The Toronto Maple Leafs kick off their 2019-20 season with a Wednesday opening-night matchup with the Ottawa Senators. Both teams have gone through a ton of off-season reworking but are headed in two completely different directions.
For the Sens, they are trying to recoup as many assets as possible to build towards being competitive maybe sometime in late 2022. The Leafs were in a similar situation just a few years ago but now have expectations that are sky-high. Despite their core of players still being incredibly young by NHL standards, all the talent put in place has to lead to lofty expectations. Especially for a team that hasn’t had any real playoff success since the mid-2000s.
With all the expectations placed upon the Leafs by their fans and media-alike, what would the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs have to do this coming season for the year to be called a success? The Leafs are not only expected to make a big jump but make a deep playoff run on the heels of their incredibly talented roster.
A Successful 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs Season
Sustained Statistical Success From All Their Big Guns
The majority of the Leafs core took big steps forward in 2019. John Tavares in his first season with the club lit up the league finishing 3rd in goals scored (47) and brought along Mitch Marner for the ride. Marner in his first year besides the former-New York Islanders captain had an enormous spike in production. Going from an eight-point jump in 2017 (61) to 2018 (69), to a 25 point jump in 2019 and a high of 94 points. Both Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen also had new career highs in goals, assists, and points. The only missing element? The Leafs eight-overall pick from 2014, William Nylander.
After a contract holdout kept him from playing hockey for the Leafs in October and November of 2018, Nylander returned in a flat form. In his 54 games back in the NHL last season, he was only able to muster 27 points. This included stints besides his frequent linemate Auston Matthews. However, his lack of offence landed him on the third line for much of 2019. Nylander and his $6,962,366 cap hit is the player the Leafs need to bounce back the most in 2020.
What happened to Nylander cannot happen to any of the Leafs stars in 2020. With the way the Leafs have paid their top-end talent, they need there stars to perform. Toronto’s depth has a lot of question marks and a few everyday mainstays will miss significant time to begin the year. Players brought in to score like defenseman Tyson Barrie need to contribute early and often. There will be a lot of rotation in the bottom of the Leafs roster. The stars need to be ready to stabilize the ship.
Dependable and Not Debilitating Defense
Since the Leafs rebuild began to take shape, the forward group has been the selling point. Toronto currently has three of their first-round picks over the last five years and two other first-rounders skating in their top-six. Within this group, four players take-up roughly $45.5 million in cap space. This could be one of the best, if not the number-one, forward groups in hockey. The defence, on the other hand, has been the unquestioned weak link.
Toronto has a defensive unit that compliments their forwards with its ability to provide offence from the backend. However, they have struggled to keep pucks away from Frederik Andersen. They still struggled in 2019 allowing the eight most shots against in the league. However, it was actually an improvement after finishing third and fourth last, respectively, the two seasons prior. Luckily for the Leafs, Andersen had one of the best season of his career last season. The San Jose Sharks were the only team that made the playoffs last season with a worst goals-against average (3.15). The difference is, they allowed the 2nd least shots in the NHL.
All the Leafs can be hoping to get out of their defence is a season in which they don’t ask Andersen to do what he had to do last year. He has the ability to stand on his head when needed but it shouldn’t be necessary for each game. If the defence can limit the number and quality of shots directed towards Andersen to league average, they would be more than happy. The only team to have more unblocked shot attempts against last season than the Leafs was the Senators.
A Playoff Push
The most important component to the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs season being heralded as a success would be a playoff push past the first round. The Leafs have reached the playoffs in three straight years but have failed to walk away with a series victory. As a franchise, they haven’t reached the second round since 2004. Despite playing in likely the most top-heavy division in the NHL, they would not be happy with a fourth-straight third-round exit.
With the Leafs pushing there point total up each of the past three years, a realistic goal could even be playing to be the top-seed in the Atlantic. This would likely help them avoid facing one of the other two juggernaut Atlantic teams (the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning). Also, it would give them home-ice advantage in a playoff series for the first time in 15 years. However, if they can’t grab first place in their division, second could also go along way. It was clear that last year the Leafs went back to Boston after dropping game-six at home, despite being the better team, looking dishevelled on the ice. Having that one more game at home could mentally boost the Leafs just enough for them to close out a series.
If the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs were to get bounced in the first round of the playoffs, no matter what the regular season outcome, the season would be a failure. Players like Tavares and Barrie were acquired to get the Leafs over the hump in the playoffs. Toronto should rightfully be seen as a Stanley Cup contender with the talent on their roster. However, they need to show progress towards getting there in 2020.
The Leafs should be a surefire playoff team in 2020 but the journey will begin after game 82. Playoff hockey has a quality, unlike the regular season. Toronto needs to hope they have the skill to compete in a game that is dominated by physicality. Figuring out how to prepare for that in the regular season could be a challenge.
Hopefully, they show the ability to compete in May by frequently winning games against the NHL’s elite teams. A second-round appearance is a must if the Leafs are going to stick with the model they currently have.