On the eve of the 2022/2023 season, there is much angst, excitement and in some cases anger in the extreme corners of Leafs Nation. In saying this, I’d like to start with a retrospection of what was last year’s season, a lot of narratives and storylines were created after another short spring run in the playoffs with most being valid but many completely false.
Say what you will about a tough opening round loss against the 2x Stanley Cup Champions and eventual Stanley Cup Finalists Tampa Bay Lightning, losing is never an easy pill to swallow especially for a fan base who hasn’t had anything to celebrate since 1967 (yikes, I know), but what can’t be lost in the emotion is the objectivity that framed much of what the Maple Leafs and GM Kyle Dubas did this offseason.
So let’s start with the contentious change in goal from the affable and much beloved Jack Campbell and much maligned Petr Mrazek, to the goaltending duo of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov, I wrote a piece back in July that broke down how the Maple Leafs performed defensively, and how the largest drag on the Maple Leafs last year was the goaltending from December-until the first round exit. In the blog, I had reported the comparison of the play of Jack Campbell and Matt Murray.
“Now some player to player comparisons, last year on a team that had some of the best defensive numbers in the league, Jack Campbell ranked 35th in Goals Saved Above Expected (this is calculated by the league’s average save percentage with the number of shots a goalie has had, this accounts for the quality of shots a goaltender faces and levels the playing field for goalies on good or bad defensive teams), Matt Murray on the other hand ranked 23rd overall while backstopping a rebuilding Ottawa Senators team. Campbell’s save percentage from last year was buoyed by an out of this world November where he finished with an .947% save percentage.”
In saying this, I don’t expect Matt Murray or Ilya Samsonov to be in the running for the Vezina Trophy or anything, but with the Maple Leafs having top 10 defensive statistics last year, a defense that is in large part returning being led by veterans like Morgan Rielly, TJ Brodie, Mark Giordano, Jake Muzzin (when fully healthy) and returning youngsters in Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren (who himself had a strong showing to end last season and in game one of the playoff series), I believe the goalies will benefit greatly from a stronger defensive group in front of them, which should in theory deliver better results than some in the media and fan base predict.
It would stand to reason, that as a goalie is facing less high danger chances each game, making their job easier should help to improve their individual results which in turn should improve the team’s results this upcoming season. Below, are two rankings of each team in the NHL:
- The chart on the left shows the Leafs allowed the 9th least amount of high danger chances per 60 minutes of 5v5 hockey where as Ottawa ranked 20th and Washington ranked 12th.
- The chart on the right shows the Leafs had the 27th worst team save percentage in the league at 5v5 where as Ottawa ranked 15th and Washington ranked 16th.
The second point of contention for many after the playoffs and as we turn to this upcoming season is that the Maple Leafs needed more grit and more physical players on the team, some even calling the Maple Leafs a “soft team”. The additions of both Zach Aston-Reese and Nicolas Aube-Kubel alone added about 400 hits, while having strong defensive numbers respectively.
With these additions, and that of Calle Järnkrok, the Maple Leafs have given their bottom six an identity that it didn’t have for all of the last season. All three of these additions alongside returnees Pierre Engvall and David Kämpf, should provide strong defensive hockey while adding some additional depth scoring from the likes of Järnkrok and Engvall. The newly assembled bottom six will give teams nightmares with their speed, defensive acumen and their desire to hit anything in an opposing jersey. I predict many in Leafs Nation will come to love the new additions in the bottom six, which should help to open more offensive opportunities for the likes of Matthews, Marner, Bunting, Tavares and Nylander.
This unfortunately means that veterans Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds are now no longer on the team, with the Maple Leafs announcing that they are looking to find a new home for Simmonds and in the case Clifford was waived and will most likely start the season with the Toronto Marlies. On a more personal stand point, Leafs Nation owe Simmonds a huge level gratitude for his time on the ice and all the work he did off the ice to help grow the game.
With all this said, I believe the Maple Leafs will contend for the Atlantic Division title with Tampa Bay being their biggest challenge, a repeat of the 115 point season may not be in the cards, but I also don’t see the Maple Leafs leaving their perch as one of the top five teams in the NHL by season end.
I know I have said this each of the last two season preview blogs, but I have to believe (maybe want is a better description) that this year’s team will breakthrough their collective playoff ceiling, and go on a run! They are too talented to be held down for too much longer, much like the Colorado Avalanche (who faced their own adversity) on their way to winning the Cup, the Maple Leafs will breakthrough and give this fanbase something to be excited for because I don’t want to think about what the alternative would be if they don’t because I don’t think we will want to see what we get from the mystery box if they don’t.