Maple Leafs season preview: Thornton arrives with visions of playoff run

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The 2020-21 NHL season is scheduled to begin Jan. 13. With training camps opening this week, NHL.com is taking a look at the three keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lines for each of the 31 teams. Today, the Toronto Maple Leafs, who will play in the North Division.

 

Coach: Sheldon Keefe (second season)

Last season: 36-25-9, .579 points percentage; eighth place in Eastern Conference, lost to Columbus Blue Jackets in Stanley Cup Qualifiers

 

3 KEYS

1. Thornton’s influence

Joe Thornton signed a one-year contract with the Maple Leafs on Oct. 16, a display of faith from management in the 41-year-old ability to still play at a high level and provide leadership entering his 23rd NHL season. He’s penciled in as the third-line center and a key member of the power play, where his elite playmaking will be highlighted. Thornton leads active NHL players in assists (1,089) and power-play points (540; 143 goals, 397 assists). He scored 31 points (seven goals, 24 assists) in 70 games for the San Jose Sharks last season.

 

2. Andersen’s future

Frederik Andersen received a vote of confidence from general manager Kyle Dubas during the offseason, but the 31-year-old goalie is entering the final season of his contract and faces an uncertain future. He ranks fifth in wins (136), third in save percentage (.916, minimum 100 games) and seventh in games played (244) in Maple Leafs history, but he is 10-14 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with Toronto and has yet to win a series. Given the compressed 56-game schedule, the Maple Leafs won’t be shy to use backup Jack Campbell to periodically give Andersen some rest.

 

3. Injection of grit

Forward Wayne Simmonds (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) and defenseman Zach Bogosian (6-2, 200), each signed as a free agent this offseason and should add some much needed grit to a team Dubas said lost too many puck battles during its five-game loss to the Blue Jackets in the Qualifiers. Simmonds said he has fully recovered from surgeries addressing hernia, hip and adductor problems in 2018; Bogosian, who won the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning, should be a steady presence in the defensive zone.

Video: 31 in 31: Toronto Maple Leafs 2020-21 season preview

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Making the cut

The Maple Leafs are contemplating using a lineup featuring 11 forwards and seven defensemen as opposed to the conventional 12-forward, six-defensemen setup. The top four defensemen (Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl) are set, leaving Bogosian, Travis Dermott, Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren and Mikko Lehtonen to battle for the remaining spots. At forward, Joey Anderson, who was acquired from the New Jersey Devils for forward Andreas Johnsson on Oct. 10, could play a role; the 22-year-old scored six points (four goals, two assists) in 18 games for the Devils last season.

 

Most intriguing addition

Brodie is expected to play alongside Rielly on the top defense pair after he signed a four-year contract with Toronto on Oct. 9. Each player is a left-handed shot, but Brodie has played the right side for much of his 10-season NHL career, and the Maple Leafs were impressed with how the 30-year-old played alongside Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano last season. Brodie, who scored 19 points (four goals, 15 assists) in 64 games, is also expected to receive extended time on the power play.

Video: DAL@CGY, Gm3: Brodie rips puck home to double lead

 

Biggest potential surprise 

Lehtonen led all Kontinental Hockey League defensemen last season in goals (17), assists (32) and points (49) in 60 games for Jokerit and was named to the 2020 KHL All-Star Game. The 26-year-old has never played in the NHL, but his experience could help him crack the Maple Leafs lineup.

 

Ready to break out

Ilya Mikheyev has healed from an injury to his right wrist sustained Dec. 27, 2019 that forced him to miss the remainder of the regular season. The 26-year-old forward scored 23 points (eight goals, 15 assists) in 39 games but was held without a point by the Blue Jackets in the Qualifiers. Mikheyev’s dangerous shot should complement the skills of projected forward linemates John Tavares and William Nylander.

 

Fantasy sleeper

Nicholas Robertson (average draft position: 170.5) is one of the best late-round fantasy targets with a chance to land in Toronto’s top-six forward group with exposure to either elite center Auston Matthews (sixth in NHL.com’s fantasy rankings) or John Tavares (45th). Robertson, a left wing who scored one goal in four games with the Maple Leafs during the 2020 postseason and led the Ontario Hockey League in goals last season with 55 in 46 games, could finish among the top five fantasy rookies this season. — Pete Jensen

 

PROJECTED LINEUP

Zach Hyman — Auston Matthews — Mitchell Marner

Ilya Mikheyev — John Tavares — William Nylander

Nicholas Robertson — Joe Thornton — Alexander Kerfoot

Jimmy VeseyJason Spezza — Wayne Simmonds

Morgan Rielly — T.J. Brodie

Jake Muzzin — Justin Holl

Travis Dermott — Mikko Lehtonen

Frederik Andersen

Jack Campbell

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