Our six pack season preview inches closer to opening day.
The 2021 NHL season is set to kick off on January 13th after a short training camp. For this season, the Oilers will compete in an all-Canadian North Division. I’ve asked our sibling SB Nation websites to give us a preview about their upcoming season. Today, we focus on Toronto with help from the staff over at Pension Plan Puppets.
Oddsmakers have the Leafs taking the North Division handily. Will they? Is this the year that they win a playoff series? Katya, Seldo, Hardev, Brigstew, and Fulemin are here to let us into the world of blue and white.
Let’s not waste any time and jump right in.
- Copper and Blue: The Leafs ended last season in a disappointing fashion when they were eliminated in five games by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the round robin portion of the playoffs. What was the biggest deficiency that kept Toronto from advancing?
Fulemin: They just did not break through Columbus’ defence at 5v5. When you’re paying roughly $60,000,000,000 to your offensive stars, that ain’t acceptable. I’ll zoom in and say that while Matthews and Tavares at least came close to earning their money, Nylander and Marner played like ass.
Katya: Ironically, the notorious Leafs defence was fine against the offensively weak Boo Jackets. The only offensive players who succeeded were grinders who can’t score.
Hardev: Toronto had no offense in that series and it was because of everyone except Matthews and Tavares. Marner and Nylander were useless when put under targeted defensive pressure, the third line that was awful from February remained so, and the defense (Barrie and Holl) took too many shots from nowhere that went nowhere.
- Copper and Blue: Toronto’s free agency period saw the club sign forward Wayne Simmonds defenceman and Zach Bogosian. Along with these two, Toronto picked up Joe Thornton for a year and re-signed Jason Spezza for one more. How much will these players contribute to the club’s overall success in 2021?
Fulemin: Not a ton unless it’s in a negative way. The three forwards used to be stars, but that’s long ago and they’re all clear bottom sixers at this point. If they can go out and look competent that’ll be just fine, and as much as we can reasonably hope.
Katya: Speaking of grinders who don’t score much. Bogo is a depth extra who PKs. Simmonds and Jumbo Joe are different. They both know how to play with top lines (like Corey Perry on the Stars last year) so they can fill-in or rotate up on a shift. They aren’t going to line up top six, but they bring something more than just grit to the bottom six, and add some versatility. But the existing top six are who matter, and who need to produce.
Seldo: I guess the key phrase used was “overall success”. If we are just talking on ice, I wouldn’t hang my hopes on them. Off-ice however, is where I think this team really needs to be shaken up. Everyone is singing the praises of these players when it comes to the locker room and personalities and the like. Only Bogosian is a cup winner out of the group, but the amount of experience brought to a team that is lacking in that department, hopefully it can rub off on some players who (and this is all my feelings here) don’t seem to show off a lot of passion and intensity - showcase by almost no one showing up to the optional practice after the David Ayres game.
Hardev: It shouldn’t be ignored that the Leafs also signed TJ Brodie in free agency and will most definitely make a bigger impact than all three of the notable newcomers. He comes in to hopefully give the Leafs two stable pairs to roll out. Bodie and Rielly don’t have to be great, they just need to be a consistent and reliable pair at 5v5, like Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl were last season. For the Leafs, finding consistency across different game situations is key. They need to learn to play the same way when they’re up, down, or tied. When the opponent is pushing hard on offense, they can’t get stuck in their own zone, dumping the puck out. That tactic doesn’t work, the Leafs have proven it time and again. Hopefully the likes of Simmonds (who has lots of ENGs), Thornton, and Bogosian can help lead those plays out of the defensive zone when under pressure. That’s the hope.
- Copper and Blue: Goaltender Frederik Andersen’s name popped up a bit in trade talks this offseason. How confident are you with Andersen receiving the lion’s share of starts in 2021?
Fulemin: About as confident as I ever am with goalies, which is only sorta. Freddie was not great last year, but he was a good starter for several years in a row before that. Our fanbase seems to adore Jack Campbell, who truly is a delightful human being, but Campbell has never been an NHL starter for a whole season and he’s about to turn 29. Bet on the incumbent.
Seldo: He’ll get a good amount of starts for the year and I haven’t been a big doubting Thomas when it comes to Freddie, but having Dell or Campbell behind him all year and taking more starts than previous back ups will make a huge difference in confidence in the net.
Hardev: He’ll have a better defense in front of him (Barrie and Ceci probably took years off his life), and a better backup next to him so he won’t have to take on as many games. People forget that when Hutchinson was the backup, Andersen played a lot of back-to-backs and had to come in when Hutchinson got pulled (which was often). It obviously didn’t do him well. When Andersen had Curtis McElhinney as a backup, there wasn’t a worry about him. A better backup will make Andersen more reliable. In terms of his contract situation, they’ll have to re-sign him after the expansion draft if they can’t find a new starter. Leading option right now is keeping him.
- Copper and Blue: Tell us about a Leaf who will break out in 2021.
Fulemin: Breaking out is a strong phrase. I think Alex Kerfoot will spend some time as the LW to John Tavares, and plenty of wingers have gotten pay raises doing that. Last year Kerfoot was usually the 3C flanked by inadequate or struggling wingers a lot of the time.
Katya: People want that to be Nick Robertson, but life is rarely like a movie, and anyway, the Leafs don’t need a breakout star, they have several. They need boring and dull improvements in zone exits and playing without the puck.
Hardev: Can William Nylander break out any more than he did last year? Maybe with a scoring year under his belt and Canada watching him, he’ll get the respect he deserves as a powerful transition winger who goes to the net. He’s equal to Marner and I hope we start to hear other people say that.
- Copper and Blue: The Leafs badly need help on defence after finishing 27th out of 31 in goals allowed in 2019-20. How much does new Leaf TJ Brodie do in filling that gap?
Brigstew: Rielly’s partner last year was mostly Tyson Barrie or Cody Ceci. It’s like filling in a gap with (pauses to Google the world’s most indestructible material) Graphene. Brodie will easily be the best partner Rielly has ever played with, and should complement his game well.
Hardev: Like Brigstew said, Barrie and Ceci are replacement level players at 5v5. Regardless of what they look like on the ice, neither impacts the game offensively or defensively. Morgan Rielly can get the puck out of the zone and start and offensive chance at the other end, what he struggles with is getting the puck back to begin with. If Brodie can do that, it will reduce secondary chances against, shorten shifts in the defensive zone, and give Rielly more chances to be Rielly.
- Copper and Blue: Finally, where do the Leafs finish in the 2021 North standings? Is this the year they advance out of the first round?
Katya: First and yes. Anything but first place is not acceptable, but the playoffs are more of a crapshoot and shouldn’t be the measure of the team even though they always are.
Fulemin: First. Sorry for the Toronto superiority complex, the Leafs are obviously flawed, but every other team in Canada either has even worse depth issues than Toronto (Edmonton’s D, Vancouver’s bottom six, Winnipeg’s everyone but four forwards and Hellebuyck) or lacks comparable star power (Montreal and Calgary). As for the playoffs, well, the Leafs ought to win a round for the reasons just stated, but it’s not like I’m rushing out to put money on it.
Seldo: They absolutely win the division and make it past whatever garbage team shows up in 4th place (Looking at you Calgary).
Hardev: First and we’ll see them in the Conference Finals against some real teams. Beyond this being an obvious answer from a Leafs fan, looking around the division, Toronto has the best combination of offense, defense, and goaltending this year. The other six teams have one or two of those things they’re confident in, the Leafs should feel confident about all three being there on a regular basis.