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Can the Ottawa Senators end their five-year playoff drought?
  1. NHL

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs season preview

Any preview for the Toronto Maple Leafs will ask the same question; is this the season when they can finally win a playoff series?

Expectations are much higher than that and they are second favourites at +800 to win their first Stanley Cup in 53 years, but after being eliminated in the first round for six seasons straight and without a playoff series victory since 2004, winning a playoff series is their first goal and once that weight is lifted, anything might happen.

WhatNHL Season 2022/23
WhereUSA and Canada
When7th October 2022 - June 2023
How to watchESPN+, Star+, NHL.TV & bet365's Sports Live Streaming
Odds

COL Avalanche +425, TOR Maple Leafs +800, FLA Panthers +900, TB Lightning +1000, CAR Hurricanes +1100

Overcoming playoff hump

Toronto nearly progressed last season, pushing the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lighting to seven games where they inevitably fell narrowly short and lost 2-1.

The Leafs went 3-1 up in the series but their failure to win elimination games came back to haunt them yet again and extended their losing record to 0-9 in those games over the last five years.

General Manager Kyle Dubas, who is entering the last year of a five-year contract, has kept faith in the core group of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander and Morgan Reilly, in the belief that together they can finally find success together.

36-year-old Dubas needs that to happen in 2022/23 or his job and the future of that core as Maple Leafs will be in serious jeopardy.

Faith in core

Auston Matthews has led the NHL for goals in each of the past two seasons and after scoring 60 in the most recent campaign, won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player.

His tally was the most ever by a Maple Leaf and he also enjoyed the most productive playoff campaign of his six-year NHL career posting nine points (four goals, five assists) in the seven games.

Like Matthews, fellow forward Marner has in the past been criticised for his playoff performances but after a 97-point career best regular season campaign (35 goals, 62 assists) he too was productive in the playoffs scoring eight points (two goals, six assists) in the Lightning series.

The pair are just 25 and entering their prime, and so Dubas' patience in them is well justified. Also comforting for the young GM is that the rest of the core also showed signs of figuring it out in the playoffs with Captain Tavares getting six points (three goals, three assists), Nylander seven points (three goals, four assists) and Reilly six points (three goals, three assists).

Restructured goaltending

Dubas' biggest move in the off-season was to completely overhaul the Leafs goaltending and his decision to take a gamble on Matt Murray, a player he knows well from his junior days, has generated much debate.

Murray, 28, was acquired from the Ottawa Senators to replace Jack Campbell who departed Toronto for Edmonton Oilers via free agency.

Petr Mrazek was also moved on to the Chicago Blackhawks and Ilya Samsonov, 25, signed from the Washington Capitals to partner Murray.

Murray is a two-time winner of the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins (2016 and 2017) but has had a torrid time of things since.

He was moved by Pittsburgh to the Ottawa Senators in 2020, and over two seasons was only able to play 47 times due to injuries. When he did play, his numbers were less than ideal (.893 and .906 save-percentage, 3.38 and 3.05 goals-against-average respectively each season).

Murray played for Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe when with the OHL's Soo Greyhounds, and says he is motivated to rediscover his outstanding past form under a management team who have confidence in him.

If he can, the brave move may well save Dubas his job, but the chances for it to end in disaster remain high.

Samsonov, too, is aiming to get his NHL career back on track after going from a .913 save-percentage and 2.55 GAA in his rookie season three years ago to .896 and 3.02 last season.

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Bottom six shuffle

As Dubas has tended to do in order to find an answer to the Leafs playoff problems, he has again shuffled the bottom six of the roster with forwards Calle Jarnkrok, Adam Gaudette and Nicolas Aube-Kubel coming in to replace the likes of Ilya Mikheyev and Ondrej Kase.

31-year-old Jarnkrok arrives from the Calgary Flames, Gaudette, 28, from the Ottawa Senators and Aube-Bubel, 26, from the Colorado Avalanche where he won the Stanley Cup.

Each will bring something different to what Toronto had before, and there also hopes that forward prospect Nick Robertson, 21, can establish himself on the NHL roster after a couple of seasons on the cusp.

Make or break for Dubas

Dubas and the Leafs aren't the only team to go through difficult playoff stretches. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Avalanche and Washington Capitals in recent times have had their fair share of struggles before figuring it out to become champions.

With no offer of a contract extension, time and patience may be running out for Dubas and his big goaltending decisions and belief in the core group must pay dividends as another first round failure, however gallant the effort, simply won't be accepted.

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