NHL.com is examining where each team stands in preparation for the 2021-22 regular season, which starts Oct. 12. Today, five questions facing the Toronto Maple Leafs:
1. Will Auston Matthews be ready for the start of the season?
Matthews had surgery on his left wrist Aug. 13 and was expected to be out at least six weeks, but the Maple Leafs center told NHL.com that he is aiming to be ready for the season opener against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 13.
Despite playing most of last season with the wrist injury, which caused him to miss two games Feb. 27 and March 1, Matthews scored 66 points in 52 games, including leading the NHL with 41 goals to win the Rocket Richard Trophy.
“It’s coming along well,” Matthews said Sept. 13. “Right now, it’s a couple of more weeks until I can get out of the splint and start really kind of rehabbing and build my strength back. But I mean, as far as timeline goes, I’m going to get back on the ice this week. I’m really hopeful to be able to be ready for Game 1. That’s my goal right now.”
2. Has the goaltending been upgraded?
Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek will be tasked with helping the Maple Leafs go on a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs after Frederik Andersen signed a two-year contract with the Carolina Hurricanes on July 29. Andersen won 149 games over five seasons with Toronto, but the Maple Leafs did not win a playoff series. Campbell was 17-3-2 with a 2.15 goals-against average and .921 save percentage for the Maple Leafs last season and set an NHL record with 11 wins to start the season. Mrazek signed a three-year contract as an unrestricted free agent July 28 after being limited to 12 starts with the Hurricanes last season because of a thumb injury. The 29-year-old was 6-2-3 with a 2.06 GAA, a .923 save percentage and three shutouts.
3. How will John Tavares rebound?
Tavares, the Maple Leafs captain, sustained a concussion and knee injury and left the ice on a stretcher in the first period of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup First Round against the Canadiens on May 20, but the center expects to be ready for the start of training camp and said he is “doing fantastic.”
“It’s been a great offseason for myself from a health standpoint,” Tavares told NHL Network on Aug. 27, “but even more so, I think just continue to get back to work and try to get better and recover well.
“I think [having] some time really helps. Really fortunate it wasn’t anything much more than the incident and [I] really came out of the hospital doing really well ever since, and didn’t really have any hiccups or any issues. Just kind of kept building from there. So it’s been a good offseason and I’m doing great. The support from the hockey community has been tremendous.”
Tavares scored 50 points (19 goals, 31 assists) in 56 games last season. It was his lowest points-per-game average (0.892) since 2016-17, when he scored 66 points (28 goals, 38 assists) in 77 games with the New York Islanders (0.857).
4. Who will replace Zach Hyman?
Hyman signed a seven-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers on July 28 after the 29-year-old forward scored 33 points (15 goals, 18 assists) in 43 games playing mostly on a line with Matthews and Mitchell Marner. Forward Nick Ritchie is expected to get a chance in training camp after the 25-year-old forward signed a two-year contract as an unrestricted free agent July 31. Ritchie scored 26 points (15 goals, 11 assists) in 56 games with the Boston Bruins last season and could provide much-needed grit on the forecheck.
Ritchie played 23 games for Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe with Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League in 2014-15 and was born and raised in Orangeville, Ontario.
“It’s a dream come true to come back to play for a coach that I know and my hometown team,” Ritchie said.
Michael Bunting also played for Keefe with Sault Ste. Marie from 2013-15 and could receive an opportunity to play with Matthews and Marner. The 25-year-old forward signed a two-year contract July 28 after scoring 13 points (10 goals, three assists) in 21 games for the Arizona Coyotes last season.
5. Can they win their first playoff series in 18 years?
Toronto has not advanced in the playoffs since 2004, when it defeated the Ottawa Senators in seven games in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The Maple Leafs are 0-8 in potential series-clinching games since then.
General manager Kyle Dubas admitted jobs could be in jeopardy, including his own, if the Maple Leafs are eliminated early again.
“I think it’s certainly fair to say that if there aren’t changes to our performance in the end that there will be changes to the organization,” Dubas told “The Bob McCown Podcast” on Sept. 9. “That comes with the territory in operating in a market like this and operating with a team that hasn’t reached its potential in the playoffs.”