There is a certain level of excitement surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs. Hockey is back in the city with the World Cup of Hockey and the play of some of the Leafs in the tournament has people very much looking forward to the new season. The Leafs also completed their annual Rookie Tournament against Pittsburgh, Ottawa and Montreal and came away with a 3-0 record to win the tourney.
There is anticipation to this upcoming season as with some key additions, and some fresh new faces to the NHL ready to don a Leafs jersey for the first time, people can’t wait for things to get going.
Plus, with the season long celebration going on, due to this being the centennial anniversary for the Leafs, which includes Toronto’s first ever outdoor game in the city at BMO field, everyone will be in a commemorative mood and ready to party.
There will be expectations on the team to do well. They bolstered several key positions, and there is an assumption, the players who were retained, will get better and be better in their second year under head coach Mike Babcock.
The expectations though should be tempered. This is afterall a young team that has a long way to grow. That being said, at the beginning of every year, pretty well every team sets a goal to make the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup.
The Leafs are not there. At least that is how it looks like on paper and according to many experts.
But predictions can go out the window as they’re not set in stone. That is why they play the games. And also, that is why games are not played on paper. Anything can happen and so here is a list of things that make the Leafs a potential playoff contender.
1. The East is Easier
For one thing, the Eastern Conference is the easier of the two conferences. In the West, there are 7 teams you could probably guarantee a playoff spot: Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, Nashville, Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles. That leaves one spot left to be fought over by several really solid teams. The chances of those 7 teams being unseated is slim. Yes, there is a chance, but these 7 teams are extremely strong and can at times be dominant.
In the East, there are 3 such teams: Washington, Pittsburgh and Tampa. The rest appears to be a bit wide open. The Leafs direct competition, Boston, Montreal, Detroit, Florida, Ottawa and Buffalo all have varying strengths and weaknesses that really make them as a whole, not extremely better than Toronto. While the Leafs have their weaknesses for sure, they can easily compete with any of these teams. They will just need to do much better than the 5-18-7 record they had last year versus their division opponents.
Tampa Bay – They are the class of the division with the return of Steven Stamkos to a lineup that is deep and skilled. Their best and most indispensable player though may be Victor Hedman who signed a big extension and is ready to continue leading Tampa. The team has reached the finals and semi-finals the last 2 seasons. With now 2 goalies with playoff experience, depth throughout the lineup and no real issues that stand out, they are the class of the Atlantic.
Boston – The Bruins are aging, but still have some horses to be competitive. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krecji, Zdeno Chara and Tukka Rask are still solid. But will they be good enough? The D is questionable if Chara has another bland, ok year. Rask has not been as sharp and the forwards have been gutted depth wise. Some young kids, like David Pasternak and Frank Vatrano will need to step up. This could be the year the B’s really feel the losses of Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton.
Montreal – This is all up to Carey Price. If he is the all world goalie he is capable of being, the Habs will be in the playoffs. He just needs to stay healthy. That unfortunately for them has been difficult. The team is grittier and built to be a strong, defensive minded group that will win a lot of close, low scoring games. Shea Weber brings big time leadership and toughness to the group and Andrew Shaw is an experienced winner. The issue though is the ability to score, or lack thereof. That may dog them throughout the season.
Ottawa – The Sens are a well balanced group, but lack a true star forward. Erik Karlsson though is more than enough star power to drive the bus. They need Craig Anderson or some goalie to take the reigns. Without good goaltending, this team will be porous and may not score enough to keep up. The skill is there, but there lacks a gamebreaker among the bunch up front. They need big years from big ticket players Bobby Ryan and Dion Phaneuf.
Detroit – 25 years and counting is their playoff streak. But that is all that it has become now, just a playoff streak. They have barely gotten in the last couple of seasons and are just not good enough to move on when they get there. Skill isn’t the issue. They are still led by Hendrik Zetterberg but he no longer has Pavel Datsyuk as a running mate. It is time for the Wings to turn to some youth and it may have to be Dylan Larkin, Tomas Tatar and others who carry them. That may not be enough.
Buffalo – They are an up and coming team and made the biggest strides point wise last year out of everyone. They landed Kyle Okposo who can be a beast and with him, Ryan O’Reilly and Jack Eichel, there is definitely big fire power up front. They have lots of speed to go with some size and grit and will be a tough outfit to face. Their D though is a tad thin, led by Rasmus Ristolainen and Zach Bogosian. They aren’t the big problem though. Its goaltending. If Robin Lehner can’t stay healthy or isn’t consistent, their playoff hopes will go down the tubes.
Florida – The Panthers are close to being a playoff lock. Their young core: Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, Alexander Barkov, Vince Trocheck is quite good and they have surrounded them with some strong veterans like Keith Yandle, Roberto Luongo and Jaromir Jagr. They have depth and are fairly strong at all positions. If the kids continue to grow, and the likes of Jagr continue to contribute at a high level, even at their age, they should be a playoff team.
In the Metro Division, Carolina and Columbus both are like Toronto and semi-rebuilding, so they’re really no better than the Leafs. The Devils have made some moves, but still may be a bit of ways away from being players in the playoff picture. So that leaves the Rangers, Islanders and Flyers are real tough competition for the Leafs to compete against for the 2 Wild Card spots. Each have various strengths and weaknesses that all in all, do not make them overwhelmingly better than Toronto.
As you can see, the Leafs maybe have a shot at 3 playoff spots that appear open. The last spot in their division may be the easiest to attain, but again, they need to desperately improve their divisional record.
2. Andersen Will Help Them Win
Fredrik Andersen is the 3rd goalie from California the Leafs will attempt to make the main netminder.
First it was Vesa Toskala from San Jose. That flopped badly. Then, Jonathan Bernier from the LA Kings was brought in. That was a bit of a disaster. Now Andersen from the Anaheim Ducks was added to see if he can finally resolve a position that has long been a position of weakness.
There is a big difference between Andersen and the other 2. Andersen seems more proven and ready to step into a number 1 goal here than either Toskala or Bernier.
Yes, Andersen did split time in Anaheim with John Gibson. But, he played the majority of the games and was the go to goalie for the playoffs.
Here are Andersen’s key stats before his Toronto career begins:
0.923 SV% 2.29 GAA
.914 SV% 2.38 GAA
0.919 SV% 2.30 GAA
Here are Bernier’s key stats before his Toronto career begun:
0.913 SV% 2.48 GAA
.908 SV% 2.36 GAA
.922 SV% 1.88 GAA
Here are Toskala’s key stats before his Toronto career begun:
0.930 SV% 2.06 GAA
0.908 SV% 2.35 GAA
For the playoffs, Andersen has made 28 starts compared to Toskala who had 11 and Bernier who has played 30 minutes.
There is simply a greater sample size with Andersen, both regular season and playoff, to know that he can handle the number 1 job.
That is not all though. Another key difference is that Andersen is like a house in the nets as his 6’4 frame takes up a ton of space, leaving not that much for the shooters. This differed from the other 2 who were both under 6’0 and very small by current standards.
The today’s goalie is at least 6’3 now, with long legs and a wide wingspan. Put on the big padding and you have not a lot of net for shooters to see. Andersen has the look of today’s goalie.
Current injury aside, the Leafs are hoping Andersen will be the durable workhorse that they’ve craved since prior to the first lockout when Eddie Belfour was manning the Leaf nets and carrying a substantial load. While Jhonas Enroth, the new backup for the Leafs, is quite credible and a decent goalie in his own right, this is Andersen’s net and only his.
3. Mike Babcock
Ok, so there was pain and there was a lot of losing. So many losses that the Leafs were the 30th place team in the league. The mounting losses led to them getting the most favorable odds to win the draft lottery and they succeeded.
But will that happen again? If Mike Babcock had his way, the answer is no. He is a teacher and loves to teach and train and get his players to learn. But he is also a winner. He is ultra competitive and wants his team performing at peak efficiency and at top speed, mentally and physically, every night.
He is one of the league’s best coaches. His records speak for themselves. He has over 1000 games coached in the NHL and over 500 wins. He has 2 Presidents Trophies, guiding his teams to the league’s best record, and has 82 playoff wins, including one Stanley Cup and 2 other finals appearances. In 13 seasons he has missed the playoffs only twice. Though he has not won the Jack Adams Award as best coach, he is widely considered one of the best.
Internationally, his record is even more impressive. He has won at the World Championships, the World Juniors and guided Canada to two Olympic Gold Medals. The man knows how to win. He even has a CIS championship to his resume as well. Everywhere he goes, he seems to find a high level of success.
That is what the Leafs want with him and why they hired him. That being said, the job is not easy. Last year’s group was a rag tag group of cast off veterans and holdovers with a whole slew of rookies mixed in.
This year’s group could be an extremely young team, depending on whether or not the kids can steal jobs from the veterans. The guiding, the teaching, the putting of players in safe spots will be extensive.
But if there is any coach who loves challenges, its Babcock. And he is signed for such a long term, there is no such thing here as looking over your shoulder if you’re the coach for this team. He is arguably the most recognizable face in the organization right now and his experience and expertise has already been of big help to the team as a whole.
The most visible benefits so far have been the improvements made by Nazem Kadri and Morgan Reilly.
Yes, Kadri’s point totals were down, but there was a bit more consistency to his game as a whole. There were hardly any nights where Kadri was a passenger and he was responsible both on and off the ice. He has become more a 200 foot player, and while he has a long way to go still, the improvement was evident. This year, Babcock will certainly try and get Kadri to score a bit more, not a tall task as really, with the ice time he gets, the production can only go up.
Reilly showed the most improvement overall as Babcock put him against the best of the best every night. He took over that role even before Phaneuf was traded to Ottawa, thus showing the faith Babcock had in the young defenceman. Later in the season he finally was given more time on the powerplay and his roles and responsibilities were expanded as the season wore on. This year the expectation is Reilly takes things to the next level. He looked incredible at the World Cup.
There will be a slew of young players again on the roster, if not right away, then throughout the season. Babcock and his assistants will adjust accordingly and be sure to put each player in positions to succeed. It will not be easy as there is a lot of youth and thus lots to learn at the NHL level. But if anyone can make it go and make it work, its Babcock.
4. Kids Don’t Know Any Better
The inclusion of several young players to the roster will be a boost more than a burden. The fact is, the team needs skill, and several of these young players will provide it.
12 rookies made their debuts last year and there are a few more slated this year.
There is no debut more anticipated though than Auston Matthews. The number 1 overall pick in the Entry Draft should have an immediate impact. Playing a premium position, Matthews should give the Leafs a legitimate number 1 centre they have not had in years.
He did not looked out of place at the World Cup of Hockey playing for Team North America. He is playing the wing, but the fact he is playing and earning more ice time as the tournament went on is a testament to the kind of player he is. This is a best on best tournament and he has looked strong against that competition. It is exciting for Leaf fans no doubt and while growing pains are expected, there is no doubt he has the chops to be a terrific player.
Not to be dismissed however is another highly regarded rookie, Mitch Marner. While he has not yet faced the kind of competition Matthews has faced, Marner was absolutely dominant within his age group.
He won all you could in junior hockey. A league championship, a Memorial Cup, individual awards, he did it all last year with the London Knights. Unfortunately for him though, it is either the NHL or back to the OHL. It is rather disappointing the rules do not allow for him to be placed in the AHL where he could further his development. Going back to the OHL would be probably more a setback as he is too good to go back.
The best place may be the NHL for him. There are many questions about his size or lack thereof but there shouldn’t be any questions on his heart or desire. There are no questions at all about his skill and smarts. There is little doubt that he will make it extremely difficult for the Leafs to not keep him.
Nikita Zaitsev is the other rookie looking for a job and by all accounts he has one. Signed as a free agent out of the KHL he has extensive pro experience already so he is more polished than your normal rookie. He has starred in the World Championships for Russia and is playing well as one of Russia’s top defenceman at the World Cup.
There will be some adjustment period for Zaitsev to get accustomed to the North American game and the smaller ice. But he has looked good at the WCH and this was a great test for him before beginning his Leaf career.
There is a long list of young players the Leafs have that could potentially crack this roster.
It would be safe to assume William Nylander is a lock. He looked good in his brief debut last year and is a mainstay. With the addition of Matthews and lots of Marner talk, Nylander has been a bit lost in talks about the team. But he will be a huge piece as the Leafs needs his skill to improve one of the league’s worst offenses.
The list of players who could also challenge for a top 9 forward role includes Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov, Kerby Rychel, Brendan Leipsic, Kasperi Kapanen, Josh Leivo and Tobias Lindberg. All have varying levels of NHL experience and all have the skill and ability to play on the top 3 lines. With 3 credible centres, Kadri, Matthews and veteran Tyler Bozak, having the skill to compliment them is something any of these young wingers have.
It will be interesting to see if they can beat out the veteran holdovers. Colin Greening, Milan Michalek and Peter Holland are all around still and who’s jobs are very much in jeopardy. The Leafs are one team that isn’t afraid to simply dismiss a veteran player and allow a young player who’s earned it, to make it. Case in point, Joffrey Lupul. He was already sort of dismissed from the team by being put on IR.
While the organization wants to be patient, it does understand that if the job is earned, then that player should deserve the opportunity to play, even at the expense of a veteran player and to cap space. It seems like there is a stronger chance any openings will be filled by youth over the guaranteed one-way contract player. That is a good thing.
Now, there is a slight worry that too much youth will be a bad thing as the lack of experience to handle the 82 game grind and the long season can never really be replaced. But, that being said, the team does have quality veterans. Kadri, Bozak, Leo Komarov, JVR, Jake Gardiner were all around the last time the Leafs made the playoffs. They are young veterans and bring good experience. They brought back Roman Polak and added Matt Martin. They bring different elements to the team that will surely help. Brooks Laich, Matt Hunwick and Michalek should be around the majority of the season to guide as needed until they are likely traded at the deadline. And as mentioned, Andersen is a proven number 1 goalie with experience in that role.
So, there shouldn’t be too much worry that the Leafs will be young. And they have Babcock who the organization couldn’t ask for a better teacher and leader to guide them.
5. The Intangibles
The Leafs have really good pieces in place. They don’t have all the pieces by any means but the tools are in the tool box. It is just a matter of when, how and where they get used.
Nylander, Marner, Matthews certainly will increase the goal output of the team. They had one 20 goal scorer last year, PA Parenteau, and so the offence was anemic. That should improve in a big way this year with more skill to the lineup. JVR, if he can remain healthy and more offence for the defence should mean more goals, and hopefully more wins.
The defence didn’t improve as much on paper, but last year the team as a whole was better defensively. Andersen will help improve that even further. The PK improved immensely and while some key vets, like Michael Grabner, who helped the PK are now gone, the systems and technique should improve with more familiarity.
The Leafs should be harder to play against. Other than Komarov, there was no physical intimidation to the Leafs. If they field a young roster, especially with potential stars like Matthews and Marner, they will need protection. It seems old school to think that way, and there were many who were dismissive and quite critical of the Leafs for needing to address this, but they definitely steered the ship correctly in this regard to add bigger, tougher players.
The whole team doesn’t need to be that way and it isn’t. And, definitely bringing in a designated tough guy with no skill or hockey ability at all is a waste and never was a part of any of the Babcock teams in Detroit. But Matt Martin is different. He can play. He scored 10 goals last year as a 4th liner. He can defend some but more importantly he finishes checks and plays with some energy in his limited ice time. He is a great fit to the team as he adds some experience and fills that important role to protect his teammates. He is willing to drop the gloves, but doesn’t need to. He can play the game and should have a regular role with this team. He isn’t a novelty nor is he truly a pugilist in the truest sense like John Kordic or Tony Twist of yesteryear.
The additions of Martin, with the return of Polak and maybe the inclusion of Rychel, should add a little more physicality to the team, without taking away from skill or hockey sense and shouldn’t be that big of a deficiency when it comes to possession and any of those other advanced statistics.
Key positions like centre and goaltending were vastly improved. The most successful teams win with top centres. Matthews isn’t there yet, but could be close. Kadri and Bozak are good compliments. Bozak has become a player Babcock trusts and now he finally finds himself in a more secondary role which suits his ability. The centre depth has been a rarity in Toronto as they’ve simply haven’t had it. Now they can field 3 lines.
If you look at all the top teams, they rely on an elite centre and depth behind it. Teams like Pittsburgh have 2 elite centres and the 2 centres in Washington, Nik Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov are pretty awesome in their own right. Chicago has Toews, LA has Kopitar and Carter. Boston still has Bergeron and Krejci and use to have Tyler Seguin. Pretty envious riches. To no surprise these have been the most successful teams in recent years. Such an important position and the Leafs are feeling fairly good about their situation.
And of course those teams won with a top goalie. Can’t say enough about the impact Andersen could have on this team. Yes, he will see much more rubber as the team adjusts to eachother and all the new faces, the team grows from its youth and the team learns the system more and more and does what Babcock preaches. But, Andersen is legit and like the Pens, Hawks, Bruins and Kings, their goalies had to start somewhere and had to lose before winning.
And like those winning franchises, depth is so important. No team makes that statement truer than the Blackhawks who pretty well gutted their 2010 cup team, dropping several key players, yet still finding a way to win 2 more cups afterwards. With the cap and guaranteed salaries, long-term success can prove to be elusive. Ask the Canes who were essentially a one and done franchise after some severe mismanagement after winning in 2006. They’ve hardly come close ever since and rebuilding again.
With the team relying on analytics and factoring in the importance of possession and keeping possession, the Leafs are slowing and surely improving in that area. Having a lot of young players though could mean a few more mistakes and a few more turnovers, but too, the key thing these kids bring, skill, should certainly help their possession numbers and improving the quality chances to score and overall, generate more on offence and time in the offensive zone. That can be as good a defensive deterrent as any and even the teens, Marner and Matthews could really boost the Leafs in that regard.
Toronto has the depth, at least a lot better depth than say even a couple years ago. They should have about 6 forwards, maybe 2-3 D that can step in if need be from their minor league team, the Marlies. The experience many of these players gained last year, playing a full year pro and getting a taste of NHL hockey, was invaluable. This should help in a big way to shift players in and out as needed and with such a grind that is 82 games, you need that depth.
The challenge will be extreme. It was just over a year ago, it was burn the house to the ground and start building from scratch. New coach, new GM, new staff, new direction, new players. Its extremely hard to turn things around that quick.
But the opportunity is there for Toronto. They have a group of hungry young players looking to make their mark in the NHL and looking to bring some prestige back to being a Maple Leaf. Sure, no doubt it won’t happen overnight and if they do happen to miss the playoffs, that’s ok. The key is progress. The ship must continue to sail forwards, not backwards, not sink like the titanic again.
Thankfully there are no ultimatums here. No, playoffs or bust at this point. But, lets not discount these young, pesky Leafs. As said the East is wide open. There is no saying there’s no chance.
Sure, they have some significant needs to fill. Defence help is an absolute must, and there is a lacking of leadership as they do not have a player who could truly be the right choice at the moment to captain the team. They have experience, and that helps, but the young players still need to prove themselves and still need to take steps forward.
But we could see a meteoric rise in which if you blink, you may miss something pretty special. Marner, Matthews, those are players you could categorize as special.
It is a special season in Toronto with the 100th anniversary, new statues, new uniforms, new players, a lot of new everything. Hopefully we see a little bit of something we haven’t seen in a little while here: winning.