The 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs have had an up-and-down campaign early on. For every highlight reel Auston Matthews goal, there’s been a key injury or poor goaltending performance to go along with it.
Despite this, the Leafs are 9-6-4 through their opening 19 games and sit second in the Atlantic division. Matthews’ 25 points have him on pace for a career-high 108 points and Frederik Andersen has lost just twice in regulation in 14 starts to date.
Much of the Leafs limited success has come down to their best players being exactly that when needed. While Andersen and Matthews have been as advertised early in 2019-20, injury has prevented John Tavares from making the type of impact he would’ve wished for so far.
Zach Hyman has yet to feature for Toronto this season due to a knee injury. Similarly, defenseman Travis Dermott missed the first 13 games of the season thanks to a shoulder injury sustained back in the playoffs. Luckily for the Leafs, several players have stepped up their game in lieu of some key guys who have been absent.
With star winger, Mitch Marner, now sidelined for a minimum of four weeks through injury, the demand placed on the depth to perform only becomes greater. With this in mind, here are the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs surprise performers so far this season.
2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs Surprises
2018-19 was not a year to remember for Leafs defenseman Justin Holl. Holl’s NHL career got off to a folk tale start when he scored twice in his first two career games the previous year. His reward came in 2018-19 in the form of a permanent position with the big club. Unfortunately, that position largely consisted of a press box view as he played only 11 games throughout the season.
After head coach Mike Babcock refused to include Holl in the lineup last year, most in Leafs land assumed Holl would play little to no role for Toronto in 2019-20. Since then injuries on the blueline and the demotion of Swedish youngster Rasmus Sandin to the AHL have seen Holl feature in 17 out of Toronto’s 19 games to date.
While Babcock’s hand might have been somewhat forced, Holl has made the most of his audition. The 27-year-old American has five assists and a plus-six rating through 17 games. With offseason additions Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci experiencing some growing pains on the right side of defense early in their Leafs career, Holl might be looked upon to help solidify the Leafs blueline that much more moving forward.
The 2019 Leafs offseason was one of the wilder ones in recent memory. One could be forgiven for missing the acquisition of Russian forward Ilya Mikheyev amongst abundant roster shakeups and contract disputes.
Since the start of the season, Mikheyev has ensured his presence on Toronto’s roster goes unnoticed no longer. The Omsk native has picked up 11 points in 19 games for the Leafs early in his NHL career. Mikheyev’s tenacity on the puck and his ability to get in behind opposing blueliners off the rush has had Babcock licking his chops so far in 2019-20.
The speedy winger’s play has begun to turn heads leaguewide and as a result, his name has been thrown into early Calder trophy consideration. With Marner away from the group for the foreseeable future, Mikheyev is a prime candidate to take on a bigger role with the Buds in the coming weeks.
Of the names within the group, William Nylander appears an anomaly. Unlike Holl or Mikheyev, Nylander had already established himself as an NHL player prior to this season.
2018-19, on the other hand, was not the Swede’s finest season. After a lengthy contract hold-out, Nylander played 54 regular-season games, scoring just 27 points. The Leafs cap constraints have been a major talking point in the past year and Nylander’s near $7m AAV has been the focus of criticism from fans and media alike.
After recording consecutive 61 point campaigns in his first two full NHL seasons, Nylander’s production took a dip last year. As a result, expectations were low for the former eighth overall draft pick heading into 2019-20.
Through the Leafs first nineteen games this season, Nylander has been one of the best forwards night in, night out. His fifteen points are good enough for fourth on the team and have him on pace to score a career-high 65 points if he can stay healthy for all 82 games. With Marner missing from the top Powerplay unit for at least the next month, Nylander will have a great opportunity to rediscover the level he demonstrated early in his career.