Doom and gloom.
No, wait, actually, this might be our year.
We’re so back.
Up and down are the emotions of Leaf fans every Summer. It is very similar to southern Ontario temperatures lately.
A mantra often pushed by coaches and athletes alike is to not get too high in the high moments or too low in the low moments.
Easier said than done.
Leafs fans, as we are, wear our hearts on our sleeves when it comes to this team. Not just THIS team but every year and every team. We become emotionally invested, and a mix of belief and doubt arises from every corner of the fanbase.
But we all want the same thing: Lord Stanley’s Cup.
I can’t definitively say which side is correct, I mean, that’s why they play the games, right? No one saw Florida going as far as they did last year, and I’m pretty sure almost no one had Vegas taking home the cup. Right now, all 32 teams are undefeated, and I believe the buds definitely have a few reasons for optimism this upcoming season.
It’s been a topic of conversation around the club for so many consecutive seasons that people think they still need another shutdown defenseman.
Especially after the playoff exit against the Florida Panthers this previous May, where the team failed to score more than two goals for seven games in a row, that narrative can be put to rest.
They lost in 5 against the Panthers and won only one game with the low-scoring, defensively sound approach. Albeit they did slay their first-round dragon this year for the first time in 19 years and eight tries in the postseason, they looked outmatched and had very favorable bounces in that series. Most of us watching could see they should have lost a couple of those games. Fans remained optimistic because they found a way to win anyway. Still, there was indeed doubt heading into the second round, especially against a team that just knocked off the record-setting, presidents trophy-winning Boston Bruins.
I think the commitment to defense-first players was based on good judgment, but it didn’t work for this squad and how it was constructed. Although Luke Schenn was a godsend in the playoffs, having Brodie, McCabe, Giordano, and Schenn all in the same lineup left some offense to be desired.
Adding John Klingberg’s offense will help pull the Leaf’s defensive scoring from the bottom of the league and keep that powerplay near the top.
Morgan Rielly had the best playoffs of his career last spring, posting four goals and eight assists in 11 games, and you have to think if he will carry over some of that swagger into the regular season this fall.
An entire season of Jake McCabe playing as a Leaf, learning the system that much better, and becoming more comfortable. He boasted a 53.05 XG% but had a 71.43 actual GF%; he hits, he fights, and he can make an excellent first pass. Please give me more of that.
Timothy Lilijgren is a year older and has shown steady improvement each year he’s been with the organization. He played 67 games last year, only scoring five goals and eight assists, but had an actual GF% of 61.73. The Leafs win when he’s on the ice, and I expect a big year from him.
In his limited games with Toronto last season, Connor Timmins showed a high offensive ability, scoring 14 points in 25 games, was a +1, and carried a 56.51 XG%, meaning he won his minutes. There is every inclination that he will help produce from the back end if given the opportunity this upcoming campaign.
Add in the steady forces of TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano, and the Buds look to have a solid defense corps with a good mix of offensive and defensive abilities.
Samsonov As The Starter
Ilya Samsonov joined the Leafs on a one-year deal last Summer after not being qualified as a restricted free agent by the Washington Capitals. In 21-22, he posted poor numbers, playing 44 games with a 3.02 Goals Against Average and .896 Save Percentage. For reference, the NHL average was 2.92 GAA and .907 Sv% that year.
Needless to say, there was uncertainty about whether he could hold down the net here in Toronto for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations in a city with so much pressure to win.
Samsonov took the challenge and excelled, posting a .919 Sv% and 2.33 GAA in 42 games. Saving 12.2 Goals above expected (GSAx), good for 13th in the league. Opposed to Matt Murray’s 2.3 GSAx, which was 36th in the league as he carried a less stellar .903 Sv% and 3.01 GAA.
Regardless of the numbers, Murray is now on long-term injured reserve, and Joesph Woll and Martin Jones are battling for the backup job, not the starting position.
Samsonov recently went through arbitration during his contract negotiations and was awarded a one-year $3.55M contract, so the starters net is his spot to start the season anyway. If he plays as well as he did last year, he will give the Leafs a chance to win a lot of games.
Ryan Reaves, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Max Domi all signed deals with the team for the 2023-2024 season. The incorporation of these players into the lineup is set to have each line with at least one player who genuinely LIKES to muck it up and get into the dirty areas.
I’m not counting on a lot of fights, although I would expect at least a handful from the aforementioned group. This infusion of a few of the type of players the Leafs have sorely lacked is a breath of fresh air as they have usually left the dirty work to one man to handle.
Reaves could just basically be a tougher Simmonds, but adding not only him but Domi and Bertuzzi, who have it in their bloodline to be tough as nails, is a bit of a culture reset on the leafs.
I think the top-end players like Marner, Nylander, and Matthews have it in them to add a slight edge to their game. Nothing over the top, but we have seen spurts when playing teams like the Jets, in recent memory, or the Bruins in the past. They elevate their game and use the physicality to their advantage. We HAVE seen it. They are more than capable, they just don’t play like that regularly.
I think with guys that play rough and like to get in guys’ faces, it’s going to rub off on the whole team, which should lead to more wins if the team feels united.
Even if that’s not the element that’s winning them games, having it present is going to make these games fun to watch.
Opening night can’t come soon enough!