Storylines, there are a few.
A new era for the Maple Leafs begins on the ice this week with the opening of training camp, Brad Treliving’s first since he took over as general manager at the end of May after Kyle Dubas was fired.
While much remains the same with the Leafs, for the first time in nearly two decades, no longer do we wonder if this finally will be the year that Toronto advances past the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Leafs hurdled that post-season obstacle this past spring, defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games before falling quickly against the Florida Panthers in five games in the second round.
Coach Sheldon Keefe is back, with a two-year extension. The core remains intact, and superstar centre Auston Matthews knows he’ll be paying a mortgage in Toronto for a while after signing a four-year extension.
As for expectations, those haven’t changed. We would bet there’s a feeling in the dressing room that this is a team that can win a Cup.
Outside of the organization? Most of us would argue that an upgrade to the blue line is required before the Leafs can seriously set their sights on every hockey player’s favourite silver mug. Still, the Leafs are a good hockey team, and anything less than a top-three finish in the Atlantic Division in the 2023-24 National Hockey League regular season would be a surprise.
We take a look at some of the bigger storylines with camp and the pre-season just days away.
THE SALARY CAP
Let’s get this out of the way — the Leafs have cap trouble and will have to get it sorted out before the puck drops on Oct. 11 at Scotiabank Arena against the Montreal Canadiens for the regular-season opener.
Even with goalie Matt Murray and defenceman Jake Muzzin going on long-term injured reserve (we’re still waiting for team confirmation on the latter), capfriendly.com has the Leafs $2.9 million over the cap of $83.5 million. That’s with 13 forwards, seven defencemen and three goalies on the roster. Of those 23 players, just two, forwards Pontus Holmberg ($800,000 cap hit) and Matthew Knies ($925,000), do not require waivers to be sent to the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League.
Sending either to the minors to save money would hurt the Leafs on the ice. Knies, against tough competition, proved in the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring that he can make an impact. Holmberg demonstrated in 37 games that he is ready to be, if nothing else, the full-time centre on the fourth line.
The Leafs can’t carry three goalies, so with Ilya Samsonov solidified as the No. 1, either veteran Martin Jones or Joseph Woll won’t make it. Woll, at 25 and with a cap hit of $766,667, surely would not pass through waivers without being claimed. Jones, who had 27 wins with Seattle last season and has not played in the minors since 2013-14, has a salary cap hit of $875,000. He could just as easily be claimed if Woll beats him out.
An injury or two in camp could ease the financial burden. But Treliving isn’t hoping for that.
If you had to pick one Leafs player who wouldn’t be negatively affected by contract talk, it would probably be William Nylander. Nothing appears to bother the winger, who is looking to improve on career numbers from 2022-23, when he scored 40 goals and had 87 points.
Would the Leafs have preferred to have got Nylander’s contract done at some point during the off-season? Of course.
During the European player media tour in August, Nylander shrugged and said he didn’t understand why there was a big rush to get his name on a new deal.
No matter, the situation bears watching, and it will get more intense the closer it gets to the NHL trade deadline in March without a new contract.
We get the feeling, though, that more outside noise will be made about it than Nylander will be actually worrying about it himself.
THE TOP SIX
On Leafs depth charts that have been scribbled on napkins and in notes folders throughout the summer, newcomers Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi had have been slotted in on the top two lines with Matthews, captain John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Nylander.
That’s how we expect the season to start, which would mark an improvement over the opener a year ago, when Michael Bunting and Denis Malgin each drew a top-six assignment.
Bertuzzi, looking to score 30 goals for the second time in the NHL, should ensure that the Leafs don’t miss Bunting, who took back-to-back 23-goal seasons to Carolina in free agency.
The chance to play for the Leafs is one that Domi has been thinking about since he was a kid, and for one season at least, he will follow his dad Tie, who skated in 777 games with Toronto. Expect the younger Domi to take full advantage.
Used primarily at centre with Dallas and Chicago last season, Domi has spent time on the wing during his NHL career and is bound to start there, whether it’s alongside Tavares or Matthews.
Knies will have something to say about all of this if he uses his performance last spring as a springboard and stands out in camp. Of the Leafs’ other forwards, the 20-year-old probably has the best chance of working his way into top six for opening night. If you’re thinking about Calle Jarnkrok, don’t. He is best suited for the third line.
Is this the year, finally, that Nick Robertson remains healthy and breaks through?
If you’re concerned about the Leafs missing Bunting’s ability to draw penalties — at all strengths last season, he drew 43 minors, second-most in the NHL behind the 45 drawn by Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers — keep in mind that Bunting was called for 39 minors at all strengths. That was second in the NHL behind Buffalo Sabres defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, who racked up 41 minors.
What we know is that Bertuzzi and Domi will bring some “snot,” to use Treliving’s word. Ditto for Ryan Reaves on the fourth line.
THE BLUE-LINE GROUP
Back on July 1, Treliving called the defence corps “a work in progress.” That was after he signed John Klingberg and before he added Simon Benoit. Both D-men — Klingberg before he was traded to Minnesota at the deadline — logged top-four minutes on an Anaheim Ducks team that finished last overall.
The Klingberg signing remains intriguing, and if we’re being honest, a bit confusing. He’s not physical and defensively there are shortcomings. Klingberg should benefit the second power-play unit, provided Morgan Rielly remains on the first. Remember, the Leafs might not have needed a big PP boost. They were second in the NHL last season on the power play and first the year before. A better option might have been Matt Dumba, who signed with Arizona for one year and $3.9 million. Klingberg’s contract is for one year and $4.15 million.
Rielly has little choice but to play as close as to how he played in the playoffs, when he was at the top of his game. TJ Brodie and Jake McCabe, on the other hand, will be looking to move past subpar playoff performances.
Can Mark Giordano, who turns 40 on Oct. 3, somehow regain some foot speed? Does Conor Timmins have it in him to make defensive improvements?
If needed, will William Lagesson or Maxime Lajoie provide the kind of depth required? While Topi Niemela is regarded as the Leafs’ top blue-line prospect, he’s not ready to step in and make an impact.
As we’ve written previously, one bonus for Treliving is that he has time on his side. He has several months before the trade deadline to make amends to the blue line. On that, his work remains unfinished.
THE PENALTY KILL
To a degree, the Leafs’ penalty-killing units will be revamped.
Toronto was 12th in the NHL on the kill last season, and defenceman Justin Holl, now with Detroit, led all Leafs in ice time while the team was shorthanded. Forwards Alex Kerfoot and Noel Acciari were key parts of the second unit and they’re gone too.
We’ve seen how effective Marner is on the kill, and the detail-oriented David Kampf also gets it done.
It’s time to give Matthews, whose stick work and puck retrieval is among the best in the NHL, a good look here.
There could be a greater role for Jarnkrok as well, and we wonder if Rielly, already the Leafs’ annual leader in ice time, gets more time on the PK. Liljegren also could be an option for more shorthanded minutes. Can Giordano still be effective on the kill?
One thing going for depth new forward Dylan Gambrell: He averaged more than two minutes a game on the PK with Ottawa in 2022-23. Perhaps that can help him earn a spot for opening night.
Neither Bertuzzi nor Domi killed penalties last season.