Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Toronto Maple Leafs

2016-17 Toronto Maple Leafs

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com 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. Make 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 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Toronto Maple Leafs

Last Season

If you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming.” – Mike Babcock

While the first season under new head coach Mike Babcock resulted in the most exciting last-place finish, the 2016-17 Toronto Maple Leafs will be looking to get out of the basement of the NHL.

The small total of 69 points set the Leafs up perfectly for a run at 30th overall. In doing so, they were able to change the fortune of the franchise by inheriting the best lottery odds. This time around, they hit the jackpot: it seemed too good to be true. The promise of pain came to fruition.

5-6-8-13 are numbers etched in hearts of Maple Leafs fans. These lucky lottery balls have brought new life to an organization. The ability to draft a bonafide, number one centre that the Leafs have needed since Mats Sundin‘s departure would be theirs; welcome to Toronto, Auston Matthews.

The Leafs set themselves up for a lottery finish. A proper rebuild had to be constructed and shipping out burdening contracts and those deemed unfit for roles were always going to go. General manager Lou Lamoriello was busy moving contracts around. The captain, Dion Phaneuf, and his hefty salary were finally gone. Others such as Stephane Robidas and Joffrey Lupul were rarely ever seen.

Management was high on integrating the younger, up and coming players. The likes of William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov, Connor Brown and Connor Carrick, to name a few, were introduced. Nylander was one of the more high-profile call-ups and he showed some promise. In 22 games he scored six goals and 13 points, often displaying his pinpoint accurate wrist shot and nifty hands. Hyman also became one of coach Babcock’s favourites with his hard work and hustle.

Nazem Kadri found himself in the coach’s good books as well, leading the team with 45 points. Although he has a history of being somewhat of a polarizing character, Babcock was able to help Kadri mature and become a responsible player. Often he even called Kadri their best player.

Babcock was able to implement a system that performed well amidst a rebuilding year. They lost many times of course, but the players were engaged and showed tremendous effort. The acquisition of this great coach will be displayed for years to come and is such an integral pickup for the club. The 2015-16 Leafs ranked 13th in five-on-five Corsi-for percentage with 51.34. In the previous two seasons, they ranked 27th and last. Seeing as previous Leafs struggles with possession, the details in Babcock’s plans are bound to make the team better.

Morgan Rielly was also a benefactor last season. He emerged as the great defenseman he was touted to be, often logging heavy minutes on his way to recording 36 points. P.A. Parenteau also had a solid season and led the team in goals with 20 in 77 games. Leo Komarov displayed a bit of a scoring touch with 19 goals in 67 appearances.

Management did well to work through the loopholes and ice a young team that would both gain valuable NHL experience but still do just enough to warrant a good draft position.

The Off-Season

Toronto may feel a bit sour that they missed out on the Steven Stamkos sweepstakes that headlined free agency, but there are many reasons to feel optimistic about the future.

Without a doubt, the best point of the off-season would be when the Leafs drafted Matthews. He fills a need that the team has been in dire need of for so long. The young centre is touted to be an elite, high-end player that will be a core member of the team for many years to come.

The Maple Leafs also made a bold move in trading for goaltender Frederik Andersen from the Anaheim Ducks. It was part of a series of moves that eventually saw the team send the struggling Jonathan Bernier back to California. The Leafs goaltending last season was a point of weakness, and the team did well in addressing it through picking up a netminder that boasts potential to be a solid number one. Andersen will be backed up by Jhonas Enroth. For the first time in a while, the Leafs have a defined goaltending tandem.

One of the under-the-radar acquisitions that is crucial is Nikita Zaitsev from CSKA Moscow of the KHL. The 24-year-old comes over on a one-year entry-level contract.

The right-handed defenseman is set to slot into the Leafs top-four and has the potential to be a catalyst on the blueline. According to Sportsnet, “Zaitsev is regarded as a strong-skating, offensively gifted blueliner blessed with NHL size.”

He cemented himself as one of the KHL’s top defensemen over the last couple of years, featuring in the All-Star Game twice. In 46 games last season, he recorded 26 points, along with another 13 points in 20 playoff games. His low cost, short term, and high potential won’t handcuff the Leafs at all, and he could turn out to be a steal.

The young Leafs side will benefit from the signing of Matt Martinwho comes in as a hard-nosed veteran. One of the concerns for the team was that they likely will be dressing many rookies and will not want to risk any opponents taking runs at them.

Martin offers a solid bottom of the lineup presence that can stick up for his teammates. Not only can he drop the gloves, but he is one of the few fourth-liners that can produce some points. He is regarded as being one of the NHL’s better fourth-liners, and his 19 points last season show some credibility. His four-year, $10 million deal may not be the most favourable, but it isn’t overburdening either.

The Leafs also traded for Kerby Rychel from the Columbus Blue Jackets. Rychel fell out of favour in Columbus and never had the proper opportunity to succeed. He provides grit and scoring capabilities that are complimentary of his skill set. He may be able to grab a spot in the bottom-six of the lineup, but if he doesn’t crack the Leafs first team, he will be given plenty of ice time with the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League.

Forwards

James van Riemsdyk  Tyler Bozak  Nikita Soshnikov

Komarov Kadri – Mitch Marner

Milan MichalekMatthews – Nylander

MartinBrooks LaichHyman

Josh Leivo, Peter Holland, Colin Greening

It’s going to be an experimental first few weeks for Babcock and the Maple Leafs. The team has a dilemma on their hands, albeit a good one: How many rookies are too many? Where do the veterans fit in?

The Leafs have a glut of forwards to fit into 12 forward lines. Brandon Prust comes in on a PTO contract but will have to compete against numerous veterans and younger players. Van Riemsdyk will be expected to be one of the key scorers and is usually a lock for around 30 goals and 60 points. He missed 42 games last season, and him being healthy this season will be a big positive to the lineup.

Bozak will be relied upon to help insulate the other centres, more specifically Matthews. As a long-time Maple Leaf, Bozak has been a reliable, sound player who can be looked up to as one of the experienced veterans on the team. He should be able to pitch in with around 50 points depending on his linemates.

Kadri found himself under Babcock last season and he became one of the Leafs better players. He was thrust into different roles and succeeded, so this season will be another test to see if Kadri can continue to thrive. He might be played on the second line mostly, with some time spent on the first. As GM Lamoriello noted in an interview with Prime Time Sports on The Fan 590, “In my opinion he’s not a first-line centre, but he’s a centre that can handle every situation that’s asked of him.”

Speaking of centres, Matthews isn’t expected to be on the first line – at least right away. He will see sheltered minutes early on, likely staying away from teams top players. Don’t be surprised if he is the Leafs first-line centre by winter; he is incredibly talented. For a taste of what he’s capable of, the World Cup of Hockey is a good sample of what he can do. Matthews is the elite top-line centre that the Leafs have needed for quite some time.

Younger players such as Brown and Leivo are on the cusp of being regular players, but due to the logjam at the forward position, it may take some time before they see action in the NHL this season.

Training camp and exhibition games will be interesting to see how the lines are divided up. With so many players fighting for a handful of spots, the competition will be high. Expect the lines to be juggled around and players to be moved up and down.

Defense

Rielly – Zaitsev

Jake GardinerRoman Polak

Martin Marincin – Carrick

Matt Hunwick, Frank Corrado

The Maple Leafs defense had many different looks last season. Rielly was one of the leaders of the blueline, asserting himself as a cornerstone of the franchise and a young leader. He responded well to Babcock’s style and saw his ice time and responsibilities grow throughout the season. Rielly will certainly be the backbone of the defense for years to come.

Gardiner also found himself as a more reliable player under Babcock. Often times under the previous Randy Carlyle regime, Gardiner found himself as a lightning-rod for criticism. Last season he matched his career-high totals in points (31) and saw an increase in five-on-five scoring chances per 60 minutes and expected goals-for per 60 minutes. The new style of play under Babcock will allow Gardiner to become more of a solid, reliable second-pairing defenseman.

The newcomer Zaitsev may take some time to acclimate to the NHL. Being a right-shot defenseman, his style of play is capable of creating a stable, productive pairing with Rielly. His display at the World Cup of Hockey has been positive so far and the Leafs cannot wait to get him into their lineup.

Marincin is a candidate that may be able to slide around on the pairings. He saw some good games alongside Rielly and progressed well towards the end of the season. Marincin averaged 23 minutes of ice time in the last 13 games of the season, so the coach certainly sees a use for him. Babcock chimed in on Marincin’s game, “He’s a real good skater. Still got to work on his shot. But he can pass the puck, and he’s got good hockey sense.”

The third pairing defensemen will not be easy to figure out right away. The Leafs have some young options that may force out the likes of Hunwick or Polak. Carrick had a tremendous showing last season and led the AHL playoffs in scoring with 18 points in 15 games. He may be teamed up with Hunwick, who was one of Babcock’s favourites last season. Polak should also get some looks here and there, likely switching seventh defenseman duties with Hunwick. Corrado seems to be the odd man out in the Leafs blueline depth.

In a recent interview with TSN 1050 Overdrive, Hunwick was quoted as saying that he will start on a pairing with Zaitsev. Of course, the context of it was unclear and it’s possible that it would just be temporarily for training camp. In all likelihood, the bottom pairing defensemen will rotate in and out of the lineup throughout games. The Maple Leafs have a logjam of players, and trying to prematurely carve out the lineup is semantics. The organization will be busy during training camp trying to figure out who will fit where.

Goaltenders

Andersen

Enroth

The easiest part of the lineup to figure out is the goaltending. The Leafs have confirmed that Andersen is the number one, which is a sigh of relief opposite of previous years where the goaltending tandems were never clear. Have a set starter will have a better overall effect on the team and the goaltenders themselves.

Andersen and Enroth are a step above the former James Reimer and Bernier combination. The big, athletic netminder is very capable of starting at least 55 games, if healthy, leaving Enroth as a solid backup.

“I love his competitiveness,” stated Lamoriello in regards to Andersen.  “He’s always played well in the playoffs. He gives us size which, today, is a necessity. But his athleticism is exceptional.”

Lamoriello always had the luxury of great goaltenders, like Martin Brodeur or Cory Schneider. The Leafs must trust that he knows what he sees in Andersen. This area has always been a glaring weakness for over a decade, so securing a starting goaltender is crucial.

If Andersen is able to even play at a league average, it will be much better than previous Leafs netminders. Since the lockout in 2004-05, the Maple Leafs have finished in the bottom 10 for goals-against per game in all but one season. Although they finished with one of the higher shots faced per game over the past few years, Babcock’s team began to trend in a better direction last season. Without a doubt, Andersen has all the tools to be a great goaltender and should be able to succeed in a more detailed system.

Players to Watch

Mitch Marner

Marner provides a curious case for the team because he has to either make the roster or go back to the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. Marner comes off a season in which he won nearly every trophy possible and captured the Memorial Cup. Lamoriello has been quoted as saying, “We have total confidence that he has the ability to play, we’re going to give him that opportunity,” indicating that the 2015 fourth overall pick could see NHL action. A possible scenario is that Marner doesn’t dress for all of the Leafs games, as that would be too much.

Babcock would insert him sporadically throughout, depending on his play, and even send him to the World Junior Championship in December. This way, Marner will not be overworked in the NHL but still will have a taste of the big league. Marner may also benefit from having some of the spotlight spread between Matthews and himself.

Auston Matthews

Of course, the first overall pick from the 2016 draft is going to have all eyes on him. Toronto’s lottery win was insanely huge for the organization. The big centre is penned to be sheltered on a third line role, but his talented play will ultimately force Babcock to peg him further up the lines.

Don’t be surprised if he is the team’s first line centre within a few months. His showing at the World Cup of Hockey so far has the whole city and organization excited. It just goes to show: he started as a 13th forward and, within three games, made his way to the top line to play with Connor McDavid. His play in the tournament will help him acclimate to the NHL quicker because he will be constantly facing high-level players. Matthews will be sheltered as much as possible and he is a smart young man with a good head on his shoulders.

Nikita Zaitsev

The 24-year-old Russian will have his first taste of NHL action with the Leafs. His play in the World Cup of Hockey has garnered many fans. Being a right shot as well will be a tremendous help to the top four of the Leafs defense.

The free agent signing will have many eyes and expectations to be a mainstay in a defense core that needs his skill set. Much of the focus will be in trying to assess his translation from the KHL to the NHL, even though he is projected to be a top-four defender. His smooth skating and poise with the puck will definitely be an asset to the Leafs. Zaitsev’s first season in the NHL is bound to be interesting.

On the Rise

William Nylander

The 2014 eighth-overall draft pick made his Maple Leafs debut towards the end of last season, notching 13 points in 22 games. He had an impressive run in the AHL with the Marlies and headed over to the World Juniors before he took a hit to the head and suffered a concussion.

His injection of youth and skill into Babcock’s lineup was one of the bright spots at the end of a painful season. Nylander often played with those less skilled than him, so just imagine if he had someone like Matthews, Marner or Kadri to play with.

For a rookie he did well, posting a 53.9 percent in possession which was amongst the highest on the team. He showed many flashes of brilliance but will have to work on certain details away from the puck. Although Nylander is capable of playing centre, Babcock has said that he will try him on the wing beside Matthews. It will definitely be an intriguing line to watch.

With his talent and poise, Nylander will be looking to hit set the bar at the 50-point mark in 2016-17.

Morgan Rielly

Rielly had a great year under Babcock and developed into one of the team’s leaders, all at the ripe age of 22. He’s been a workhorse, leading the Maple Leafs in average time on ice with just over 23 minutes per game. He’s also been paired up with Aaron Ekblad on Team North America‘s top defense pairing at the World Cup of Hockey.

Rielly is a rock at the blue line and is such an important player for the team moving forward. It’s easy to forget that he’s so young, and he’s been through the many ups and downs with the team. He’s emerged as a leader and one of the favourites to be awarded the captaincy.

This season should be another stepping stone for Rielly, and having him consistently paired up with a player of equal calibre could be very beneficial. He put up a career-high 36 points last season and should have no problem breaking the 40-point barrier this time around. If he can continue to work on the aspects of his game that he needs to, he will develop into one of the league’s better defensemen.

The Youth

The Maple Leafs are a team filled with many quality young players. According to Corey Pronman of ESPN, Toronto’s prospect pipeline ranks number one in the league. The front office will face the task of trying to incorporate a balance of youngsters with veterans. Players like Brown, Leivo, Hyman, Soshnikov, Kasperi KapanenTravis Dermott, Tobias Lindberg and many others are quality prospects that will be looking to make the jump sooner rather than later.

They are giving Leafs management a hard time with figuring out roster spots and who stays up or who should be on the trading block. The abundance of wealth in quality prospects means that the Leafs will have a higher chance of hitting a home run with a certain prospect, but also means that there will be a high level of competition internally, thus bringing out the best in the others. Part of why the Marlies have been so successful recently is because they’re filled with good, young players.

On the Decline

Joffrey Lupul

Lupul’s career as a Maple Leaf has been hampered by injuries. He missed the better part of last season due to a sports hernia surgery and has disappeared since. The 32-year-old winger doesn’t seem to be ready to play anytime soon. Management has remained hush on his status. He wasn’t included in the team picture, his locker has been given to someone else, and more recently, he wasn’t at the Maple Leafs golfing event that featured the rest of the players.

The Leafs will have no problem telling him to sit out, even though he is still owed $9 million over the next two seasons. It’s a mysterious situation, but as training camp grows closer, more information will be uncovered. According to TSN’s Frank Seravalli, it’s believed that doctors have declared Lupul unfit to play and will start the season on the injured reserve list.

Milan Michalek / Colin Greening / Matt Hunwick

The trio of Michalek, Greening and Hunwick are all on the books for one more season. Greening and Michalek were acquired in the Phaneuf trade and are on the books for $2.65 million and $4 million respectively. The two former Ottawa Senators are still able to contribute somewhat effectively but face fierce competition from the younger Maple Leafs players looking to make the jump to the big league. Seeing as Michalek and Greening probably aren’t in the Leafs future, they might be forced to watch some games from the press box in order to make room for the future of the team.

Hunwick, on the other hand, was one of Babcock’s favourites last year although his play was often criticised. He is inked for one more season at $1.2 million, but considering the logjam at defense, it’s hard to see him as a permanent mainstay. His leadership will be a valuable asset to the team, but players such as Corrado and Carrick will be fighting for the last spot on the blueline.

2016-17 Toronto Maple Leafs Season Prediction

The Maple Leafs finished last in 2015-16 and so expectations have to be grounded. While they did improve important areas of the team, they ultimately are still young and in transition. The teardown part of the rebuild is finished and now the key is to stay focused during the growing phase.

There will still be growing pains and learning lessons but the main goal is to stay on track. Realistically, a successful season wouldn’t hinge on making the playoffs, because that’s not very likely. What the management and fans want to see is a team that is developing, learning, and getting better.

There must be a level of effort and direction that is evident. This season is important in acclimating the young players like Matthews, Marner, and Nylander. Evaluating Andersen will also be important in the rebuilding process, as well as shoring up the defense. Patience will still be vital for keeping the ultimate end goal in mind. 

Looking historically at former last-place teams, only two teams have failed to move up a spot since the 2004-05 lockout. The Edmonton Oilers from 2009-11 and Buffalo Sabres from 2013-15 didn’t show any progress. Last place teams statistically move up a handful of spots in the standings, progressing with approximately 15 more points than the season before.

A reasonable expectation for the 2016-17 Toronto Maple Leafs is to follow a similar path to the 2015-16 Sabres team that jumped up to 23rd from last place the season before. If Toronto can finish anywhere outside of the bottom five of the league, consider it a success.

Main Photo.


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