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31 in 31

Three questions facing Toronto Maple Leafs

Depth on defense, Andersen's playoff performance among concerns

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / NHL.com Staff Writer

NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, three important questions facing the Toronto Maple Leafs.

 

[Maple Leafs 31 IN 31: Season preview | Top prospects | Fantasy breakdown | Behind the Numbers]

 

1. Are they deep enough at defenseman to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender?

Toronto does not have a legitimate No. 1 defenseman like Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay Lightning) or Drew Doughty (Los Angeles Kings). But Morgan Rielly, 24, is on the cusp. He set an NHL career high for points with 52 (six goals, 46 assists) in 2017-18. His leadership was displayed when he returned to the ice after taking a slap shot in the mouth from Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference First Round.

After that, the situation becomes muddled.

Jake Gardiner, 28, had an NHL career-high 52 points (five goals, 47 assists) and is Toronto's best skating defenseman, but his shortcomings were on display when he was minus-5 in a 7-4 loss to the Bruins in Game 7. 

Veteran Ron Hainsey is 37 and looked all of it when he started to run out of gas against the Bruins. Nikita Zaitsev, who turns 27 on Oct. 29, saw his point production drop from 36 (four goals, 32 assists) as a rookie in 2016-17 to 13 (five goals, eight assists) last season. Travis Dermott, 21, showed promise after being called up in January but has a limited body of work at the NHL level (37 games).

"I am probably more bullish on our defense than others … I have a lot of faith in our defense," general manager Kyle Dubas said.

Video: 31 in 31: Toronto Maple Leafs 2018-19 season preview

 

2. Can goaltender Frederik Andersen carry the Maple Leafs past the first round?

Andersen has enjoyed tangible regular-season success in his two seasons in Toronto. His 38 wins in 2017-18 were a single-season Maple Leafs record, and he's helped them reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since they made them in six straight from 1998-2004.

The postseason has been a different story.

With Andersen in goal, the Maple Leafs are 5-8 in the past two playoffs and were eliminated in the first round each time, losing their series 4-2 to the Washington Capitals in 2016-17 and 4-3 to the Bruins last season.

Particularly painful for Andersen was Game 7 against Boston, when he allowed six goals on 35 shots. Toronto has not won a playoff series since 2004.

Andersen, who turns 29 on Oct. 2, had a 3.76 goals-against average and .896 save percentage in the Bruins series. He'll have to improve on that if the Maple Leafs are to make a deep run this season.

Video: BOS@TOR, Gm6: Andersen flashes the leather for save

 

3. Can the players remain grounded amid high expectations?

It's been 51 years since the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. When center John Tavares signed a seven-year, $77 million contract July 1, social media blew up with Toronto fans predicting an end to the drought.

The citywide frenzy hasn't been lost on the players, who cite the need to be grounded amid the hype.

"We know fans are going crazy, but we have to stay focused," forward William Nylander said. "Everybody's excited -- players, fans, everyone -- but we have to take it game by game with a long-term goal of getting past the second round.

"We lost twice in a row in the first round. That's all that matters. Hearing how good we are won't matter if we do that again."

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