Skip to main content

NHL Burning Questions: Toronto Maple Leafs

Adam Proteau takes a look at the biggest questions surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs as they head into a pivotal season.
USATSI_19135144

This is the latest file in THN.com’s ongoing Burning Questions series, in which we pose a trio of front-and-center questions about each NHL team. In today’s edition, we’re asking three burning questions about the Toronto Maple Leafs:

THREE BURNING QUESTIONS FOR THE MAPLE LEAFS IN 2022-23:

1. Will Toronto’s new goaltending tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov hold up and give the Leafs a better look in net, or will they crumble under the pressure and push Toronto out of the playoff picture altogether? 

The Leafs’ netminding situation has felt like a Spanish telenovela of late, and this summer’s drastic moves by Toronto GM Kyle Dubas have put the spotlight on the state of the Buds’ new goaltending duo, veteran Matt Murray and youngster Ilya Samsonov. The Leafs traded for Murray and signed unrestricted free agent Samsonov because they weren’t prepared to offer last season’s starter, Jack Campbell, with the length of new contract – five years, at $5 million per – Campbell eventually got from the Edmonton Oilers. If Campbell had come back to Dubas and said he’d sign for three years at $3 million per year, this writer believes he’d still be Toronto’s No. 1.

Instead, Dubas went with a couple of reclamation projects in Murray and Samsonov; the former was a washout in Ottawa after winning a pair of Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh, while the latter, left the Washington Capitals after putting up decent individual numbers (2.92 Goals-Against Average, .912 Save Percentage) in the 2022-23 post-season. Until he proves otherwise, Murray is a health concern for Leafs' head coach Sheldon Keefe, who may be going to a more even split of the regular-season games than he wants to. But the reality is Murray’s career-best in games played in a single season is 50, and that was back in 2018--19. In the three seasons after that, Murray has only 85 games played combined.

Meanwhile, Samsonov has played more than 26 games just once in his three NHL season, and that was last year when he made 44 appearances. But the Capitals let him walk as a UFA because his numbers (including a 3.02 G.A.A. and .896 SP) last year simply weren’t where they should be on a team that is in win-now mode. So you can see why there are skeptics concerning Dubas’ plans for the Leafs’ net. In a more competitive Atlantic Division, Toronto’s goaltending could be the difference between making and missing the playoffs, as well as the difference between them winning a playoff round or two and justifying Dubas’ moves with his goalies. It’s fair to worry about the goaltending, but it’s also possible one or both of Murray and Samsonov regain their competitive edge and give the Buds an improvement between the pipes.

2. How much better can superstar forwards Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner really be? 

When your most important forward goes out and wins the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player and also scores more goals than anyone else in the sport, you can’t ask for more. But when it comes to superstar center Auston Matthews, the sense among hockey observers is there’s still room to grow his game. He and linemate/fellow star Mitch Marner are only 25, and really are entering their prime years, so it’s entirely possible that Matthews and Marner can still ratchet up their performance to better levels.

How much better can they be? It’s tough to say, but so long as they’re healthy, both players are likely to hit and surpass the 100-point plateau, and get their points-per-game average at or near the 1.50 mark. If they can feed off each other to a greater degree, and if whoever plays on their other wing succeeds the way Michael Bunting did last year, Marner and Matthews can set new career highs and lead the way for the rest of the team.

3. Which lesser-known (and lesser-paid) Leafs will step up and make the most of the opportunities now out there for them in Toronto? 

The injuries the Leafs have already suffered during the pre-season reveal which players are ready to take a job in Toronto’s competitive lineup: veteran forward Calle Jarnkrok, a new addition via free agency, has earned praise for his versatility and skill, and he’s a good candidate to play somewhere on the Buds’ second line now that star center John Tavares has been sidelined by an oblique muscle strain. Similarly, forwards (and small salary-cap-hits) Alex Steeves, Nick Robertson, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Denis Malgin, Nick Abruzzese, and Zach Aston-Reese have impressed as assets that can contribute, either on the bottom-six when it comes to most of them, or in Robertson and Malgin’s cases, on the second line.

The Leafs still must get through the pre-season, which means they may yet incur even more injured players. The aforementioned depth candidates could have to play a bigger role than they currently can envision, and Dubas’ judgment on them is going to be a significant part of what Dubas is judged on in the next off-season. If these guys don’t acclimate well to more crucial roles, Dubas’ job security could be jeopardized.

TOP HEADLINES

Darnell Nurse
Play

Hockey Things: What Caught Our Eye (Dec. 5)

The Connor Bedard show hits Edmonton again, Kia Nurse roasts her brother and London Hoilett is the Teddy Bear Toss Game hero in Calgary.

Jakub Voracek
Play

Blue Jackets' Voracek Out Long-Term with Concussion Symptoms

Blue Jackets forward Jakub Voracek announced he may potentially miss the rest of the 2022-23 season due to lingering concussion symptoms.

Pyotr Kochetkov
Play

Fantasy Hockey Head-to-Head Primer: Add Kochetkov, Cirelli

Week 9 of the fantasy hockey season has begun. There are a handful of players to consider adding, including Pyotr Kochetkov and Anthony Cirelli.