There are always burning questions in Toronto.
There are always burning questions in Toronto.
The goaltending. The unsigned restricted free-agent defenceman. The injuries expected to keep Timothy Liljegren and Pierre Engvall from being full participants in training camp. The whole getting past the first round of the playoffs thing.
This is part of life in hockey’s white-hot market, where every season arrives with heavy anticipation and scrutiny. But this campaign seems to carry even more weight than usual as a once-young core has advanced into its prime and is still looking to deliver on its considerable promise.
So, as training camps open across the continent Wednesday we’ll put the Leafs at the top of our list of 10 burning questions heading into the 2022-23 NHL season:
1. What happens if the Matt Murray/Ilya Samsonov tandem doesn’t work?
This is a time of hope.
No front office enters a season expecting its summer decisions to fall flat, which is why Leafs management can look to their crease and see the glass half full. There’s certainly a world where the organization’s sizable sports science and training staffs help Murray get back to being the Cup-worthy goaltender he once was while unlocking the potential that made Samsonov a first-round draft pick.
Of course, there’s also an alternate reality where it might not go so smoothly.
What remains to be seen is how the Leafs might pivot if this experiment blows up. They aren’t likely to have much cap space to pursue external options – unless Murray’s injury history returns and his $4.7-million charge can be placed on LTIR – and their depth options include no guarantees: Erik Kallgren, Joseph Woll and Dennis Hildeby are currently next in line.
While there were certainly times last season where the 115-point Leafs won despite shaky goaltending, it’s hard to imagine that strategy paving the path to the level of success they crave. Consider the scores in Toronto’s last three all-or-nothing playoff losses: 2-1, 3-1 and 3-0.
History tells us they’ll need some saves when the chips are down.
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2. How does Jack Campbell handle a big contract and bigger expectations?
The last man tasked with the Leafs No. 1 goaltending job has moved on from Toronto, but he hasn’t left the spotlight.
Signing a $25-million, five-year deal with an Edmonton Oilers team looking to build on last year’s third-round appearance might actually place a little extra weight on Campbell’s shoulders.
The Oilers are expecting big things. They have every right to. Anyone that watched Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl dominate the playoffs in the spring can understand why there’s real hope for a Stanley Cup push.
What version of Campbell they get will play a huge factor in whether Edmonton takes the next step.
Remember that the Leafs loved Campbell, the person, but had reservations about committing anything close to a five-year term with him. They rolled the dice with Murray and Samsonov on much shorter deals instead.
3. Are the Flames better off following their wild summer?
You wouldn’t have drawn the off-season up like this. It’s certainly not how general manager Brad Treliving saw things going when he entered the summer intending to get Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk signed to new contracts.
However, after trading for Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar, plus signing Nazem Kadri in free agency, there’s an argument that the Flames general manager might actually have improved on his Gaudreau- and Tkachuk-led teams of the past.
It was an impressive pivot, at minimum.
On paper, the Flames are built to contend with depth down the middle, a stout blue-line and a strong goaltender in Jacob Markstrom.
The question of whether Calgary is better equipped to chase a championship won’t be answered definitively until months down the road, but there arguably won’t be a more interesting team to watch in the early days of this season.
4. Now that Nathan MacKinnon has lifted the Stanley Cup, will he let it go?
Armed with a shiny Cup ring and a nine-figure extension that will make him the NHL’s highest-paid player, it’s hard to imagine a player having a better summer.
What can Nate do for an encore?
The Avalanche won last year’s Stanley Cup convincingly by charging through the post-season with a 16-4 record. The quest to repeat won’t be easy. With Kadri, Andre Burakovsky and goaltender Darcy Kuemper among those who departed in free agency because of a cap crunch, the depth will be tested.
That’s where MacKinnon and Cale Makar, in particular, come in.
They fuelled the Avalanche’s engine.
Colorado has the kind of core that should remain in a window of contention for several more years, but they’re back at the starting line now. They’re facing a fresh calendar and have a target on their backs.
5. Will Patrick Kane and/or Jonathan Toews finish the season in Chicago?
Teams have at least started asking about Kane’s availability in the event he’s open to waiving a no-movement clause before the trade deadline.
Both he and Toews will one day see their numbers raised to the United Center rafters, but they may not be long for Chicago.
The years of losing are piling up. And the organization doesn’t look like it wants to do much winning at this early stage of a rebuild.
That will make the subject of Kane and Toews a hot one this season. They have challenging contracts in a cap-strapped league – each carries a $10.5-million charge – but as pending free agents those may not prove to be immovable objects on a pro-rated basis once February arrives.
Now, will they want to go?
That remains to be seen.
6. How will Pierre Dorion’s big off-season translate to the standings?
It was an exciting summer in Ottawa. The front office spent money in a manner not seen there in nearly a decade.
Claude Giroux signed as a free agent, Alex DeBrincat and Cam Talbot were acquired as part of headline-grabbing trades, and young stars Josh Norris and Tim Stützle made long-term commitments by signing eight-year extensions.
The PR was fantastic.
The only problem is that those wins in the summer don’t count as wins in the regular season. And the Senators finished last year a distant 27 points out of playoff qualification.
They should be better – much better – when the puck drops on 2022-23.
Whether they’re good enough to make up a big gap on the rest of the Eastern Conference is in question.
7. Can the Jets get back on track?
It’s been a fascinating summer in Winnipeg, where the biggest news of all arrived last week when Blake Wheeler was stripped of the captain’s ‘C’ after a quiet couple of months of player personnel moves.
Pair that with the hiring of veteran head coach Rick Bowness and you have an organization intent on trying to squeeze more out of a roster that hasn’t quite lived up to its own expectations.
Remember when the Jets reached the Western Conference Final in 2018?
They looked like a team that would find themselves knocking on the door for years to come. Except that hasn’t materialized. They missed the playoffs entirely last season.
Winnipeg is still loaded with talented players.
It’s up to Bowness and a rejigged leadership group to try and right the ship.
8. So … Phil Kessel, NHL ironman?
A trimmed-down Kessel arrived at Vegas Golden Knights training camp looking ready to claim a significant NHL record.
He needs just seven games played to match Keith Yandle for the league’s longest ironman streak at 989 games.
The schedule lines up in a way that could see Kessel match the record against the Maple Leafs – his former team – on Oct. 24. He can break it the following night in San Jose.
Should he play every Golden Knights game into mid-November, he’d become the first NHLer ever to appear in 1,000 consecutive games.
9. Can Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews scale new heights?
This is almost unfair to put in print after last season’s offensive explosion.
Remember that McDavid had a career-best 44 goals and a career-best 123 points. Matthews hit the 60-goal mark for the first time – scoring an incredible 51 times during a 50-game span – while also topping 100 points.
Those may ultimately prove to be the best individual seasons of careers that are already destined for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But the greats are always looking to scale new summits.
Could a healthy Matthews threaten the NHL’s vaunted 50-in-50 club from the start of the season? Might McDavid hit 50 goals or somehow compile an even higher point total?
We can’t rule it out.
10. Will the NHL and NHLPA finally lock in another best-on-best tournament?
It’s almost inconceivable that McDavid and Matthews haven’t had the chance to compete for their countries at the highest level of international hockey.
The same goes for Johnny Gaudreau, Mitch Marner, Leon Draisaitl, Mikko Rantanen, Cale Makar, Charlie McAvoy and numerous others.
All indications point to that changing soon. The league and players’ association are well down the road on planning for an eight-team World Cup to be held in February 2024.
However, anyone who has followed hockey’s international scene closely knows that nothing is officially done until it’s officially done. That should happen sometime during the coming season.
Many of the game’s top stars will be elated if and when it does.