Toronto Maple Leafs: A healthy team ready to compete

Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs earned an impressive 4-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens in their exhibition game, showing what they can do when healthy.

The 2019-20 regular season was not an overly positive one for the Toronto Maple Leafs, in large part due to the team’s struggles with injuries limiting their chances of naming their best game-day line-up for long portions of the campaign.

Only two players on the Leafs’ roster managed to play in all 70 games of the regular season before the ongoing worldwide pandemic shut play down: Auston Matthews and Tyson Barrie.

Having your best players available week-in, week-out certainly helps create consistency for any sports team and for the Leafs, that was made virtually impossible with so many key individuals missing significant spells.

Some players, such as William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen, only missed one or two games, so their absences were not felt as significantly as others.

Team captain John Tavares missed seven games after breaking his finger and even when he returned, something didn’t quite look right and he wasn’t able to play to the level shown during his first season in Toronto.

Tavares still scored 24 goals and had 60 points in his 63 games, but imagine how much more effective he could have been without the injury.

Mitch Marner, who had another stellar season from a points perspective (67 in 59 games), also missed 11 games through injury; his playmaking skills were definitely missed and would have contributed to the team’s success.

Andreas Johnsson, who is still not quite back, and Ilya Mikheyev also missed almost half of the regular season due to their respective injuries.

Mikheyev has looked exceptional since returning, giving Leafs fans an idea of what they were missing while the team were struggling through long spells of inconsistency.

Arguably the biggest losses for the team, however, came on the defensive side of the ice as Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly missed 17 and 23 games of the regular season respectively and their impact was noticed almost immediately.

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The Leafs have an average defensive corps, with some questions on the backend as well as the continued high-usage of Cody Ceci, but Muzzin and Rielly are far and away the best of the bunch.

Without them lacing up every night, the Leafs struggled and were still almost battling for their Atlantic Division standing before the season was halted.

Now, with a long break off, the Leafs look healthy and ready to compete for a spot in the playoffs.

Their impressive penalty kill against the Canadiens highlighted a change from the regular season, where the Leafs ranked 21st in this category.

There are still questions of the team’s powerplay unit, but having a virtually full and healthy roster should put Sheldon Keefe’s side in a far better position to battle with the defensive Columbus Blue Jackets.

A high octane offence can take a team far, but only if they can put out their best line-up each game, something the Leafs were not truly able to do throughout the 2019-20 season.

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While it’s only one exhibition game to judge from, it’s clear the Leafs are in a far better position now than they were in February and March.

Had this team made the playoffs under normal circumstances, there’s little doubt they would be facing an early exit.

With plenty of rest and recovery now behind them, this team could realistically stake a claim to progress deep into the post-season and should be raring to go once the puck drops on Sunday.