Many young Toronto Maple Leafs players have proven themselves at the NHL already. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are the two most prevalent, but there are more coming. While the next group of up-and-comers may not quite be at the level Matthews and Marner are, the importance of depth players cannot be denied. No team wins with two superstars and nothing supporting them. One of the strengths of the Maple Leafs is their depth.
Five Toronto Maple Leafs Players Ready To Breakout
Alexander Kerfoot has two seasons under his belt. He’s already shown that he can be an effective player, but there’s another level to reach if he wants to make Maple Leafs fans forget about Nazem Kadri. Kadri posted back to back seasons scoring over 30 goals. Kerfoot may not reach that lofty hight playing centre on the third line. He will still look to improve on his previous point totals while continuing to improve his possession statistics.
Kerfoot scored 19 and 15 goals in his first two seasons. He may improve upon that. Breaking 20 goals for the first time would count for something. It’s the other areas of the game that Kerfoot can quietly excel and bring him to the next level.
In his first season, Kerfoot’s faceoff win percentage was 42.1. Last year it was 56 percent. Continuing to improve on faceoffs will go a long way for Toronto. It will quickly earn Mike Babcock‘s trust too, which will lead to more ice time. Kerfoot’s possession stats jumped in his second season as well. He went from a Corsi For of 48.2 percent to 51.7. That’s with around a 55 percent offensive zone start percentage. That is one number that is likely to drop as the majority of offensive zone starts will be given to Auston Matthews and John Tavares in Toronto. With more defensive zone starts, Kerfoot will need to be strong defensively to keep his possession metrics up. If he does, he will quickly become a go-to player for the Maple Leafs late in games.
Travis Dermott will miss the first couple of months of the season after having shoulder surgery in May. Missing training camp and the start of the season while rehabbing an injury will put Dermott behind in his progress towards becoming a top-four defenseman. If he can overcome those setbacks, Dermott is looking at a top-four role with the Maple Leafs this season.
Jake Gardiner is likely gone, although he is still unsigned. Tyson Barrie is in. Barrie will take a spot opposite Morgan Rielly on the top pairing. A position that’s been filled by older and lesser players over the past couple of seasons. Jake Muzzin will play the left side on the second pairing. While Dermott is perhaps better suited for the left side, which would put him on the third pairing behind Rielly and Muzzin, the second pairing right-side defender is slated to be Cody Ceci at the moment.
If Ceci doesn’t impress in October and November, while Dermott recovers, he could quickly find himself on the Maple Leafs’ bottom pairing or worse. That will open a top-four role for Dermott who at 22 and with 101 NHL games under his belt may be ready to solidify himself as a key player for Toronto. He’ll have to play his offside to make it into the top four, but many feel he is capable of playing the right side successfully. He’s already got NHL experience playing in the top four on the right side.
While there is a chance Ceci is playing on the third pairing seeing limited ice time by December and playing for another team by March, there’s also a chance Ceci is more than he appears to be. Kyle Dubas signed Ceci to a $4.5 million deal this off-season. That was a small bump above his qualifying offer. That’s a lot of money. Especially on a team that is either going to need to move salary to sign Marner or will be very tight against the cap once Marner signs. Dubas must see something beyond the numbers in Ceci.
The sample size for Ceci is big. He’s played 440 games, has 118 points and is a minus 60. He has a career 45.7 Corsi For percentage and a -3.9 relative Corsi For percentage. Those are some bad numbers. All of them came while playing for the Ottawa Senators. The Senators have been bad the past couple years, but Ceci was there the year they almost reached the Stanley Cup Final too. His numbers aren’t just because the Senators are a bad team. It could be that he was overused in Ottawa. That’s not something that will happen in Toronto. It’s possible Ceci can shine in a lesser role than the Senators needed him to play. That may be what Dubas is banking on. If it doesn’t happen, he’s only under contract for one year.
With a one-year contract, Ceci in a position where he needs to prove himself. That Gardiner is still unsigned as September looms should tell us that no player should assume they are going to be signed to an NHL contract, let alone a lucrative one. If Ceci doesn’t impress this season, it may be his last in the NHL, at least his last making north of $4 million a year. Financial uncertainty can be a powerful motivator.
William Nylander has two 61 point seasons under his belt. You could argue he’s already had his breakout season and that last year was just an anomaly caused by a lengthy contract dispute. Marner, take note. There’s another camp that thinks Nylander has yet to display his full potential and this is the year for him to show the world what he can do. An offseason of regrets and a full training camp ahead may be just what the doctor ordered.
Nylander’s most productive season saw him score 22 goals. If he finds himself playing with Matthews for a full season, 22 goals should be the bare minimum for Nylander. It’s not a stretch to think he can top 30 goals or near 80 points. He’s got everything he needs to impress at 23, under contract, and playing along one of the best centres in the league. He’s also got something to prove after scoring just seven goals in 54 games last year.
Toronto Maple Leafs Players As A Team
More important than any single player breaking out is the success of the team. Another first-round exit in the playoffs will be more than a disappointment. The Maple Leafs have all the tools they need to succeed, but will they pull it all together and finally make it to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and beyond. There’s not going to be a better time to do it than this season.