The NHL’s February 29th trade deadline came and went relatively uneventfully, especially in Toronto. Most teams, especially the Leafs, made their big deals in the days and weeks before deadline day. As such, those who took the day off on Monday were severely disappointed when the biggest name moved was Mikkel Boedker. However, with Dion Phaneuf, Roman Polak, James Reimer, and Daniel Winnik all traded out of Toronto, the Maple Leafs lineup began to look like a piece of Swiss cheese. The time was ripe, then, for the organization to give some of the talent with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies an opportunity in the NHL. The youngsters’ performance in against Tampa Bay on Monday begs the question, though: have the Leafs trades made for a better team post-deadline?
In total, seven players in the Leafs lineup against the Lightning still qualify as rookies. Of those, four—William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Soshnikov, and Zach Hyman—were making their NHL debut. Also making their debut in a Toronto uniform were veterans Brooks Laich and Ben Smith, as well as rookie defenceman Connor Carrick. It was a tough game for the Leafs; ultimately a 2-1 loss to the Tyler Johnson-led Tampa Bay Lightning. Yet, it was still one of the brightest spots in a bleak Leafs season.
Mike Babcock raved about his young players after the game. “I thought they were good,” he said, “they’re fast, they’re hard on the puck, they’ve got skill. I thought we had the puck a lot . . . Kapanen obviously has breakaway speed, Willy [Nylander] has skill, Hyman a relentless worker who can still make plays, and [Soshnikov] was good both ways.”
William Nylander, the most significant name among the Leafs callups, showed extreme composure, often controlling the play when he was on the ice. If he had any first game nerves, he didn’t show it. He also went 8 for 15 in the faceoff dot, performing well when matched up against Valtteri Filppula and Steven Stamkos. Mike Babcock was clearly pleased with him, as he led all Toronto forwards in ice time, with almost 19 minutes. Zach Hyman, Nylander’s winger, showed that chemistry in the AHL can translate to the NHL, and very clearly looked like an NHL-ready prospect, even taking a shift on the penalty kill.
To start the third period, Babcock moved Kasperi Kapanen to the Nylander-Hyman line, and a line entirely comprised of players making their debut looked like a unit of seasoned veterans. He too had an impressive game; the Leafs went 20-7 in shot attempts with Kapanen on the ice at even strength. He also gave fans a taste of his skill with some creative stickhandling, despite not being able to capitalize.
I could go on and on about how the Toronto Marlies fared in the NHL tonight. Nikita Soshnikov was good too, laying a good hit and blocking 3 shots. Connor Carrick was one of the best Leafs on the ice all night, playing a strong physical game and even getting into a fight in the third period. Garret Sparks was solid, minus a soft second goal, stopping 26 shots. However, the question as to how this team compares to the pre-deadline Leafs squad remains unanswered.
So, let’s compare the Leafs lineup on Monday night to the lineup they put out the last time they played Tampa, on January 27th (a 1-0 loss). The line combinations used here are not official by any means, but they give a rough idea of what the team looked like.
First of all, the February 29th lineup could actually get better in the next couple of weeks. P.A. Parenteau is likely to return at some point, and it’s conceivable Tyler Bozak could also get in towards the end of March (although it’s also possible he’ll get the same treatment as James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul, to avoid further injury).
When these lineups are compared on paper, the defensive pairings from January certainly look better—Dion Phaneuf and Roman Polak are NHL veterans, and are theoretically better than Martin Marincin and Connor Carrick. The goaltending too, as James Reimer is absolutely better than Garret Sparks, at least for now.
Where it gets more interesting, though, is the forward lineup. Daniel Winnik, Nick Spaling and Shawn Matthias were all shipped out of town. Joffrey Lupul has been shut down for the rest of the season, Byron Froese and Parenteau were scratched, and Rich Clune was sent down to the Marlies.
The third line on the new Leafs is made up entirely of players acquired as contract dumps in trades. However, Colin Greening has been an overwhelmingly positive possession player in his 8 games played since coming to Toronto. Ben Smith and Brooks Laich are admittedly well past the heydays of their careers, but are known around the league as strong presences in the dressing room. Even that will be an asset to a Leafs team going forward that will be populated by youngsters.
Nikita Soshnikov’s high-end skating ability fits well with Nazem Kadri’s playmaking and skill with the puck. At 22 years old, he already has experience playing against strong adult competition in the KHL, and therefore has an advantage in smoothing his transition to the NHL.
The Marlie line of Nylander, Kapanen, and Hyman has the potential to be one of the most dynamic lines the Leafs have had all season. They have proven this year to be a step above the talent level of the AHL. Now, they will attempt to bring that to the NHL. They looked great in one game, but of course that’s just one game. There will absolutely be a learning curve in the remaining 21 games of the season, and we can expect that they will not step into the big leagues and dominate.
However, it may not even be a stretch to say that William Nylander is already one of Toronto’s top three players—if not the best. The team going forward will certainly be more entertaining to watch than it was previously. They will definitely still be a basement team, but with all this young talent on the roster, there might be a refreshing change in motivation. This stretch, much more than next year’s training camp, will be instrumental in deciding whether Nylander, Kapanen, and co. make the NHL team in 2016-17.
Toronto’s upper management may prefer a last-place finish to secure a top-four draft pick, but Mike Babcock and the rookie core have no intention of tanking. Whatever happens will be good for the Leafs down the road, though. If Nylander does prove to be able to roll right into the NHL, that will do nothing but wonders for his development and confidence. The team made a smart move in clearing out much of the old core, and bringing in some fresh players, including Brooks Laich, to mentor the youngsters.
Some fans have expressed concern that, with more than 10 games remaining in the season, players like Nylander will burn the first year of his entry-level contract. This may not be such a bad thing, though. Playing in 21 games will burn a year of his 3-year ELC, but not an RFA year. So, theoretically the only thing this means is that his second NHL contract will come a year earlier, and could be a cheaper deal. If it’s a bridge contract, then the Leafs may be able to sign him to his third contract as an RFA as well.
For those wondering, he will also be eligible to win the Calder next season.
At the very least, the March Toronto Maple Leafs will be more exciting than the February Toronto Maple Leafs, and will put in a higher effort level. The Leafs trades before the deadline will have been a catalyst for a revamped, experimental lineup. Their performance on Monday night was one of the team’s best all year against a strong team, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll build on that.