Rick Zamperin: 5 Toronto Maple Leafs who are under the microscope

If you believe hockey pundits, the Toronto Maple Leafs are once again projected to be one of the elite teams in the National Hockey League this season.

With a group of highly talented players — highlighted by the big three of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares — Toronto is well-equipped to be a top five team in the NHL in 2019-20.

But that’s not to suggest the Leafs are going to glide to the top of the standings and coast to a playoff spot. There is work to be done, and with that work comes the pressure to get it done.

With that in mind, here are the top five Maple Leafs who are most under the microscope this year.

5 – Morgan Rielly. It is astonishing to think that the 25-year-old slick slating defenceman is entering his seventh season in the NHL. He is also coming off a career year of 20 goals and 72 points, which garnered the Vancouver native Norris Trophy consideration.

While his upward trajectory isn’t a surprise, Rielly will be counted upon to duplicate his offensive output and continue to shut down the elite forwards in the game.

4 – Frederik Andersen. Every team’s starting goalie will be on a list like this and ‘The Great Dane’ is on here for good reason.

Load management is not only a buzzword made popular by the Toronto Raptors for how they used Kawhi Leonard en route to winning the NBA championship in 2019, but it has worked in the NHL, too. All three Vezina Trophy finalists from last season (Andrei Vasilevskiy, Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop) played no more than 53 games in 2018-19. Andersen has played in at least 60 games in each of the last three seasons, which all ended in first round playoff exits.

The 29-year-old will be under pressure to win more of his regular season starts so the coaching staff isn’t as reluctant to start his backup more often.

3 – Mitch Marner. The Markham native was the talk of Leaf-land all offseason as he and the team went back and forth before agreeing to a new six-year contract. Now that Marner is earning more than US$10.8 million a season, he will face immense pressure to prove that he deserves to earn one of the largest paychecks in the NHL.

Is the talented winger a 60-point player as he was in his first two seasons, or is he a legitimate top-10 point producer in the NHL?

2 – Auston Matthews. The Leafs’ first-overall selection in the 2016 NHL draft is in a similar boat with Marner, with a five-year contract kicking in this season that pays him a team-high $11.634 million per season. There is also talk that Matthews is in line to become the next captain of the Maple Leafs, which is a big honour and brings with it an incredible amount of responsibility with the team, media and fans.

Added to that, and most importantly, the 22-year-old center has to dodge the injury bug in 2019-20 after a variety of injuries forced one of the NHL’s most prolific scorers to sit out a total of 34 games over the last two seasons.

1 – Mike Babcock. It’s go big or go bust for Babs. Toronto’s no-nonsense head coach has a record of 164-123-41 as he enters his fifth year behind the bench but the record everyone is pointing to is Babcock’s playoff mark. In each of the last three years, the Maple Leafs have been bounced in the first round of the post-season. With the high-priced talent that general manager Kyle Dubas has assembled, Babcock must — at the very least — guide the club to round 2 of the playoffs, and even that might not be enough to save his job.

Stanley Cup expectations in Toronto haven’t reached this level in a long, long time, and the Leafs will be feeling the heat right out of the gate and up until the final horn of their last game next spring, whenever that may be.

Only a championship parade next June will release the pressure that has been building for over half a century.

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