Maple Leafs season preview: Keefe must get team over hump

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The 2021-22 NHL season starts Oct. 12. With training camps open, NHL.com is taking a look at the three keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lineup for each of the 32 teams. Today, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Coach: Sheldon Keefe (third season)

Last season: 35-14-7; first place in Scotia North Division, lost to Montreal Canadiens in Stanley Cup First Round

3 KEYS

1. Stability under Keefe

Although Sheldon Keefe is entering his third season as coach, this will be his first real training camp and his first time guiding Toronto through a full 82-game schedule since replacing Mike Babcock on Nov. 20, 2019. The 41-year-old is 62-29-12 through two shortened seasons, but the pressure is on to get the Maple Leafs past the first round of the postseason since 2004. However, Toronto believes in the direction Keefe is taking the team, evidenced by the two-year contract extension he agreed to Friday which runs through the 2023-24 season.

2. Goaltending

The Maple Leafs decided to move on from goalie Frederik Andersen, who signed a two-year contract with the Carolina Hurricanes on July 28, and will instead rely on Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek, who signed a three-year contract the same day. Campbell was 17-3-2 with a 2.15 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and two shutouts in 22 starts with the Maple Leafs last season, missing time because of a leg injury. Mrazek, who made only 12 regular-season starts because of thumb surgery, was 6-2-3 with a 2.06 GAA, .923 save percentage and three shutouts with Carolina. Health will be a key for each.

3. Erasing the past

The Maple Leafs must find a way to overcome their recent postseason failures, including last season, when they let a 3-1 series lead slip away before being eliminated by the Canadiens in the first round. Regarding their lack of postseason success since 2004, general manager Kyle Dubas said, “I don’t think we can hide from it and run from it. I just think we have to do everything we can as an organization to be ready.”

Video: Toronto Maple Leafs 2021-22 Season Preview

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Position battles

With Zach Hyman signing a seven-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers on July 28, there’s an open spot on the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner. The leading candidate through the first half of training camp is Nick Ritchie, who set up Marner for the opening goal in the team’s Blue & White game Oct. 1. Ritchie signed a two-year contract with the Maple Leafs on July 31 after scoring 26 points (15 goals, 11 assists) in 56 games with the Boston Bruins last season, and he provides the type of sandpaper that can open space for his linemates. There is also a spot open on the second line with John Tavares and William Nylander, and Michael Bunting is getting a long look along with Ilya Mikheyev and Alexander Kerfoot, who can play center or wing. It’s unlikely a No. 1 goalie will be named to start the season; Keefe said he’ll likely go with the hot hand between Campbell and Mrazek in the early going.

Most intriguing addition

Bunting, a Toronto native and an admitted late bloomer. He had only played five NHL games prior to last season, but the 26-year-old took advantage of his opportunity with the Arizona Coyotes by scoring 13 points (10 goals, three assists) in 23 games. Bunting played juniors under Keefe with Sault St. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League, and the coach loves his ruggedness and intensity. That familiarity was a factor in Bunting signing a two-year contract July 28, and he wasted little time making a splash at training camp, scoring a hat trick in a 4-0 win against the Ottawa Senators in a preseason game Sept. 29.

Biggest potential surprise

Ondrej Kase was limited to three games last season with the Bruins because of a concussion and other injury-related issues, so the Maple Leafs understand there is a risk here. What intrigues them, though, is the elite speed of the 25-year-old forward, who scored 20 goals and 38 points with the Anaheim Ducks in 2017-18. He came to camp proclaiming himself healthy and scored two points (one goal, one assist) in his first two preseason games.

Ready to break through

Rasmus Sandin, who was selected with the No. 29 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, has the opportunity for a full-time role this season after Zach Bogosian signed a three-year contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning on July 28. The 21-year-old defenseman could also get time on the top power-play unit with Marner, Matthews, Tavares and Nylander.

Fantasy sleeper

Bunting (undrafted on average in fantasy) is a potential hidden gem who could land a top-six role with the Maple Leafs following the departure of Hyman. He ranked eighth in the NHL in goals per 60 minutes (1.42; minimum 20 games) last season and scored multiple points in two of his first four games, including a hat trick against the Los Angeles Kings on April 5. Bunting could make an impact either on the top line with elite forwards Matthews and Marner, or on second line with valuable scorers Tavares and Nylander. — Pete Jensen

Projected lineup

Nick Ritchie — Auston Matthews — Mitchell Marner

Michael Bunting — John Tavares — William Nylander

Ilya Mikheyev — Alexander Kerfoot — Ondrej Kase

Wayne SimmondsDavid KampfJason Spezza

Morgan RiellyTJ Brodie

Jake MuzzinJustin Holl

Rasmus Sandin — Travis Dermott

Jack Campbell 

Petr Mrazek

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