defensive end of the puck. It is a real center, reliable, and they like it very much. Considering his age and development, he could give them a very valuable year.
I don’t know how many of these guys need to hit in order for the Leafs to have a good offseason, but if even two can have good years, the Leafs will be way ahead.
When you expect to win every night, wins aren’t a big deal. They come and go without much celebration. Good teams get to a point where they win on the nights they don’t play well, and they move on. The Leafs were the last regular season, and I expect some elements of that this year, too.
Their division is being talked about because of the top teams, but they will still see a steady diet from Ottawa, Detroit and Buffalo this season. It’s easy to take for granted a team that has 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.
At the end of the day, I see a team over 100 points and probably “favorites” in the first round, no matter what it’s worth in the NHL. So to answer my own question, yeah, I think the Leafs are going to be good. Setting the bar on “Yeah, but what will they do in the playoffs” may be fair overall, but there’s quite a marathon to run to get there.
At least along the way, Leafs fans should expect to see some good hockey this season.