The key to the 2nd round for the Leafs is...

January 16, 2022  (5:53 PM)

The NHL All-Star game this year will be on Feb 5. It will be hosted by the Las Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena and will be the first NHL All-Star game for the franchise. The arena and venue will no doubt be rocking!

The skills competition and the game itself, are always entertaining for NHL fans. The fans' favorite players can showcase their talents and its also fun to see what crazy ideas (or bad ideas) the NHL can incorporate into this year's games.
However, for the teams and players, its not as easy-going and entertaining as it is for the fans. Its a stark reminder that it's the pivotal half-way point of the season. It's time for teams to deal with some self-realization of where they are so far this season. Are they above .500? If not, how many games back are they? Where do they stand in their division? Do they realistically have a chance of being a playoff team come May? Are they buyers at the trade deadline, or are they sellers? If they are buyers, what exactly do they need to bolster their team to go deep into the playoffs?
The Toronto Maple Leafs are no different during this soul searching period, and in fact, they are among the most pressured teams in the NHL (a lot of it due to local media). They are THE team that has the longest Stanley Cup drought amongst all NHL teams. The last time they won the Cup was, as we all know, in 1967.
Leafs fans are starving for a Cup run. Most would say that just making it out of the 1st round would be progress. The last time the Leafs made it out of the first round was way back in 2004. Ed Belfour was in net for the Leafs and they beat Ottawa in the first round, but then lost in the next round to the Flyers. Perhaps you'll recall Jeremy Roenick breaking the hearts of Leafs Nation. If you don't remember that, consider yourself lucky.
Since then, the Leafs have been a rollercoaster of disappointment. From 2006-2012 they didn't qualify for the playoffs. They returned in 2013, but lost in the first round to the Bruins in 7 games in the infamous "it was 4-1" game. The team had some dark days after that, and is yet to get past the first round since.
Optimistically speaking, the Leafs should make the playoffs this year. As of today, they sit 3rd in the Atlantic Division with 51 points, 6 behind the Tampa Bay and The Florida Panthers, with games in hand. So, I think it's safe to assume that the Toronto Maple Leafs SHOULD be buyers at the trade deadline. But the ultimate question is, 'what do they need to get out of the first round?'
There have been many famous late pickups in the past, that have paid off for Stanley Cup Winners. One that quickly came to mind was Ray Bourque being acquired by the Colorado Avalanche back in March of 2000. The acquisitions themselves don't even have to be rock star deals to be effective though. For example, when the Chicago Blackhawks won their first cup in 2010, depth in veteran center John Madden was quite helpful.
So what, exactly, do the Maple Leafs need? Lets start with goaltending. The combination of Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek has worked really well this year. Campbell is 19-5-3, with a 2.13 Goals Against and a .931 Save %. He also has 4 shutouts. Dazzling numbers for the 30-year-old netminder, whose success in his second year with the Leafs has earned him a trip to the All-Star game.
Mrazek hasn't had a lot of opportunities, and his numbers aren't as sexy as Campbell's. He's 2-2-0 with a 3.59 GAA and .882 save percentage. If the Leafs don't get better goaltending from Mrazek down the stretch, it may be worthwhile to look at shipping him off to another team and acquiring a veteran netminder like Jaroslav Halak or Anton Khudobin to back up Campbell.
Does defense win Championships? Some would argue that it does. The Leafs' defense is much improved this season, and they have solid depth at the position, having utilized at least 8 different defensemen this season. The team's penalty kill currently sits at 83% as well, good for 8th in the league in that category. They give up around 31 shots per game. This is near the league average. Still, a depth defenseman couldn't hurt for a playoff run.
As for the offence, the Leafs are 7th in the league with 3.39 goals per game. The powerplay has been deadly, sitting 2nd only to Edmonton this year. They are also averaging 34 shots per game. Still, adding a top-6/middle-six left winger for the playoffs could be beneficial.
Auston Matthews has been solid, tallying 25 goals and 15 assists for 40 points this season. He has been clutch and they are going to need him to continue that level of production during the playoffs. Let's not forget about the supporting cast in Marner, Nylander and a healthy Tavares, all chipping in consistently this year. The addition of Wayne Simmonds also seems to have paid off, as his grit, size and leaderhip qualities have given the Leafs some good veteran depth. Some toughness insurance in the bottom-6 might be a good idea, in case of an injury to Kyle Clifford or the aforementioned Simmonds.
So to recap, to give the team the best chance to break through to at least the 2nd round this season, the Leafs should look at making a chance in goal and bringing in a veteran backup with some playoff success, a depth blueliner, a scoring middle-six left winger and some depth sandpaper. Does that about cover it?
It seems that, as of today, they have most of what they need to get the job done, at least in the first round. Do they sit back and do nothing? Do they add an risk throwing off the chemistry? We shall see come trade deadline.. possibly earlier, as we know that GM Kyle Dubas doesn't often like to wait.
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