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Have the Maple Leafs Done Enough to Get Over the Hump?

The Toronto Maple Leafs have had a busy off-season re-tooling their roster. Have they done enough to finally get over the hump?
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Before we get started, let's get something straight. 

I'm sure the Toronto Maple Leafs want to win a Stanley Cup. That's almost certainly their ultimate overarching goal, right? The organization talks about it all the time, after all, so unless the entire club has a tremendous collective commitment to the bit, that's what they seem to be striving for each and every season. Which is great! You play to win the game. Every NHL franchise should be operating under the "Stanley Cup or bust" mentality (looking at you, Arizona). 

But that's not where the bar is set in Leafs Nation right now. A championship parade is far from the sole outcome that will save jobs, cement legacies, and quell an increasingly distraught fanbase. 

What the Maple Leafs need to do next season is win a single round. One (1) playoff round. Just one. Advance to the second round of the postseason and the pressure immediately dissipates, the front office buys themselves another five years of leeway, and the team's core sheds the choking narrative that has followed them around for over half a decade. 

Obviously, the Leafs did not climb over the bar last season. Despite outplaying the Tampa Bay Lightning for the bulk of their opening round series, Toronto fell in Game 7. Again. On home ice. Again. 

Next year cannot have the same outcome. So, when evaluating the Leafs' moves this summer, the question "have they done enough?" must be contextualized in "have they done enough to make it past the first round?". 

Frankly, I'd say yes. 

Don't get me wrong, the Leafs lost some key pieces from last season's roster -- some of whom will be extremely difficult to replace. Ilya Mikheyev comes to mind first, with his combination of speed and length leaving a massive hole in the team's penalty kill that was among the NHL's best in 2021-22. Colin Blackwell fit seamlessly onto the club's fourth line after arriving from Seattle, injecting some needed speed and versatility which, at the time, veterans Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds simply didn't have. Even Ilya Lyubushkin, flaws and all, will be missed. And then there's Jack Campbell, who we'll get to later. 

In their place are a collection of calculated bets -- the kind that a capped-out team must make in the hopes of extending their contention window.  

Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Adam Gaudette are here to re-work the fourth line into a serviceable unit. Denis Malgin is back to prove he can play depth minutes in the NHL. Calle Jarnkrok was given roughly two years too many to add stability to the bottom six but should undoubtedly help in the present. And Victor Mete and Jordie Benn have arrived to, at the very least, offer the club some big-league bodies to plug a hole in the event of a disaster. 

None of those guys are going to become the next Michael Bunting. The blueline is already too crowded as it stands for Rasmus Sandin to get regular playing time -- a factor that is reportedly holding up his contract negotiations -- and while the second line does have a vacancy at left wing, that spot will likely get filled by a prospect such as Nick Robertson or an established vet like Alex Kerfoot. 

No, what this group of one-year fliers has been brought in to do is provide some bang-for-your-buck depth in the lower rungs of the roster. And they seem suited for it, too. 

Aube-Kubel just won a Cup in Colorado playing the same role he'll likely fill with the Leafs -- and even seems capable of giving more with some extra ice time, too. Gaudette scored at roughly a 50-point pace for the Canucks back in 2019-20 while logging just 12 minutes of ice time. Injuries and constant organizational changes have stunted his growth in recent years, but with some stability and a defined role, even something in the range of 30 points isn't out of the question. 

Ignore Jarnkrok's four-year term for a second -- that's a problem for another day -- and he seems to fit perfectly into what the Leafs need from their middle-to-bottom six at the moment. Jarnkrok is a stabilizer. He doesn't drive play on his own, but he doesn't allow opponents to drive it against him, either. Given how the Leafs will be stacking their third line with a few offensively inclined playmakers, having someone of Jarnkrok's ilk to hold down the fort seems like a good idea. 

And then you have the goaltending.

Take a second to think about what the middle chunk of the season was like for the Leafs last year. It's easy to be blinded by the puck stopper's affability into forgetting that Campbell gave the Leafs .890 goaltending for three months in 2021-22, dealing with yet another nagging ailment that he reportedly played through to the detriment of his own performance and his entire team's. And we all know how Petr Mrazek fared in his absence, too. 

The Leafs still locked down home ice advantage in the playoffs last season despite dealing with a black hole in net from December-March. Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov are about as far from sure things as you can get, with each netminder representing his own brand of disasters waiting to happen. But even if they collectively give their new club sub-.900 for the bulk of the season, the Leafs have proven to be capable of overcoming it, especially with a roster that is more or less the same as what came before. 

Did the Leafs get better this summer? Perhaps. But what they managed to do was identify undervalued players on whom to calculated bets on filling the vacant holes on their roster, all while affording themselves financial flexibility in the process. 

That's nothing to scoff at. And as the landscape shifts in the Atlantic Divison, the Leafs could very well be on the verge of clearing the (admittedly low) bar that stands before them. 

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