When Mitch Marner finally signed his six year, $65.358-million contract at the beginning of September, Leafs Nation let out a collective sigh of relief knowing they wouldn’t have to ride the restricted free agent rollercoaster for a second straight year.
Many hockey fans criticized Toronto GM Kyle Dubas for caving to 22-year-old Marner’s demand for a large contract, but there’s no denying Marner’s value to the team.
With him in the lineup, the Leafs will field three of the NHL’s premier forwards and a solid defensive core on a nightly basis, making them major contenders to lift the Stanley Cup.
Up front, the Leafs are led by the best one-two centre duo in the league: John Tavares and Auston Matthews.
Last year was Tavares’ first season as a Leaf and he exceeded expectations, scoring 47 goals with a league-leading 37 of them at even-strength.
On his right will be Marner, who led the team in scoring last year with 94 points and will have his sights set on the 100-point mark.
Two-way forward Zach Hyman and his 20 goals will join the two, creating one of the league’s best even-strength lines.
The second line—which could be a first-line on many other teams—will feature Matthews, William Nylander, and Andreas Johnsson.
Matthews will look to continue his elite two-way play from last year when he scored 73 points in just 68 games.
The injury history is a concern for Matthews, who has now missed 20% of his games over the past two seasons.
However, it’s important to note that he played last year without his winger Nylander, who just wasn’t the same after a long contract standoff and disappointed everyone with an abysmal seven goal season.
Look for the 23-year-old Nylander to bounce back on Matthews’ line and score something around his 20 goals from two years ago.
The big change up front for the Leafs is the departure of third-line centre Nazem Kadri, who was traded to Colorado for Alexander Kerfoot and Tyson Barrie.
Kerfoot should be able to replace most of Kadri’s impact thanks to his ability to read the game and strong face-off skills.
It helps that he probably won’t get suspended in the playoffs either.
The departure of Kadri will mean Matthews and Tavares finally see more than 20 minutes of ice-time a night, much closer to other players of their calibre.
On the back end, Dubas made major changes, trading for Barrie and Codi Ceci, with the hope of helping goaltender Frederik Andersen.
Barrie is an elite puck-moving defenceman and has averaged 58 points over the last two seasons, meaning he should slot in nicely on the top pair next to Jake Muzzin.
Ceci is a more puzzling addition: he isn’t a strong defender and doesn’t have a gifted offensive game either; however, he is an excellent skater, which should complement the play style of his partner Morgan Rielly, who has spent the last few years tied down to the ageing Ron Hainsey.
Highly-touted rookie Rasmus Sandin should begin the season on the third pair with Travis Dermott, and if they can play a solid 12 minutes a night, the Leafs should be in very good shape.
Andersen will be the Leafs’ starting goaltender and his play will likely decide how successful the team is.
Last year, he had 36 wins in 60 starts, posting a .917 save percentage.
It’s likely that his save percentage is inflated, as coach Mike Babcock’s system concedes a large number of harmless shots.
However, Andersen passes the eye-test and often comes up with crucial stops to keep his team in the game.
At the end of the day, Andersen just needs to let in fewer pucks than his counterpart, and Toronto’s goal-scoring prowess should make that easy.
For a team of Toronto’s calibre, success is defined in the spring, and all signs point to a third straight first-round series against Boston.
This might finally be the year the Leafs overcome the hump as their superstars are just entering their primes while Boston’s are on the wrong side of 30.
If Nylander returns to form, Kerfoot proves to be on the level of Kadri, and Andersen elevates his play, Toronto should be the favourite in that series.
The problem is, beating Boston likely means a second-round matchup against the Stanley Cup favourite Tampa Bay Lightning, who, provided they don’t choke, should have no trouble taking care of Toronto.
The Leafs will likely fall victim to the terrible playoff format this year, but with all of their superstars locked into long term contracts, the window to glory will be open for years to come.
Prediction: the Leafs finish second in the Atlantic Division and defeat Boston in the first round before losing to Tampa Bay in the second.