It’s that time of year again. It was a long and dull summer, but with training camp around the corner and the World Cup of Hockey rolling into Toronto, hockey is finally back.
It’s amazing that the Leafs rebuild only started about a year ago. When the Leafs organization was given a new makeover, the playoffs seemed like it wasn’t going to come soon enough. The Leafs were probably at least three to five years away from seeing any post-season hockey.
They added young talent in William Nylander and Mitch Marner through the draft. They managed to get rid of some of their former group of “core players”. They acquired potential number one goaltender in Frederik Andersen. And of course came the moment where they drafted and signed their future number one centre in Auston Matthews.
It’s a brand new season. And with a new season, comes expectations.
Every team, including the Leafs, likes to go into the regular season with expectations for the year. With the way the rebuild has rapidly progressed and with the addition of some key players, hopes are starting to rise for the Leafs and their fans.
Expectations are going to be higher compared to last season. And it should be. The pieces are starting to fall into place for success in the future.
They will have a different mindset and a great amount of support from everyone in the organization. Coaches and management are beginning to see the team they had envisioned ever since the rebuild was given the green light.
As the Leafs head into training camp, there are a lot of areas that need to be looked at before they can reach playoff hockey. There are many factors that could have an impact on this team.
First off, there are the players that will make up the roster.
Since the end of the 2014/15 season, the team went through a massive overhaul. A total of 46 players saw some game time with the Leafs while a number of players were moved during the 2015/16 season, which included James Reimer and Dion Phaneuf. Here is a full list of all the players that played for the Leafs in 2015/16.
It’s obvious that a number of players were in and out of the lineup. Players were called up and given an opportunity to play and were essentially playing for a roster spot next year. Players such as William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov, Connor Brown and Connor Carrick all performed well enough to make a lasting impression on management and the boss behind the bench.
We know they’ll be more offensively talented this year. But with so many top prospects eyeing for a spot, it’ll be difficult to determine who’ll make the roster. There are so many outcomes in terms of which prospects will make the team and which ones will be sent to the Marlies in the American Hockey League.
The Leafs made it a point to fill out the bottom portions of their roster in the off-season and added some more new faces. They first signed the heavy hitting Matt Martin to a four-year, $10 million deal with a cap hit of $2.5 million.
Martin had 10 goals and nine assists in 80 games played with the Islanders last season while earning 119 penalty minutes. Martin had a CF% of 49.4 in all situations. That number is down from 2014/15 (51.1%), but it’s still a reasonable possession number for a fourth liner.
There were conflicting opinions on whether or not this signing was worth it. When a fourth liner is getting $10 million, there are some red flags. But at $2.5 million over four years, that’s a reasonable deal. It’s unconventional that teams would give over two million dollars to a fourth liner/ physical player. However, Trevor Lewis of the Los Angeles Kings makes $2 million per year for four years and he spends his time on the third/fourth line minutes.
While the game is moving towards one that emphasizes speed and skill, there is still a need for fourth line players who play with a physical side to their game. Teams can never have four lines with top-end scorers. You need to have an even mix of players in your top and bottom six. The Los Angeles Kings have been successful with Trevor Lewis and Jordan Nolan and they combine to make more than Martin. Martin will benefit well as a bottom six player for the Leafs by being aggressive and physical on the fore check.
Martin had this to say in an article by Maple Leafs beat reporter, Kristen Shilton:
“I want to go out there and be effective. In talking to [the Leafs], I think I can play the game, not just going out there to fight. Obviously [physicality] is a big part of my game. I’m not someone who really likes liberties being taken on my teammates and my friends. So I think I’m there to obviously free up space and be there to help the young guys and open up room for them, but my only role isn’t to go out there and drop the gloves. I want to bring more to the team and be a regular player and contribute offensively and do all the other things that round out my game.”
What sticks out is his ability to contribute in all aspects of the game. He doesn’t want to be known as a one-dimensional player. This essentially is what made Martin successful with the New York Islanders. It worked considering the Islanders lost in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Their fourth line was key in their playoff run, being a physical force against the Florida Panthers’ and Lightning’s top units.
The Leafs also added a familiar face in Roman Polak by signing him to a one-year deal worth $2.25 million.
Again, this signing came with criticism.
Just for a moment, think about how other teams in the league develop their roster. The Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks to name a few, all have depth in their bottom six and third line pairing. They didn’t get to where they are by signing these guys just for the sake of it. They see value in them because they can contribute to the team in a positive way to help them win, be it making a hit or by blocking a shot. That’s where guys like Polak and Martin thrive and that’s the whole point of having a deep bottom part of the roster.
In all my years of watching hockey, I have yet to see a team with four lines full of top- six talent and three first line defense pairings, unless you’re cheating your way through Be A GM Mode in the NHL video game franchise. Why? It’s called balance.
The teams mentioned above are all successful because of a balance of depth throughout their roster. The Detroit Red Wings of the mid- 1990’s and early 2000’s are a perfect example of this model. You need guys who can score, you need guys to fore check and you need guys to be aggressive and physical. You need guys who can move the puck and you need guys who can be reliable in a defensive situation. People need to realize that this is how great teams are built and how it’s been for many years. Nothing is ever going to change that.
Jhonas Enroth will handle the back-up duties, after the Leafs signed him to an affordable one-year deal worth $750,000. Enroth was 7-5-1 with a 2.17 goals against average and a .922 save percentage with the Los Angeles Kings last year. His numbers are impressive, but that could be due to the fact that Enroth had a great defense in front of him. He is capable in handling a starter role should anything happen to Andersen.
The Leafs main core will revolve around a healthy James van Riemsdyk and the skill of Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews who will look to carry the offense and improve on a 2.34 goals for per game that ranked 28th in the league. For the youngsters, it’s a lot of pressure to come in and make an immediate impact, but the promise and potential is there for them to do what they can to be the future of this club.
Their bottom six has a great mix of speed, skill and physicality, which should be able to make opponents life difficult when on the fore check.
Their defense is also starting to fill out. With the addition of Nikita Zaitsev, who was outstanding at the World Hockey Championships in the spring, they have someone who is capable of handling top four minutes. Morgan Rielly will continue to be heavily relied on as the leader of this blueline.
This year, the roster is going to look a whole lot different, with speed, skill and physicality throughout the lineup. The Leafs would expect the most out of their young, core players and veterans, playing key parts throughout the season and provide more offense. It won’t be as scarce as it was last year with the young and plentiful talent that we have pushing for roster spots.
Since their last playoff appearance, it has been shown by the analytics community that the Leafs got significantly worse in terms of possession. They managed to find ways to win while holding down a playoff spot in both 2013/14 and 2014/15. Even without the numbers, the Leafs were always extremely lucky. Yet, their bad habits caught up to them and eventually led to the multiple 18-wheelers driving off a cliff scenario.
Here’s a look at the Leafs shot and possession numbers since the 2012/13 lockout shortened season along with their rank (Numbers from NHL.com and stats.hockey.analysis.com):
|Year||SF/GP||SA/GP||CF 5v5||CA 5v5||CF% 5v5||C +/-|
|2012/13||26.3 (28th)||32.3 (4th)||1,927 (23rd)||2,445 (1st)||44.1 (30th)||-518|
|2013/14||27.9 (25th)||35.9 (1st)||3,259 (26th)||4,342 (1st)||42.9 (30th)||-1,083|
|2014/15||29.2 (22nd)||33.5 (2nd)||3,361 (24th)||3,878 (4th)||46.4 (27th)||-517|
|2015/16||30.7 (6th)||30.5 (10th)||3,770 (4th)||3,576 (16th)||51.3 (13th)||
As you can see, the Leafs possession and shot numbers from 2012/13 to 2014/15 were terrible. In the lockout-shortened season, the Leafs did fairly well averaging 3.02 goals per game and allowing 2.67. What became alarming was the amount of shots they gave away per game. They averaged 26.3 shots per game, but allowed 32.3. They were a playoff team and allowed the fourth most shots per game.
The Leafs provided a similar narrative in their first round match-up against the Bruins. They were able to get 33.4 shots on net but allowed a whopping 39.0 in seven games, most in the playoffs.
This regression continued as they Leafs became one of the worst teams in terms of possession from that point until last season. They were running around in their own zone and looked lost most nights. This isn’t the kind of hockey that will get you into the post-season. Playoffs are reserved for the best of the best, and the Leafs clearly were far from that label.
Which brings us to the impact that Mike Babcock has had on this team’s possession and improved play in all three zones.
It’s amazing what one year and one man can do to drastically improve the possession and playing style of this team. Mike Babcock and his coaching staff have turned a team that was always hemmed in their own zone trying to get by for 60 minutes, into a quick transition and puck moving team that is seeing more offensive zone time and thus, more scoring chances.
Even though they didn’t have a super star on their team, they managed to be in the top 10 in shots for and be a positive possession team with a Corsi +/- of +194 and a CF % of 51.3. That’s a huge improvement from the previous three years.
Even though they were trying to emulate Randy Carlyle’s defensively style of play, it’s extremely difficult to come out with a win where you’re constantly in the defensive zone getting out-shot and out-chanced by your opponent. Defense is a key component in the game, but there’s a fine line. The Leafs crossed that line every single game form the opening puck drop.
Earlier this year, I wrote a video analysis and breakdown on how Babcock made the Leafs successful despite being at the bottom of the league standings.
In that piece, I look at and explain a number of examples and plays in depth about the drastic, albeit positive change, the Leafs made in their overall play and structure. Even when the Leafs were on the losing end, there were times where they outplayed their opponents despite what the final score said. All of this is large in part due to Mike Babcock and his system; a team first mentality, aggressive fore-checking, attacking the defenders, smooth and effective breakouts and controlled zone entries.
Before Babcock took the helm as bench boss, the Leafs were a mess in the defensive zone. Poor clearing attempts, bad coverage and most of all, they constantly coughed up the puck when transitioning from defense to offense. Teams would counter quickly and be aggressive on the attack.
Last year, Toronto was that team that was aggressive all over the ice and shocked many teams in the league. They forced turnovers by being aggressive on the puck carrier and transitioned smoothly from defense to offense. While there still needs to be improvements, the foundation is there for the Leafs.
The team’s speed, puck retrieval and simplicity in their decision making with the puck will be extremely key in their success this year as it was a year ago. While the numbers were as is when the article was written, the possession numbers and scoring chances for and against were a complete 180 from the previous years.
The Leafs were getting more shots and as a result, more scoring chances because of the change of on ice philosophy and execution as a result of Babcock.
Mike Babcock turned this team around in one year. We also have Lou Lamoriello, Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter to thank for adding quality players. It was Babcock who made everyone buy into his game plan.
Expectations for this year are to continue to have that on- ice success while trying to maintain the amount of shots and possession time. This will be key if they want to gain some ground against the likes of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning. If it weren’t for Babcock, this team would still be a mess on the ice. They won’t be pushed around like they were in previous years.
Here are some things to consider at each position:
The Leafs needed to address the goaltending position during the off-season and it was a priority. Jonathan Bernier was questionable at times, James Reimer was dealt and Sparks and Bibeau weren’t their usual selves during the AHL playoffs. Consistency was an issue.
With Bernier being dealt to Anaheim in July, Andersen is undoubtedly the number one. We all know that Andersen was great in his time in Anaheim. He’s a big guy in the crease with great athleticism, vision and poise. The question remains, can Frederik Andersen make an immediate impact in net?
While he will have a different, much younger team in front of him than he did in Anaheim, Andersen should be able to handle the load and pressure that comes with being a number one goalie. Among goalies that started more than 30 games, Andersen ranked 10th among NHL goaltenders with a 2.30 goals against average and 16th in save percentage with a .919. Bernier wasn’t even ranked in the top 30.
Andersen will be an x-factor. If he comes out strong right out of the gate, this should give the team in front of him some reassurance. With the way the Leafs were defensively last year, decreasing the amount of shots on net, it should take some pressure off Andersen knowing that the team in front of him will do everything they can to minimize the amount of shots on net. It’ll make his job easier instead of facing 35 plus shots like the Leafs goalies did the previous years.
Like the forwards, the defense will revolve around the emergence of the Leafs younger players.
Morgan Rielly impressed many as a potential first line pairing defenseman. Rielly handled himself well going up against teams top forward lines while managing to find the score sheet. Rielly set a career high in goals (nine), assists (27) and points (36). He’s still emerging and learning as he embraces his role as a top defenseman.
Last year, we saw him spend most of his time against teams top forward units and played well for a young player, holding his ground. When Phaneuf was dealt, he stepped up to the plate and made the most of his time to impress Babcock. His roles and responsibilities will only increase as long as Babcock is here. He’s slowly turning him into a reliable top defender.
There will be some new names on defense. Connor Carrick and Nikita Zaitsev impressed many last year in their respective leagues. Carrick lead the Toronto Marlies in playoff scoring with 18 points, while Zaitsev was dominant in the KHL and World Championships.
Carrick has great speed and offensive instincts, while Zaitsev has a strong two-way game and possesses a strong shot on the right side. Both of these players will see a lot of ice time, especially on the power-play. Both have the ability to be great puck-movers and drive possession.
There are a lot of great names, but very limited spots available on defense. Polak and Matt Hunwick could be moved to add pieces and make room for other guys as they are both free agents at the end of the year.
With the likes of Matthews, Marner and Nylander, the Leafs and fans should expect them to score and be key contributors. The plan is for them to progressively get better and improve after each game. Fans should expect offense, but not an absurd amount of points. They’re rookies. They aren’t going to come in and put up 60, 70 or even 80 plus points in their first season. It’s possible that they could, but unlikely. For a rookie, anywhere between 40 and 50 points seems right considering the amount of talent and skill our top three prospects have.
Now that Matthews is under contract, expectations for the number one overall pick are going to be high because he’s an elite centreman. People say he should start on the third line. While that seems like the safer bet, I wouldn’t mind putting him on the second line. He’s already used to playing against men in Switzerland and at the World Hockey Championships. The transition shouldn’t be too difficult for him.
Nylander, Hyman and Soshnikov, showed great promise after their short NHL stints after the trade deadline. While they played great, there’s always room for improvement. It would be hard to imagine them not making some sort of impact this year like they did in their “trial period” last year.
Marner has two options, the NHL or go back to the London Knights. It would be a waste for Marner to go back and dominant the junior ranks after the impressive MVP season he had this year. It would be best for him to be on the roster and let him learn at the pro level. Judging from his impact at the development camp in July, all signs point to the NHL.
With all this talent and new faces coming in, players will be on the outside looking in. Names like Milan Michalek, Colin Greening, Brooks Laich and Peter Holland could be moved or be rotated in and out of the line-up.
Laich, Greening and Michalek are all going to be unrestricted free agents at season’s end. Holland is going to be a restricted free agent; so it’ll be interesting to see how things will pan out. It’s most likely they’ll be moved before the deadline for other assets while freeing up cap space in the process. All three can still be serviceable players at the right price, should they not be with the Leafs.
Like any season, anything can happen. Surprises will come up, both good and bad. We weren’t expecting the Leafs to be that good with a poor team last year. Yes, I realized that they finished last in the league, but their on ice performance (positioning, puck movement, etc.) was absolutely amazing to watch considering what we had to witness the previous few years.
I’d like to quote Jim Mora for a moment:
“Playoffs?! Don’t talk about… playoffs?! Are you kidding me? Playoffs?! I just hope we can win a game, another game!”
Now, nobody should be talking about the playoffs at this point, but I’m going to throw this question out there. Do I think the Leafs will make the playoffs this year? I’m going to be realistic and say no.
However, like last year, I think they’ll continue to surprise everyone around the league. The Leafs this year could be what the Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils were last year. Instead of dead last in the Eastern Conference, I think they’ll be around the 10 and 12 spot. They may not fully be in the hunt for a playoff spot, but they’ll push the other teams. In the process, they might end up with draft pick inside or outside the top 10, but that’s yet to be determined.
Who knows what this team might be capable of this year? We saw some really great positive glimpses from the players of the “Shanahan Era” after their development camp in July. It’s not impossible for this team to make the playoffs. There is a very, and I stress VERY, slim chance that it could happen with such a young roster.
People may say that the Leafs should continue to tank and get another first overall pick. While Nolan Patrick will make a fine centreman in the NHL, it’ll be a huge mistake if they continue to tank. You already have key pieces at each position. Continuing to tank would be taking a huge step back for this organization with the talent that we already have in place.
The plan should be to move up and gain some ground in the conference, while building around the core players that we have. If they come in last then so be it, but that shouldn’t be the mentality before the season starts. People seem to forget that there are other players outside the top three of a draft that can make an impact. Hunter and his team will continue to scout the best talent available and develop them properly.
The expectations for this season are going to be higher than last year. Management and coaching staff are going to want to get best out of their players. They’re aiming to continue being successful and make sure everyone knows they mean business.
** Numbers, Stats and info from NHL.com, stats.hockey.analysis.com, hockey-reference.com and generalfanager.com