The NHL season kicks off for real tomorrow night (the two appetizer games in Prague don’t count, especially because they involved the Sharks), or as it’s known for most of the hockey covering world, “Six months of how does this affect the Leafs?” Yep, the sport’s biggest soap opera, the question of whether or not the Leafs can make it to May, gets another go starting Wednesday night.
The Leafs are essentially running it back again, as there haven’t been many changes to the forwards or the defense this year. Calle Jarnkrok was brought in to help boost the third line, but that’s essentially it. Other than that, it’s the lineup you’ve come to know and…know. Auston Matthews on the top line next to Mitch Marner, John Tavares on the second when he returns from injury, William Nylander avoiding all the rotten vegetables Leafs fans throw at him while declaring he’s the high-priced forward who should be traded because he was the one who wasn’t born in Swift Current or London or whatever. They’ll still try and make up the 3rd and 4th line with whatever they picked out of deserted office spaces and alleys, be they draft picks for veterans no one else wanted but billed as just wanting to be in Toronto so desperately.
The only change anyone will notice is once again in net. Where once stood Freddy Andersen, who was then usurped by Jack Campbell, now stands Matt Murray. And much like the previous two, our questions have to be, “Um…you’re like, serious with this?”
The Leafs themselves and their fans will counter that, unlike Andersen and Campbell, Murray comes with actual Cup pedigree. And that’s true. He was in the crease for two Cup wins for the Penguins in a row, and for one of those he was backstopping the entire run (he came in halfway through the 2017 triumph thanks to injury). However, 2017 is getting awfully distant in the rearview mirror, and Murray hasn’t really successfully negotiated the marathon of an 82-game regular season as a starter and done it well. After that 2017 Cup, he took over as starter for the Pens for two seasons, and was middling to ok while getting around 50 starts. But he wasn’t good enough for the Penguins to be convinced they shouldn’t hand the job to Tristan Jarry, which they quickly did in the 2019-2020 season when Murray fell apart.
Murray was shipped off to Ottawa before he had to be paid like the two-time Cup-winning goalie he was, and things didn’t go well in Ottawa at all. In two seasons in the capital, though one of those was the COVID season that shall never be spoken of again, Murray’s save percentage didn’t crack .900. And he didn’t make more than 25 starts in either. While the COVID season is wonky for evaluation purposes, it’s not like the Canadian division was full of heavy hitters. And whenever Murray did get on the ice, he was getting pilfered.
Last season might not be as bad as it looks at first glance. A .906 save percentage overall definitely slants toward puke-tastic without getting fully there, but in those 20 starts Murray did save 3.2 goals over expected, thanks to the actual puke-tastic nature of the Sens last season. At a per-game rate, that’s still only in the middle of the pack for goals-saved above expected, but it’s at least representative.
Still, it is curious that the Senators, who are clearly pointed to make a big leap this year with their offseason activity, didn’t think Murray would provide the platform for their refurbished lineup to do so. Anton Forsberg was just that much better last year, and healthier.
The Leafs, for seemingly the 17th consecutive season, will argue that the rest of the team is good enough that they can get by with mere average goaltending. If Murray can just make all the saves he’s supposed to, they’ll be fine. They’ll point to the Avs last season, who won a Cup with Darcy Kuemper putting up a .902 in the playoffs, and then quickly let him toddle off to the Caps in free agency, figuring anyone can put up a .902 when it matters most.
But the Leafs are not the Avs. While they may match top lines with the champs, they do not have the blue line that the Avs do, at least not yet. They cannot push the play on every shift as aggressively as Colorado does, and Morgan Rielly is not Cale Makar, no matter how much they wish it into existence. Rielly is good, and probably better than I will admit he is because I love needling the Leafs, but Cup champs these days come with a top-five top d-man. Is Rielly really that?
The wildcard here is Rasmus Sundin, who the Leafs have put on tilt with some slightly contentious contract negotiations this season. Sundin’s metrics from last year are pretty glittering, with an expected-goals share of 58.4 percent even with starting less than half of his shifts in the offensive zone. Will Sandin earn top four minutes? Do they have the stones to demote Jake Muzzin to the third pairing to do so?
There is always a ticking clock for the Leafs, simply because of the heat the fans and press exert on the team every season. But this time it seems a touch louder than before, as Matthews is in the last two years of his contract and yet another playoff flameout might start some intriguing conversations about how badly he wants to be in Toronto for the long term. The same goes for Nylander. The big changes that seemingly are always promised for Toronto every offseason but never happen might happen after this season if they can’t unfuck themselves in the first round again.
One thing going for the Leafs is that the division has come back to them a bit. Tampa has yet another Final-run added to the odometer and lost Ondřej Palát. The Bruins are doing a Spinal Tap reunion tour. The Panthers are either trusting Sergei Bobrovsky to keep it going for another season or to seamlessly let Spencer Knight take over in the crease while also trusting the whole thing to one of the biggest morons around who keeps falling upwards as coach in Paul Maurice. The Leafs could win this division easily and maybe finally duck a horrible first-round matchup. Though that didn’t do much against Montreal two years ago, did it? And the bottom of this division is swinging upwards, as Ottawa, Detroit, and even Buffalo are going to be better than they were before. Winning this division will exact a toll before the playoffs that other divisions won’t.
But it will still come down to Murray at some point, whether he or the Leafs like it or not. The Leafs are a very good defensive team, which gets glossed over in the furor whenever they belch up a frog in the playoffs. And it’ll have been six years since Murray was making big saves in the spring by the time these playoffs roll around. It only takes one big save not made to sink the whole thing. The Leafs have been trying to bargain basement this position for a while now, and this is their latest whack at it. If this doesn’t work, then what?