Sizing Up Toronto Maple Leafs Atlantic Division Prospects

Michael Bunting, Arizona Coyotes (Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)
Michael Bunting, Arizona Coyotes (Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs return to the Atlantic Division after their COVID enforced Canadian Only Party in the North.

Looking at the rest of the teams they will be re-joining, there is no denying the team the Toronto Maple Leafs had last season looked better on paper than the one entering this 2021/22 season.

Yet the difference between the two versions of the Toronto Maple Leafs might prove to help them succeed this year. Last year’s Leafs were built around four star forwards, and three star defenseman, and this year is more or less going to be the same.

Toronto is still dominated by the Core Four, and any success they have will rest squarely on the shoulders of those four stars. However, this season, with a completely revamped supporting cast (that many consider weaker), in a backwards way, it could work out better for Toronto in what will be a brutally competitive Atlantic Division.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Atlantic Division

Whereas last year the role players of Wayne Simmonds (who has stayed with the club) and Joe Thornton weren’t really expected to contribute offensively, the additions of Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase, David Kampf and Michael Bunting create a much more well-rounded, closer to their prime, grouping of players.

The impression before the start of the 2021/22 season is that GM Kyle Dubas and Head Coach Sheldon Keefe want much more of a “score by committee” feeling. Of course, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will lead the team scoring charts, while William Nylander and John Tavares are going to be right on their heels. For last season, that was pretty much it in terms of offence.

This season it isn’t hard to believe that Nick Ritchie could chip in 15-20 goals playing alongside skaters of the calibre of Marner and Matthews; Michael Bunting could equally benefit as he has shown a decent enough scoring touch in 21 games last year. The same should be expected of Ondrej Kase who could reasonably pot between 10-15 goals as he will undoubtedly benefit lining up alongside Tavares and Nylander.

It might sound like a lot to expect from players who haven’t shown a legitimate scoring touch in their careers to date. However, the spacing provided by players like Tavares, Marner and Matthews in particular is a big difference to what these first time Leafs have experienced before.

The Atlantic Division is going to be a tough place to play hockey with perennial contenders in the Tampa Bay Lightning, still great despite their salary cap depleted depth. The Boston Bruins can never be counted out while the Florida Panthers have improved. Then there’s the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators who demonstrated they had the Toronto Maple Leafs number time and time again last year.

There are expectations that Ritchie, Kase and Bunting could score important goals in the way that Hyman was never really thought of as that kind of player. Sure, Hyman became that kind of player due to the line he played on, but no one thought of him as genuine shooting threat until he lined up with Matthews and Marner. At least Ritchie, Kase, and Bunting to an extent, have scored goals playing with worse line-mates, Hyman did not when he played without No.34 and No. 16.

In fact, there was never any suggestion that Zach Hyman was anything more than a grinding, ‘get in the corners’, puck retrieval winger yet he still scored 15 goals or more a season when he played on the top line. Nick Ritchie has displayed the same kinds of nous, he can easily fill that same role and probably exceed it.

Last year it was wingers like Alex Galchenyuk (who remains unsigned but still could return to Toronto), Wayne Simmonds, Pierre Engvall, Ilya Mikheyev and Joe Thornton who were slotted into the 2nd line role. It’s hard to say considering that list that Michael Bunting isn’t going to be at the very least just as consistent, and that Ondrej Kase will likely be a better scoring option.

Next. Leafs Opening Night Lineup?. dark

It is no easy path but even as the Toronto Maple Leafs might look weaker on paper, there is every reason to think that the younger, more mobile, feistier throughout the line-up Leafs could surprise even the most hardened of critics.