In a few weeks, the NHL’s 2023-24 regular season will begin and the Toronto Maple Leafs are in a solid position to have their best season in decades.
For starters, it’s important to recognize that, despite their second-round playoff loss to Florida last spring, the Leafs had a very successful regular season leading up to the post-season. They finished the year with a 50-21-11 record, which was second in the Atlantic Division to the incredible year posted by the Boston Bruins. Although Toronto was a distant 24 standings points behind the Bruins, they also were 12 points better than the third-place Tampa Bay Lightning. That’s not shabby at all.
With that in mind, let’s talk about the Leafs’ roster changes this summer. As we’ve noted before, Buds GM Brad Treliving did some stellar work tweaking the lineup around Toronto’s core four forwards. And despite losing a slew of veteran talent to unrestricted free agency, the Leafs managed to improve on every front in which they lost a key contributor. Up front, the Leafs parted ways with winger Michael Bunting, but they replaced him with another rugged winger, Tyler Bertuzzi. At forward, they also lost veteran Alex Kerfoot, but they ostensibly replaced him with Max Domi. On the wing, they bid farewell to Wayne Simmonds, but replaced him with brute Ryan Reaves. And on defense, they replaced Justin Holl with John Klingberg. All of those additions make Toronto a better team than they were at this time last season.
Meanwhile, in goal, the Leafs have much better depth this year. Gone – OK, technically not “gone”, but for all intents and purposes, “gone” – is the often-injured Matt Murray and third-stringer Erik Kallgren. In their place is rookie Joseph Woll and veteran Martin Jones. Sure, Ilya Samsonov remains the de facto No. 1 goalie, but Treliving has deepened his netminding asset base, and has provided more internal competition for playing time between the pipes.
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And really, increasing competition is the goal for Toronto, as it is for every team that sees itself as a bona fide Stanley Cup contender. Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe will have all sorts of options for his lineup on any given night, especially at forward, where veterans will be challenged for ice time by youngsters including wingers Matthew Knies and Nick Robertson, as well as centers Pontus Holmberg, Dylan Gambrell and training camp invitee Noah Gregor. Some of those players will have to begin the season with the American League Toronto Marlies, but that’s a benefit, not a problem. Once the injury bug bites into the Leafs’ roster, having this depth will only help them navigate waters until they’re fully healthy again.
There are always going to be unforeseen challenges on every NHL team, but Treliving has prepared the Leafs as well as anyone could when it comes to setting a high bar. We all know the Buds will only go so far as superstars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares carry them, and we also all know the true measure of their season will come in the playoffs. But augmenting that core of talent the way Treliving has is a feather in his management cap.
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Now, if Toronto flames out in the first round, or doesn’t get past the second round for a second consecutive season, Leafs brass will be at a crossroads with their top talents. There’s still no circumstance in which it makes sense to trade Matthews and Marner, and Tavares’ contract makes him essentially unmovable, but if Nylander is still with the team next spring, he almost assuredly will be traded next summer, probably for help on defense.
We’re not yet close to that point, though. This is why it’s important for Leafs fans to shrug off the naysayers right now, and just enjoy the quality of team the Buds have put together. If they’re going to be a truly elite team come playoff time, they need to build up to it. As the Panthers demonstrated last year, you can have a mediocre season, but if you’re firing on all pistons by mid-April, you can ride that wave of momentum all the way to the Cup Final.
That’s the task that’s before Keefe & Co. today. No regular-season success will matter if they can’t convert that into becoming a playoff juggernaut, but without regular-season success, they won’t have home-ice advantage in order to give themselves every possible leg up on the competition.
The good news for Leafs supporters is they’ve got their most potent lineup, top-to-bottom, as they’ve had at any point this millennium. They’re going to be a beast in the Eastern Conference and a threat to win every game. So take some time to appreciate them, Leafs fans. At this time in 2024, salary cap constraints will make this a very different squad, so you may as well appreciate this group while you can.