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Playoff fortunes must change for Maple Leafs in 2023 – Toronto Sun

TJ Brodie of the Maple Leafs celebrates a goal against Alexandar Georgiev of the Colorado Avalanche with teammates during the second period at Ball Arena on Dec. 31 in Denver.
TJ Brodie of the Maple Leafs celebrates a goal against Alexandar Georgiev of the Colorado Avalanche with teammates during the second period at Ball Arena on Dec. 31 in Denver. Photo by Jack Dempsey /GETTY IMAGES

If the Maple Leafs collectively had one New Year’s resolution, we can make a fairly easy assumption as to what it would have been.

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Change the narrative. 

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There’s really only one way to do that in 2023.

Win a playoff round for the first time since 2004, and go a couple of steps further and win a few more, if not the Stanley Cup.

If you consider 2023 a pivotal year for the organization, well, no kidding.

Like they did through the first few months of 2022, the Leafs — who ended the year with a fairly tidy 6-2 victory against the defending Cup champion Colorado Avalanche on Saturday in Denver — are setting themselves up nicely in the Atlantic Division. 

Barring a sudden fall by the Boston Bruins, the Leafs appear to be headed for another first-round matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bruins have an eight-point lead on the Leafs for the division lead, while the third-place Lightning was eight points ahead of the fourth-place Detroit Red Wings.

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Avoiding a repeat of what happened in the opening round of the playoffs last spring, a seven-game loss to Tampa, would be at the top of the Leafs’ to-do list.

As the new year gets underway, there are some significant differences for the Leafs, who kick off ’23 on Tuesday against the St. Louis Blues to start a three-game home stand.

The biggest is that general manager Kyle Dubas is in the final year of his contract, and presumably won’t have a safety net if the Leafs fail to get much accomplished in the playoffs. It’s going to be fascinating to learn what the MLSE board finds acceptable whenever the Leafs are done in the post-season. Will a first-round victory be enough for Dubas to continue in his current position? Is it a Cup or bust? 

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It’s difficult to envision a scenario in which Dubas would be back if the Leafs lost in the first round again. For that matter, the job of president Brendan Shanahan, we would imagine, also would not be safe. 

In the coming months, there will be plenty of speculation regarding the next contract for Auston Matthews, and whether the Leafs and Matthews’ camp can get something done once July 1 hits.

What carries more weight for the Leafs, for now, is what will come in the next couple of months. 

On the ice, the club has done enough to instil confidence that it’s going to continue to win with regularity for the remainder of the season. 

Toronto opened the year third in goals-against in the NHL at 2.54 a game, with only Boston (2.19) and Carolina (2.50) ahead of them. 

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Defensively, the Leafs keep taking steps; offensively, Toronto was eighth in goals for. While Matthews isn’t scoring at the rate he did last season, William Nylander has shone and is on pace for what would be a career-high 47 goals. Mitch Marner is Mitch Marner, and John Tavares is producing at nearly a point-a-game clip. The group of depth forwards is capable on both sides of the puck.

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We’ve seen what can happen when there are injuries on the blue line: The Leafs didn’t flinch and became that much more sturdier.

Goalies Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov have been sharp, and will have to stay in their respective grooves.

All that said, Dubas would help his cause and that of his team with some additions before the NHL trade deadline hits on March 3.

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A top-six forward should be at the top of his wish list, and after that, further depth up front and on defence would not hurt. 

Any way it’s sliced, the Leafs’ post-season fortunes have to change. If not, we’re bound to be talking about what kind of off-season moves a new general manager might intend on making.

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LOOSE LEAFS

Matthews’ 58 goals in 2022 were the most in the NHL after Connor McDavid went without one in the Edmonton Oilers’ loss to Winnipeg on New Year’s Eve. McDavid and David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins each scored 57 in the calendar year … McDavid had an NHL-high 143 points, well ahead of Matthew Tkachuk of the Florida Panthers, who was second with 121. Marner was fourth with 118, while Matthews was eighth with 115 … Following the victory in Colorado, coach Sheldon Keefe said defenceman Rasmus Sandin is “close” to returning to the lineup from a neck injury that has caused Sandin to miss the past four games. While Keefe has been happy with the play of Conor Timmins and said the looming lineup decision “is a good problem for me to have,” we can’t expect that Sandin will be kept out once he gets the green light … The Leafs tied for second in the NHL in most comeback wins in 2022 with 26, equal to Dallas, Edmonton and Minnesota. The N.Y. Rangers led with 27 … The Leafs travelled home from Denver after the game, rather than wait until Sunday, and will return to practice on Monday afternoon at the Ford Performance Centre. 

tkoshan@postmedia.com

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