With back-to-back 50-win campaigns as part of their longest playoff streak since the 1970s, it’s easy for followers of the Maple Leafs to hang a sign proclaiming “Wake me when playoffs start.”
But with training camp beginning Sept. 20 (sooner for the rookies going to the Traverse City tournament next week), the Leafs and their loyalists can’t sleep on the upcoming 82-game regular-season schedule.
In a city where the slightest line-tinkering or sore-foot shot block is deemed newsworthy, there are already several inherent distractions for the 2023-24 season, despite new general manager Brad Treliving’s best attempts to block the Blue and White noise.
1. Will Willy sign?
Kudos to Treliving for getting Auston Matthews and coach Sheldon Keefe signed to new deals to quell the murmurs. Yet, until William Nylander’s future is settled, there can’t be that Kumbaya chorus in the dressing room the GM envisioned when Matthews took less money on his four-year extension.
While Nylander is signed this year at $6.9 million US, until he drops his reported $10-million ask on a long-term deal or Treliving raises his offer, the trade rumours and scrutiny of the Swede’s value will persist. Both sides insist there’s no rush but, as of Oct. 11, the clock will tick louder and the winger will require a productive autumn.
Our mischievous prediction? The Leafs announce his deal during their trip to Stockholm in November. Speaking of which …
2. No Viking cruise
The Swedish connection to the Leafs is a strong one, this being the 50th anniversary of Borje Salming’s first training camp, through franchise scoring leader Mats Sundin to Nylander and others.
But Keefe will be wary of how his team adjusts to flying 6,325 km for two games against Detroit and Minnesota, and home again. There are three projected full days off to recover before Toronto has five games in nine nights.
It’s not as challenging as teams in the past found when they started the regular season in Europe and Asia (the Coyotes and Kings have exhibition tilts in Melbourne, Australia, later this month), but this Leafs goodwill tour needs a good result.
3. Star gazing
The all-star game on the weekend of Feb. 2-3 is back in Toronto after a 24-year absence.
Which Leafs ultimately get invited is bound to be hotly debated in January, even if no one remembers who wins the tournament.
Matthews and Mitch Marner embrace such spotlights, even if the local flavour of the skills competition might have them stunt-driving Zambonis through Toronto traffic. Nylander would be big for TV audiences, too, but it’s not going to be much of a mid-season break for any Leafs who get selected.
4. The beastly East
One of these years, predictions of some rebuilding Eastern Conference teams making a playoff push will come true and thus impact the Leafs.
Buffalo and Ottawa were right behind Florida at the wire last year in the Atlantic Division and Detroit isn’t far off.
If you don’t believe Boston just fades away without Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, or that the two Florida teams won’t be back (the Leafs finish the schedule there in mid-April), then it’s a crowded playoff house, notwithstanding potential Metropolitan wild-cards.
5. Dubious about Kyle
Mark Nov. 25, Dec. 16 and April 8 on the schedule, the three games against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Leafs’ old boss Kyle Dubas. But this will be a season-long comparison, with the Treliving Leafs committed to playing with more of an edge, versus Dubas and right-hand man Jason Spezza bringing their modern vision to get Sidney Crosby and the Pens back in the hunt.
6. Auston’s powers
While his new deal does not kick in until the autumn of 2024, Matthews is already regarded as the NHL’s highest-paid player. He starts under the cloud of not scoring against Florida in last year’s second round, though his wrist should be closer to 100%.
The money just fuels the argument of how he’ll stack up against Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon again this year — both have gone further in playoff
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7. New kids on the block
After a season that ended with a roaring Radko Gudas lording it over rookie Joseph Woll as the Panthers prevailed, Treliving’s UFA signings were hailed for the most part.
Ryan Reaves, Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi and Simon Benoit should not only step in for Luke Schenn, Noel Acciari and Wayne Simmonds, but will have all season to augment the Leafs’ identity as a skilled team with their sandpaper.
Management is counting on getting the 2023 playoff version of the newcomers, as well as John Klingberg and Dylan Gambrell, all healthy and able to live up to the hype.