3 bold Toronto Maple Leafs predictions for 2021

The Toronto Maple Leafs will win the Canadian Division, and — finally! — a playoff round.

Auston Matthews will capture his first Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy. Morgan Rielly (hat tip to partner T.J. Brodie) will pile up enough points to leap back into the Norris conversation. And Toronto will trade its 2021 first-round pick to help its championship chances in 2022.

OK, now that we all agree on the easy stuff, let’s dive into three bold (and probably way too specific) predictions for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2021.

1. Andersen leaves, Hyman stays

When the tire-kickers cruised by the Maple Leafs’ lot looking for a one-year lease, GM Kyle Dubas indeed listened to those inquiring about starting goaltender Frederik Andersen. Any buyer sniffing around power forward Zach Hyman, however, was told to take a hike.

Both are core members of the roster and its leadership group. Both are impending UFAs for the first time in their respective careers and will have great cases for a raise in pay.

The salary cap is as flat as the Earth was believed to be 3,000 years ago. The math will be tricky.

“I would love to stay in Toronto. It’s where I grew up. I want to be a Leaf for a long time. That’s first and foremost,” said Hyman when last asked about his next contract. “I would love to be a long-term Leaf and would love to re-sign here and would love to be here and ultimately win a Stanley Cup here.”

What did Andersen say on the same topic?

“Whatever’s gonna happen, happens.”

Hyman will be 29 when his next contract kicks in, but Toronto doesn’t have many forwards of his ilk. He accepted a team-friendly deal last time ($2.25-million cap hit) and the best bargain on the team deserves a significant upgrade in pay.

We say Hyman takes a little less AAV and a little more term to stick around, and Andersen becomes the odd man out.

How do the Leafs replace a top-10 goalie, then?

Well, if Jack Campbell doesn’t emerge as an NHL starter, we’re predicting Dubas goes hard after Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper (UFA 2022) via trade.

Kuemper, 30, is a $4.5-million cap hit who will be due $5.5 million in actual salary in 2021-22. The rebuilding Coyotes would rather not pay that, and the cash-flush Leafs would have no issue with doing so.

Dubas can trade futures to club starving for draft picks and acquire a true No. 1 to help Toronto in its contention window.

2. Tavares bounces back big time

After exploding for a career-best 47 goals, 88 points and plus-19 rating in 2018-19, his first campaign representing the logo on his boyhood pyjamas, John Tavares took a small but noticeable step backward in 2019-20.

The newly minted captain (and newly minted father) spent less time alongside playmaker Mitch Marner and more time pushing through multiple injuries (oblique, finger) that he downplayed well.

Hey, may we all suffer “off” years in which we put up 60 points in 63 games, win a career-best 55.3 per cent of our faceoffs, spend our spare time grinding through logistics on an important return-to-play committee, then absorb criticism for a contract that we rightfully earned.

Still, Tavares was a -7 last season, worst among Leafs forwards. For the first time in nine years, he didn’t receive a single vote for the Hart, Selke or Lady Byng trophies.

Good news: Tavares’s son, Jace, is walking now. And Jace’s dad will be ready to run.

Here’s betting J.T. returns to an 80-point pace and reminds the critics of the power of a one-two all-star punch up the middle of the ice.

3. Leafs lose Dermott, one way or another

To be honest, I take no joy in predicting this one.

Travis Dermott has one of the most genuinely upbeat spirits in the Leafs’ dressing room. He’s the type of guy you want to root for, regardless of the sweater on his back. But it was telling that the organization cut the 23-year-old defender’s pay this off-season, signing him to a one-year, $874,125 prove-it contract and importing competition for his ice time.

Is there danger in developing a smooth-skating defenceman for five years, winning a Calder Cup with him, and then letting him go right before his prime years? Absolutely.

That said, lefties Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and T.J. Brodie are ensconced ahead of Dermott on the depth chart. That’s the trio that must be protected in the Seattle expansion draft.

The franchise is high on emerging lefty Rasmus Sandin (still on his entry-level deal) behind him, and it appears KHL Defenceman of the Year Mikko Lehtonen will be given some of the prime offensive opportunities that, in an alternate universe, would’ve been earmarked for Dermott.

If the Kraken don’t snag Dermott (RFA, no arbitration rights), Dubas could wheel Dermott in the summer as a compelling trade piece to a team more open to giving him a role that plays to his strengths.

To be honest, that may be the best outcome for both parties here.