The Toronto Maple Leafs enter the 2017-18 season with a much different vibe around the team than last Fall. They “bought” this summer and added to a core that put together a strong regular season and promising playoff showing.
I’ll lay my prediction out there up front: I have the Leafs making the playoffs again this year, but I think it will come down to the wire, just as it did last season.
Despite missing the playoffs last season, I have a healthy Tampa Bay team as the favourites to win the division. While I don’t love what the Habs have done this offseason, with Carey Price and a full season of Claude Julien, they are still a solid outfit.
That said, there isn’t a truly elite team that stands out in the Atlantic. The Leafs are right in the mix with the aforementioned Lightning and Habs as well as the Bruins, Panthers and Senators. I also think the Sabres are capable of surprising teams this season.
Toronto has not been able to markedly improve their defense with an impact acquisition; they’re hoping for development from within more than anything. Morgan Rielly has another level to reach and Connor Carrick was promising at times last season. There is a spot for grabs in the top six, and if a young player can emerge and run with it (Calle Rosen, Andreas Borgman or Travis Dermott in particular), their defense has potential to be better than it currently appears on paper.
Making the playoffs is hard in the NHL and good teams do it year in and year out. The window of opportunity to go all the way opens once a team is a perennial playoff club. That’s the next step for Toronto.
With the preseason about to begin and the regular season just around the corner, here are some reasons for optimism, reasons for pessimism, and some general thoughts on the campaign ahead of us.
– Nazem Kadri is coming off of a career-high 32 goal, 61-point season in 2016-17. He shot 13.6 percent, but it’s not the first time he has done that over a full season (he shot 13.5 percent in 2013-2014). Kadri has been an 11.2% career shooter — so it was high in 2016-17, but it wasn’t a massive jump. This was also the first time in his career that he played in all 82 games; maybe part of that was due to playing only 16:35 per night, which is lower than his career average of 16:59. His 12 power play goals almost doubled his previous best with the man advantage (7). Part of that is that the Leafs shifted his PP role to the middle rover player. Under Randy Carlyle, the PP generally ran through him on the side wall. That wasn’t playing to his strengths since he can’t beat goalies from the wall with his shot and the opposition PK units often backed off. Jim Hiller and Mike Babcock smartly identified that he’s a better fit in the middle, where he’s able to redirect pucks and drive the net for rebounds – and he excelled there. There is room for his ice time to climb, and while I would not bet on him hitting 32 (or even 30) again, he should be in for another productive season.
– William Nylander became the ninth rookie age 20 or younger since the lockout of 2005 to amass 20 goals, 60 points and 200 shots on goal. The other players on that list: Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Malkin, Jeff Skinner, Nathan MacKinnon, Filip Forsberg, Patrick Laine, and Matthews. I don’t think Nylander is getting nearly as much attention as he should be right now – he had a fantastic rookie season after a good showing the year before in 22 games (13 points) when he was playing center. He followed up his 2016-17 regular season with a strong playoff with four points in six games. Going into the season, it looks like Nylander has good odds of playing with Matthews and it could stick for the entire season. That means he has a good shot at an even better year in 2017-18 (in 640+ minutes last year, they had a 55.2CF% together).
– It’s easy to forget because of the roster the Leafs ended with, but they dressed Ben Smith for 36 games and Frederik Gauthier for 21 earlier in the regular season. Having Dominic Moore is a big boost over both of those players. The team also added Miro Aaltonen for additional depth, while Nylander and Marleau can also both play the position. The center depth is much improved for the Leafs and that does not even mention their top three of Matthews-Kadri-Bozak, which is arguably the deepest group in the conference.
– Morgan Rielly experienced an up and down year playing primarily with Nikita Zaitsev while receiving few opportunities on the PP. Babcock recently acknowledged that Rielly – Zaitsev struggled as a pairing; Rielly, in particular, went from a 49.2CF% with Zaitsev to 52% without. I thought he had a strong playoff apart from Zaitsev, too, putting up five points in six games. While the book will be out on Hainsey, Rielly struggled with Zaitsev and maybe his workload will lessen a little bit; the Leafs gave Gardiner – Zaitsev quite a bit of responsibility down the stretch and into the playoffs, freeing up Rielly. With a partnership that will allow him to take more chances offensively, perhaps a little less defensive responsibility and a little more PP time, he could be a candidate for a bit of a breakout year offensively.
– The Leafs were a legitimately good team last year – 12th in team corsi, a positive goal differential, second on the PP, and 10th on the PK. They are returning the same team minus their third defense pairing while adding Marleau, Moore and Hainsey. Adding more depth to an already good team prepares them for any potential injuries and they have rounded out their forward unit with established, productive players. All of that bodes well.
– It’s hard to ignore the fact that just about everything went right last year for the Leafs. The Lightning and Panthers were injury-riddled, while the Leafs had no major injuries to any of their top players. Multiple key players – Tyler Bozak, Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri, JVR – enjoyed career seasons in points while all the rookies emerged and Frederik Andersen was a rock after a shaky start. It made for a great season, but thinking the team will be this healthy again, in particular, is difficult to imagine, while the Lightning and Panthers should both be markedly better. As noted above, I think Buffalo has a chance to be a legitimate dark horse this year, too.
– Of his 40 goals, Auston Matthews scored 29 of them at 5v5, shooting 13.43 percent. Only four regular forwards have shot at a higher percentage over the last three years. It’s true he was eighth in the NHL in shots on goal — which bodes well for having another high-scoring season — but a dip in that even strength scoring is fair to project.
– The Leafs’ overall leader in shooting percentage was Connor Brown at 14.4%. With another scorer added to the mix and the guess that Nylander will be matched with Matthews a lot more next season (instead of splitting time with Brown), his 20 goal performance might be hard to replicate. If the Leafs insist on Hyman sticking with Matthews, that bumps Brown to either the checking line or the fourth line. With Marleau in the mix, it might also mean his PP time will be non-existent.
– Jake Gardiner posted a career-high 43 points last season. His PDO in all situations in his career before 2016-17: 101.1, 102.1, 101.9, 97.5, 98.2. Last season? 103.8. While he was the number one PP QB on the season, his 13 points on the man advantage were not the primary source of his improvement (he had 12 PP points the year before). It was his jump in even strength assists to 23, after never having more than 17 in a single season before. Part of that jump is easily explainable – The Leafs had an explosive offensive team with lots of scoring depth. At 27, he is in his physical prime and the 43 points was a 12-point improvement over his previous best season points wise. Hitting 43 again appears high and producing more than that seems unlikely. It’s also worth wondering if he will maintain his status as the primary PP QB on the team.
– Curtis McElhinney put together a good 2016-17 season but averages a .905 save percentage over his career. The Leafs went in on Mike Condon over the summer for a reason. As a backup, he should be able to get the job done, but any sort of injury to Andersen and the Leafs could be in trouble. Garret Sparks did have a .922 save percentage in 31 AHL games and he would probably be the guy they would bank on should they lose their starting goalie.
General Thoughts and Questions
– Babcock and Hiller kept seven forwards in the 170 and 202 minutes range for power play time; they more or less played two PP units evenly. Now Marleau is also in the mix. The first question is, who gets bumped out? I’ve also wondered above if Gardiner is going to maintain his top PP QB status (I’m guessing to start that he will, but once the season gets rolling, I’m not so sure). The final question is if the Leafs stick to two even units or load up one and give them a larger share of the PP time. Nylander was an elite PP player last year with 26 points (tied for 12th) and he did it playing only 2:21 a night, which is significantly less than any of the other top players around him in power play scoring. There is too much talent depth on the team to have one unit take the bulk of PP time, but it also may not be that evenly distributed.
– It is assumed that Nazem Kadri will center the checking line, but last season Babcock had a stretch where he tried Matthews out in the head-to-head role before shifting it back to Kadri. I am guessing we will see that again. In the big picture, Babcock is going to want to put his best player up against opponent’s best player. As Matthews matures, he should feel good about winning that battle on a nightly basis. He is already going to draw one of the other team’s top two lines, but how Babcock plays those matchups will be interesting to monitor.
– While there has been a lot of talk about the Leafs defensemen, defense is a team effort. The Leafs forwards like to trade chances because they have the talent to win that out. This summer, management added three veterans who have all been praised defensively throughout their careers, so we’ll see if the Leafs tighten it up at all or change their system structure to fix some of the leaks in their own end. When you give up the third most shots against in the league, it is a team thing, not just a six-defensemen thing.
– The Leafs haven’t exactly replaced both Hunwick’s and Polak’s minutes on the penalty kill. While Hainsey will be an integral piece of the PK, he can only replace one of those two. Rielly is sure to see minutes there, as will Zaitsev, while the coaching staff has never seemed interested in giving Gardiner much of a role there. Who will take the extra minutes? The Leafs PK finished 10th last year, taking some pressure off a leaky team defensively at 5v5. Babcock referred to Hunwick and Polak as elite penalty killers last season and while it is entirely possible that they still sign Polak, they are going to need someone else to replace his minutes for now and there is no obvious answer.
– I wonder if we see Babcock mix and match the lines a little more this season. The Leafs have at least 15 legitimate NHL forwards by my count and all sorts of versatility to try different combinations. I’d like to take a look at Marner with Matthews over a few weeks, for example. With all the talent on the roster, it’s hard to imagine the Leafs just keeping the lines together for two straight years, particularly with Marleau added to the top nine mix now.
It’s nice to be back. Bring on the new season!