5 Leafs that need to elevate their game at the right time
Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
By Jon Steitzer1 month ago
It probably goes without saying that the Leafs need a big series from as many players as possible in order to finally slay their dragon. It probably also goes without saying that more than anyone else in the lineup the Leafs need big performances from their stars. In that spirit, I’ll spare you the look at some of the “Leafs need a big series from Auston Matthews” takes here and I’m going to focus on those who need to parlay a big series here into a promising next step in their career as well. You’ll see what I mean. Here are five Leafs to watch in Round One.
David Kampf is slated to hit free agency this summer and with an abundance of potentially cheap options on the Leafs for the bottom six like Knies, Robertson, Holmberg, McMann, Lafferty, etc. the writing seems to be on the wall that if David Kampf is looking for a raise it might be coming from another team.
Kampf has a potentially important role to play in this series as someone who will spend a lot of time on the penalty kill, getting some defensive zone faceoffs, and likely being tasked with keeping the Lightning’s secondary offense from finding their way onto the score sheet.
If Toronto can rely on Kampf to keep the Lightning bottom six in check, the Leafs might have a good time this April and it could pay off for David in July.
I know I said it was stating the obvious to say that the Leafs need a big series from their big names but to some degree, Morgan Rielly has spent the season playing his way out of big name status. The playoffs are Rielly’s chance to establish that he is still an important part of the core of the Leafs and the seven years remaining on his contract won’t equal seven years of regret.
The Leafs seem to be heading into round one with the knowledge that they will need to find favourable matchups for Rielly and that keeping him away from the Lightning’s top offensive unit is in their best interest. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to Rielly and it’s probably a good thing the Leafs are finally getting here. Trotting Rielly out against top offensive units has seemed like a bad idea for a few years now and while you aren’t going to bend over backward to line match in the regular season, it should have been done in previous playoff appearances.
Of the Leafs trade deadline acquisitions, Lafferty is the player that seems to still leave the Leafs wanting more. Lafferty has one year left on his contract and will be in direct competition with the up and coming Leafs prospects and Marlies, not to mention any and all bargain free agents next season. The best way to get out in front of that group is to have a big playoff showing.
What the Leafs seem to need from Lafferty is they want him to make the Lightning bottom six skate and also if he can hit and bring some secondary scoring too, that would be a plus.
Lafferty might not live up to the hype around him before he was acquired, but he just needs to be a better than average fourth liner for the most part. The series won’t be won or lost because of Lafferty, but he was brought in for the playoffs so let’s see if that was the right call.
There’s a lot to keep an eye on when it comes to Bunting. He’s in a similar contract situation as Kampf and some of the same prospects could be gunning for his choice role in the Leafs top six.
There is also the pressure to play with the edge that people want from Bunting but to not spend as much time in the penalty box as he has of late. That and be a net and corner presence, stick up for the stars, and basically be Mr. Playoff Hockey.
That seems like a lot to put on Bunting but if he wants to be back as a Leaf and/or get a big payday, having Bunting figure out what the line is for the playoffs and dance on it without crossing it will serve him as well as it serves the Leafs.
You can really put whatever goaltender you want in here, Murray would need to show he is still the elevated playoff goaltender, stay healthy, and make a case for not being bought out. Woll could establish himself as a potential part of the Leafs next season rather than entering the year as the number three guy. But Ilya Samsonov is the de facto starter and as such he’s the ride or die. Samsonov obviously wants to make a case for the starter’s job, he wants to show that he is the future of the net for the Leafs, and he is likely looking for a long term role rather than potentially having to go through the arbitration process that would give the Leafs one more year of looking at him on the cheap before committing to him.
A big playoff performance in net is something the Leafs haven’t had since…well actually both Freddie Andersen and Jack Campbell had their moments in the playoffs and the team in front of them just couldn’t get it done, but that certainly doesn’t eliminate the need for it this year and Samsonov is the best bet to provide it and he’s a bit of a rarity in that he’s also been playing well heading into the playoffs.
While this group might not need to deliver the biggest series in order for the Leafs to win, this does seem to be the group that has the most on the line for their own careers this summer and it will be interesting to see if that helps them rise to the occasion.
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