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  • Writer's pictureKyle Akitt

Toronto Maple Leafs 2021 Season Preview

Today is the day. The beginning of an NHL season like no other. I guess we can officially call it the 2021 season (as opposed to the 2020-2021 season). As we go through this pandemic together, the NHL will try to have their 56 games regular season go without too many hiccups. As for the Maple Leafs, the cup window couldn't look any clearer than before.


The NHL, the players, and its fans are about to embark on what is to be an NHL season for the ages. The global pandemic has forced the league to create 4 brand new divisions to help with the stop of spreading of COVID-19. The North, East, West, and Central divisions were made with each team playing only the teams within that specific division. Fans in Canada will be in for a real treat, as the North division will consist of all 7 Canadian teams facing each other around 7-9 times this season! The same will go for each other division.

The Maple Leafs are currently in the cup window era over the last couple of years with some potential playoff outcomes but we all know what happened with those...If there was ever an opportunity to find their way to the promised land of a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, this would be the year. The Leafs are a definite favorite for coming out on top in the division with the possibility of Winnipeg or Edmonton being their only competition. With the additions added to the roster and the progression of their current young stars, the Leafs are poised to have a very good season, but, like the way the world is today, who knows what could happen!

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Since the Leafs crushing exit of the 2019-2020 Bubble Playoffs versus the Columbus Blue Jackets, the offseason has been somewhat of a busy one for Leafs GM Kyle Dubas and company. The 2020 draft turned out to be quite a success with the 1st Round Pick (15th Overall) Rodion Amirov, who had a successful and good looking World Junior Tournament. But the real success story would be of the Leafs 3rd Round, 64th overall, pick Topi Niemelä, who had the honour of winning a Bronze Medal but also taking home the honor of Best Defenceman of the Tournament. Some notable names in the NHL who have won this honour include Alex Pietrangelo, Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Werenski, Rasmus Dahlin, Erik Johnson, and also Leafs defensive prospect Rasmus Sandin.

The Maple Leafs also made a splash of some sorts into the Free Agent market which always seems to be a question on all of Leafs Nations' minds every Free Agent Frenzy. The new faces include Defencemen TJ Brodie and Zack Bogosian, also adding Forwards Jimmy Vesey, Wayne Simmonds Travis Boyd, and most notably Joe Thornton. We can't also forget about the additions of the 2 players from Europe added to the roster in KHL leading scorer for defenceman Mikko Lehtonen and top scorer last season Alexander Barobanov. I think these additions really addressed some of the needs the Maple Leafs were looking to improve on, which would be on defense and the bottom 6 forward lines. There are 3 of all the Leafs acquisitions this offseason that I really liked the most and I think will make sudden impacts this coming season. TJ Brodie, Joe Thornton, and Mikko Lehtonen. All three players will make a significant contribution to the club but will also make them in their own way.

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I consider this signing above all others to be the best signing the Leafs made this offseason. On October 9th, 2020, the Maple Leafs signed former Calgary Flames Defenceman T.J. Brodie to a four-year, 20 million dollar contract (AAV $5 Million per season). I think this was a very smart signing by the Leafs because if everything falls into place, Morgan Rielly might of finally find his perfect D partner. If you think about it, Morgan Rielly has had a plethora of defencemen paired with him on the Maple Leafs that have never quite been the perfect fit. From Nikita Zaitsev to Jake Gardiner, to even Ron Hainsey who quite honestly has been his best partner from the start of Morgan's career.

TJ Brodie spent 10 years with the Calgary Flames totalling 266 points in 635 games. Tj was not really known for his point production on the Flames, but rather his ability to play a strong 2-way game with some heavy leaning on the defensive side of it. From 2013 and on with the Flames, TJ Brodie played alongside defenceman and Flames Captain Mark Giordano, who paved the way to make TJ into the defenceman he is today. This is why I think if TJ and Morgan can gain the right chemistry, which they have been in training camp, quickly then the Maple Leafs might have a real shot at having their top 2 D pair solidified for the next couple of years.

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If there is one player to be excited for on the back end, it is Mikko Lehtonen. This guy is the real deal. After playing on a plethora of teams overseas that included Tappara, HV71, Koo KOO, TPS, and KHL team Jokerit, Lehtonen signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs on May 4th, 2020 with almost every other NHL team in the league expressing interest in the talented defencemen. Last year. playing for KHL team Jokerit, he appeared in 60 games and registered 49 points (17 goals and 32 assists), which led all KHL defencemen in the league. He also received KHL Defenceman of the month 3 consecutive times from November to January. In the last couple, of months, he was loaned back to Jokerit where he continued his stellar performance by accumulating 17 points (8 goals and 9 assists) in just 17 games as a defenceman, which again earned him KHL Defenceman of the month honors.

Leafs fans should be very excited for him. I think once he gets accustomed to the North American ice and style of game over here, this could be a very good addition to the team and the area where the team needs some serious improvement. It looks like the Maple Leafs are now learning a lot from the Nikita Zaitsev experiment, who had similar praise for his play in Europe, and not rushing things with him. From recent camp and practices, Lehtonen has been skating on the 4th D pairing with Rasmus Sandin. I think this isn't something to look into that much. I think we eventually see Lehtonen move up the lineup eventually and can see him being a contributing factor on the second powerplay unit at the "Quarterback Position" (i.e. Morgan Rielly on PP Line #1). The Hype is real with this guy Leafs Nation, you have the right to be excited for this one.

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One of the later acquisitions by the Maple Leafs came about a week after Free Agent Frenzy began. On October 16th, 2020, The Maple Leafs announced the signing of Free Agent Forward Joe Thornton to a One-Year, $700,000 contract OR also known to some leafs fans recently as the Spezza Contract. The day before, there were questions as to where Joe Thornton would end up, being seen practicing with HC Davos and this had everyone speculating if the big man was going to be taking the Jaromir Jagr route to end his career. Jumbo Joe played 12 games with HC Davos and recorded 11 points (5 goals and 6 assists) and on December 14th joined the Maple Leafs training facility to begin working out with the team. Joe is coming off his 22nd NHL season, and with the San Jose Sharks played 70 games and recorded 31 points (7 goals and 24 assists). Though the Sharks were having a non so great season, Joe produced at a good pace as the team was going and I don't think that should be used to project what we will get from him with the Leafs. I think we can expect the Jumbo Joe we got when San Jose was a serious competing team in the playoffs which wasn't too long ago.

Now, do I agree with the lineup we have seen in the training camp of Joe playing on the 1st Line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner? Absolutely not. Now am I going to let this ruin my day and the season itself? Again, Absolutely not, and neither should you Leafs Nation. I don't think this will be Jumbo Joe's permanent home position on the team. This seems to me like coach Sheldon Keefe is exploring what options he has in front of him and seeing what works. If you were Sheldon, why wouldn't you want to try that line combination and see what chemistry they can build if the Leafs get into a pinch with injuries, or heaven forbid, COVID-19. I can see Joe moving down to the third or fourth line eventually and either a Zach Hyman or hopefully an Alexander Barabanov take his place. Overall, the addition of Joe Thornton helps in more ways than not, the best passer in the NHL still has gas in the tank and will be a great locker room veteran for what is sure to be a cup contending heavy hopeful season.

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I don't think there can be any other perfect time for the Maple Leafs to go for it than this one. You are in a division of only 6 other teams and will only play those teams in a 56 game regular season. Come playoff time, the Leafs wouldn't see another division team until the Conference Finals. So once again, if there was ever a time for the Maple Leafs team and organization to sit there and make a gungho for the Stanley Cup run that Leafs Nation has been craving for since that dreaded year that my fingers won't let me type for the life of mine...To quote the legendary Herb Brooks from the movie Miracle: "THIS IS YOUR TIME. NOW GO OUT THERE AND TAKE IT!"

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