The Toronto Maple Leafs are off to a start that only their fans could've dreamed up, with a 6-1-0 record and a 4.71 goals-per-game average. So we're looking ahead and answering the big questions:
How many goals will Auston Matthews score this season?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: If my math is correct, based on his current trajectory, he'll score around 136 goals if he maintains a 50 percent shooting percentage, which obviously won't be an issue. But seriously, we've had 20 occurrences of a player scoring 50 goals or more since 2005 (seven of them were Alex Ovechkin), and Matthews will add his name to that list. The question is, can he hit 60 goals? This start sets the table for it. When Steven Stamkos hit 60 in 2011-12, he had 10 goals in his first nine games. Matthews, with 10 goals through six games, is ahead of that pace. Let's assume his shooting percentage returns to terra firma at some point. It all comes down to shot volume. On 300 shots on goal, Matthews would have to shoot 20 percent to hit 60. Getting 300 shots is the easy part, if Matthews stays healthy, as it's been done 65 times since 2006. (Twelve of those 65 were Ovechkin.) Shooting 20 percent in a season with over 250 shot attempts? Stamkos came closest in his 60-goal season, with a 19.8 percent clip on 303 shots. I think Matthews is going to have that kind of season. I think he hits 60, with a Vincent Lecavalier-esque 52 goals as the floor.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Fifty goals seems well within reason -- accounting for a market correction on his otherworldly shooting percentage, and a dry patch here or there. Then again, I keep thinking back to Matthews' consistency. He's recorded a point in every regular-season game since last Feb. 22, a point streak that's technically now at 16 games. Most impressive is Matthews' precocious sense of self. It became a bit of a meme over the weekend, but I loved when Matthews was asked in a recent postgame interview: "Have you ever been in a stretch like this where the puck is just following you?" The 21-year-old's cool response: "Yeah, I have."
Chris Peters, hockey prospects analyst: A certain roundtable participant might have mentioned that this was the year that either Matthews or Patrik Laine would win the Rocket Richard Trophy. Now that we have that little obnoxious bit of business out of the way, we know Matthews won't score on half his shots all season, but he scored 40 as a rookie and was on pace for 45 goals last season but missed 20 games with injury. We have only two years of prior data, but it's not unreasonable to expect Matthews hits career highs in shots on goal and shooting percentage. To sum it up, let's say he stays healthy all season, continues averaging his 3.3 shots per game and scores on 18.2 percent of shots he takes, the same shooting percentage he had all of last season. At those rates, Matthews would score about 46 more goals on top of the 10 he already has. Seems ridiculous, but Stamkos scored 60 in his age-21 season shooting at a nearly 20 percent clip. I think Matthews is at least a 50-goal scorer this season, with an aggressive projection of 55.
Will the Maple Leafs win the East?
Wyshynski: It's not just that the Toronto Maple Leafs have a chance to win the East; they have an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup ... provided they can overcome their primary flaw, which is their defensive corps. One way to overcome it would be to make it better, but the kind of top-pairing defenseman who has become synonymous with winning NHL championships (Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Zdeno Chara, John Carlson) isn't easy to come by. So the Leafs will likely take the other path, which is to compensate for that flaw with a dominating forward group playing in front of competent goaltending, like the Pittsburgh Penguins had with their 2017 Stanley Cup win. We've seen that formula work in the first weeks of this season for Toronto -- 4.83 goals per game offensively, although one could argue that a .878 save percentage isn't "competent." That tease of greatness is tantalizing, but I just don't have faith in it transferring to postseason success. At some point, the Maple Leafs need to shut down Tampa or Washington or Pittsburgh, and I don't trust that they can quite yet.
Kaplan: The Maple Leafs have as good a chance as anyone else in the East, but as Greg said -- the offense might look championship-caliber, but I'm worried about the defense. Let's also not forget that Frederik Andersen shouldered an incredible workload in 2017-18, and that might not be sustainable. (The 29-year-old Dane faced a league-high 2,211 shots, 136 more than the next-closest goalie, Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy.) Will new GM Kyle Dubas be active in acquiring a defenseman who can fortify this win-now window? A player like Chicago's Keith would be a perfect veteran addition, and depending on how the Blackhawks' season shakes out, I wonder if he might become available. He has a $5,538,462 salary-cap hit through 2022-23; the term may be too much for a Leafs team still needing to lock down important young core players, but Keith's contract is the most movable of Chicago's big four. Carolina's Justin Faulk is another logical choice considering the Hurricanes' surplus of ascending blue-line talent. Nonetheless, it's going to be a thrill to watch these Leafs every night -- perhaps even more so if they don't shore up the back end.
Peters: As fun as Toronto is to watch and as great a scoring team as it is, I have a hard time calling it a Stanley Cup Final squad this season. There's a very good chance the Maple Leafs could be the proud owners of an "Eastern Conference Regular Season Champion" banner, though I'm not sure they would follow Nashville's lead on that. When it comes to the postseason, there are still questions. Scoring is obviously hugely important, but I'm not sure Toronto is going to be good enough in the goal-prevention department. The defense has some holes, and we're still not quite sure what to expect from Andersen in the postseason. I think this team is definitely capable of making a run, but I'll still ride with the Tampa Bay Lightning as my likely Eastern Conference champion because they are a more complete team.
How will the William Nylander standoff end ... and when?
Wyshynski: No offer sheet. No trade. I think he'll remain a Leaf. The bridge contract seems to be the obvious answer, but that misses one important factor: Ask anyone on the Leafs, and they'll tell you they love Nylander and what he adds to the roster. I think they want to go long-term with him, but not at the rate Nylander is asking for, which is reportedly the $8.5 million per season that Leon Draisaitl earns annually against the cap for the Edmonton Oilers. If Nylander thinks he's worth that much, he signs a bridge deal and gets it on the next contract. But in the end, GM Kyle Dubas finds a way to land Nylander for $6.5 million on a six-year term -- a mutual commitment that drains some of the bitterness out of these past few months. I think it gets done before November, perhaps as Toronto puts a deadline on signing him.
Kaplan: Dec. 1 is the burning date on the calendar, and we'll have resolution before then. I'd love to live in a hockey world where a team might sign Nyalnder to an offer sheet, but that's not happening. Why? We haven't seen an NHL offer sheet since the Calgary Flames took a flier on Ryan O'Reilly in 2013 (which the Avalanche matched). It's not just that NHL GMs are too congenial and don't want to screw over their peers -- though I suspect that's a large factor. In Nylander's case specifically, it's hard for teams to present a cap hit and salary structure that the Leafs can't match; plus, the compensation (likely four first-round picks) just isn't worth it for Nylander, a fine young player but not an overwhelmingly dominant superstar. It's either a bridge deal or a long-term deal for Nylander in Toronto.
Peters: I think this situation will be resolved with Nylander in blue and white before the calendar flips to November, but I fear there could be lasting damage. Leafs president Brendan Shanahan's statements to the media questioning Nylander's desire to be a Maple Leaf were no small thing. I think about the uncomfortable negotiation with Ryan Johansen and the Columbus Blue Jackets a few years ago, and his ultimately being shipped out to Nashville in exchange for Seth Jones. Nylander is in such a unique position being the first of Toronto's young core forwards coming due for a contract, and he has to fight for the money he feels he's worth because the pie only gets smaller when Matthews and Mitch Marner come due. If this ends up being a bridge deal, which is at least a possibility, I'd be less convinced Nylander is a Maple Leaf for much longer after that. Dubas has said he'll be able to keep the young forwards together, and I believe he will do everything he can to make that happen. The longer this goes and the more tension brews, the worse this gets for the future of the team.