Ah, the Toronto Maple Leafs. The living embodiment of Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill. Or Charlie Brown trying to kick a football.
No matter how many times the Leafs climb the playoff hill and come close to winning their first playoff series since 2004, the boulder rolls all the way back down and somehow robs them for good measure. And it seems to get more embarrassing each time.
Toronto was expected to steamroll the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of playoffs last spring and certainly did in the first four games. But two overtimes and a lackluster Game 7 later, and the summer of “What If’s” began all over again.
We’re no strangers to playoff frustration around these parts, but the Maple Leafs are reaching a point where one might question if a team led by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander can ever live up to their lofty expectations. The talent and skill of Toronto’s core is unmistakable; their ability to overcome adversity, time and time again, has disappeared when they needed it most.
So far Toronto’s brass, led by president Brendan Shanahan and general manager Kyle Dubas, have avoided hitting the panic button too quickly. Sheldon Keefe’s club will enter this season all the more reliant on their young nucleus, with the hope that a number of youngsters and newcomers can rise to the occasion around them.
For now, all the Leafs can do is pick themselves up and start pushing that boulder up the hill one more time.
Where we left off
Last season’s Leafs took full advantage of playing in the North Division, finishing with 77 points and their first division title since 2000. Auston Matthews hit the 40 goal plateau in just 52 games, Mitch Marner led the club in scoring with 67 points and Jack Campbell asserted himself as a starting goaltender with 17 wins and a .921 save percentage.
As is tradition for the blue and white, everything went south the second the regular season ended. A freak injury to captain John Tavares in Game 1 of the postseason immediately put a massive cloud over the series, and the Leafs' offense completely dried up in the final three games against the Canadiens.
Toronto might not be on the verge of blowing the team up, but Leaf fans are ready to warm up the hot seats for everybody if they witness another first-round exit in 2022.
2021 NHL Draft
The Leafs' all-in approach over the last few years has come at a cost to their draft opportunities. Toronto drafted just once in the first four rounds of the 2021 Draft, taking forward Matthew Knies at 57th overall from the United States Hockey League’s Tri-City Storm.
Knies finished third in scoring for the Storm with 42 points in 2021, and is committed to the University of Minnesota for the upcoming year. From there, the Leafs made just two more picks in the final three rounds, selecting a second forward and a goaltender.
- Matthew Knies, F (57th overall)
- Ty Voit, F (153th overall)
- Vyacheslav Peksa, G (185th overall)
The off-season wasn’t kind to the Leafs’ depth, with a number of key players moving on to greener pastures. No loss was bigger than that of winger Zach Hyman, who received a massive payday from the Oilers after four straight 30-point seasons in Toronto.
Another major part of the current Leafs era was goaltender Freddie Andersen, who had been the stabilizing force in Toronto’s net since 2016. But after injuries and inconsistent play led to Jack Campbell usurping his role in 2021, the club elected not to re-sign Andersen and he joined the Carolina Hurricanes in August. To replace him, the Leafs did the ol’ switcheroo and signed the Hurricanes’ former starter, Petr Mrazek, to back up Campbell.
Many of the Leafs’ biggest acquisitions last season also elected to sign elsewhere, including beloved old man Joe Thornton and Trade Deadline rentals like Nick Foligno, Riley Nash and David Rittich. General manager Kyle Dubas made efforts to remedy his club’s extra top-heavy forward corps by signing former Bruins Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase, but this Toronto attack is decidedly weaker than last year’s.
The same isn’t true for the Leafs’ blue line, with every defender returning from last year’s team. Morgan Reilly is entering his ninth season with Toronto in 2021-22, and his last before his current contract expires. The 27-year-old West Vancouver native is expected to earn a big raise in the summer, one that Toronto likely won’t be able to afford with their precarious cap situation, making winning a playoff series now all the more important.
Daily Faceoff sees the Leafs’ lines looking something like this:
Nick Ritchie — Auston Matthews — Mitch Marner
Alex Kerfoot — John Tavares — William Nylander
Michael Bunting — David Kampf — Ilya Mikheyev
Wayne Simmonds — Jason Spezza — Ondrej Kase
Morgan Rielly — T.J. Brodie
Jake Muzzin — Justin Holl
Rasmus Sandin — Travis Dermott
What can we expect in 2021-22?
With the move from the one-and-done North Division back to the much tougher Atlantic, it’s fair to assume the Leafs will take a step back in 2021-22. How big of one is the real question.
Tampa Bay remains the heavy favorite to win the division, Boston remains a serious contender and the Florida Panthers finished with more points than the Leafs last season. Toronto is coming into 2021-22 with a much shallower offense and the odds are likely that they’ll find themselves in a heated battle for the third Atlantic division spot.
But maybe those lower expectations will lead to a happier ending in the summer. Or maybe we’re going to witness another attempt at rolling the rock up the hill.
The Leafs and Sharks will meet twice this season, first at Scotiabank Arena on October 22 and again at SAP Center on November 26.