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Puck Drop Preview: 2015-16 Toronto Maple Leafs

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2015-16, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2015-16 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Puck Drop Preview: 2015-16 Toronto Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the NHL’s greatest enigmas this season. With a brand new front office and coaching staff, it’s hard to know what to expect.

Last Season

The 2014-15 Leafs were, to say the least, a strange team. At the start of the season, many fans were hoping for a bounce-back year, after the way the 2013-14 campaign ended (losing eight straight games to crash out of a playoff spot in the final month of the season). The team had elected to keep coach Randy Carlyle behind the bench to begin the new year, which confused just about everyone. However, they got out to a good start, and had a winning record in each of the first three months of the season.

Despite winning games early in the year, it was relatively clear that success would not last in Toronto. They were playing unsustainable hockey, held up mostly by their top line (of Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak), and good goaltending by both Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer. In early January, the wheels started falling off, as the top line began to slump. After losing 7 of 10, Randy Carlyle was fired on January 6th, after a loss to the Winnipeg Jets. At the time, the Leafs were still in a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, but it was obvious that wouldn’t last. Peter Horachek was named the interim bench boss.

Horachek took the reins with hopes of preserving the season, but was utterly unsuccessful. After a win over Columbus in his second game as coach, optimism was high—but it didn’t last long, as the Leafs then proceeded to lose eleven games in a row (the longest losing streak in franchise history). That dropped the team from a playoff contender to an entrant in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes. Word soon got out that Toronto’s president Brendan Shanahan had approved a scorched-earth rebuild plan. As the trade deadline approached, the Leafs began stocking up on draft picks and prospects. They dealt Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli to Nashville for a first round pick, Olli Jokinen and Brendan Leipsic—a valuable prospect to add to their system. Daniel Winnik went to Pittsburgh for a second and a fourth. Korbinian Holzer was sent to Anaheim for a fifth. And, in perhaps the cleverest trade of the year, the Leafs traded David Clarkson (and his mammoth contract) to Columbus in exchange for Nathan Horton (whose equally huge contract can be taken off the salary cap, as he’s unfortunately very unlikely to ever suit up for the Leafs).

As the season came to a close, the fans in favour of tanking became more and more numerous. In the end, the Leafs finished 27th in the NHL, giving them the fourth pick in the 2015 draft.


The Maple Leafs’ offseason began with the firing of Peter Horachek and GM Dave Nonis, and the surprise hiring of Mike Babcock from the Detroit Red Wings. Babcock was given a huge, $50 million contract, making him the highest-paid coach in NHL history, and the highest-paid member of the Leafs. It’s definitely worth it though, as he’s undoubtedly proven himself as one of the best coaches in the league. Toronto also shocked the hockey world in late July by signing Lou Lamoriello, long time GM of the Devils, as their new general manager

At the draft, the Leafs were one of the most talked-about teams around the league. They drafted Mitch Marner with the fourth overall pick, which was widely accepted as a good choice. Many of their other picks followed a similar theme, with Mark Hunter and co. picking several small, skilled players.

On July 1st, Toronto stole the thunder from free agent frenzy with the biggest trade of the summer, by trading their star winger Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh (along with two prospects and a second round pick) for Nick Spaling, Scott Harrington, a conditional first round pick and, most importantly, prospect Kasperi Kapanen. Kessel had been rumoured to be on the way out for a while, as Leafs brass tried to break up the core of the unsuccessful teams of the last few years. Kapanen was the centrepiece of Pittsburgh’s package, as he’s now considered the third-best prospect in the Leafs system (behind Mitch Marner and William Nylander).

Leafs management stayed true to their promise of completely rebuilding the entire organization. They moved out a huge number of minor-leaguers and low-ceiling prospects from the Brian Burke and Dave Nonis eras, through small trades. Among the names no longer in Toronto are Brad Ross, Tyler Biggs, Carter Verhaeghe, Matt Finn and Greg McKegg. In their places, they added veteran players on short-term contracts, like PA Parenteau, Shawn Matthias and Michael Grabner. The Leafs have become known in the past couple years for handing out low-risk, high-reward contracts to free agents, especially those who struggled with their previous teams.

Nazem Kadri and Jonathan Bernier were given new contracts, although it’s just a one-year deal for Kadri, who will have to prove himself further to management. Daniel Winnik also came back to Toronto after his brief playoff run in Pittsburgh.

The 2015 offseason in Toronto had its fireworks, but was mostly made up of small, smart moves.

2015-16 Opening Day Lineup

Leafs training camp will be extremely competitive this year, as there are a lot of players trying out for very few available spots. There are three players on professional tryouts (Brad Boyes, Devin Setoguchi and Curtis Glencross), as well as many young players feeling like they deserve a shot in the NHL. As such, it’s incredibly hard to try and pick an opening-day lineup for the Leafs.


James van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Michael Grabner

Joffrey Lupul – Nazem Kadri – P.A. Parenteau

Shawn Matthias – Peter Holland – Curtis Glencross

Daniel Winnik – Mark Arcobello – Leo Komarov


Jake Gardiner – Dion Phaneuf

Stephane Robidas – Morgan Rielly

Martin Marincin – Roman Polak


Jonathan Bernier

James Reimer

Players to Watch

Nazem Kadri

Given a one-year contract, this is the season where Kadri truly has to show the Leafs organization that he deserves both a top-six role and a long-term contract. He had a relatively disappointing season in 2014-15, putting up 39 points (although 18 goals is nothing to sniff at). It might be difficult for him to get many points this season, as the team isn’t likely to be very competitive, but management will want to see him generating offence, and improving the defensive side of his game.

Tyler Bozak

One of the most interesting stories to watch on the Leafs this season will be how Tyler Bozak reacts to being separated from his longtime linemate Phil Kessel. He scored 23 goals alongside Kessel last year, but this year his production is expected to drop off dramatically. Bozak will want to prove critics wrong, that he can produce without being propped up by an elite winger.

On the Rise

Jake Gardiner

After a couple decent seasons of steady development for Jake Gardiner, this year could well be the one in which he breaks out as a top young defenceman in the NHL. Out of all the Leafs players, Gardiner is probably the one who can benefit the most from Mike Babcock’s coaching. The time is right for Gardiner to reach his full potential, and if he’s given top-pairing minutes this season he could very well do that.

On the Decline

Stephane Robidas

The Leafs probably knew what they were getting when they signed Robidas to a three-year contract at the age of 37. His on-ice abilities have diminished significantly with age and injury, as he’s very ineffective and slow now. Being a grizzled veteran, though, his presence in the dressing room is valuable to the Leafs, particularly with young players like Morgan Rielly. However, soon the team will likely reach a point of diminishing return with Robidas. If he becomes too much of a defensive liability, his contract could be bought out at the end of the season.

2015-16 Predictions

Nobody is expecting the Toronto Maple Leafs to be a good hockey team this season. However, they may yet be an interesting team to watch. With Babcock at the helm, and many players trying to earn a new contract next summer, or prove that they belong in the future plans of this rebuild, there could be some surprises. All expectations point to the Leafs picking in the top five at the 2016 draft. However, the players and coaching staff will not be content with playing miserable hockey. They will certainly try to be competitive, and Babcock will probably tinker a great deal with his lineup and systems, trying to squeeze what he can out of a thin roster. Don’t anticipate a playoff appearance, but the Maple Leafs might not be as terrible as most fans and critics think they’ll be.


DETROIT, MI – SEPTEMBER 30:  Jake Gardiner #51 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his first period gaol with teammates while playing the Detroit Red Wings during a pre season game at Joe Louis Arena on September 30, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)


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