Let’s Preview the Leafs Season
A new season awaits the Toronto Maple Leafs. There is no doubt this is a team with high expectations and a lot of pressure. They haven’t made it out of the first round since 2004. They have spent every single penny they can to ensure they kept everybody upfront and all eyes will be on Mike Babcock to see if he can finally take this incredibly talented team over the edge. This season preview will come in four parts. The first part will recap the offseason. The second will go over the opening night roster. The third will talk about what to expect from the Leafs this season regarding their style of play and the fourth will be the final prediction section.
The 2019 offseason was a busy one for young GM Kyle Dubas. The Leafs were coming off being eliminated by the Boston Bruins in game seven for the second year in a row. The checklist going into the offseason was probably something like; sign Mitch, get a top-four right-handed D-Man, get rid of some bad contracts and try to improve through trades. Well in many ways it wasn’t pretty but Dubas accomplished everything on that list. He signed Mitch Marner to, well let us be honest it was a god-awful deal but Mitch is a Leaf and that is all that matters. He managed to acquire Tyson Barrie, a top-four right-handed D-Man via trade. He got rid of Patrick Marleau, Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Brown’s horrible contracts that he didn’t sign. Lastly, he improved through trade by again getting Barrie as well as Alex Kerfoot to be the third-line centre. They had to, of course, trade Nazem Kadri but overall it was a trade win for the Leafs.
They also managed to lock down promising young wingers Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson to great team-friendly deals. As well as adding 24-year-old KHL standout Ilya Mikheyev to their bottom-six forwards. Defencemen Cody Ceci and his lovely 4.5 million cap hit also joined the Leafs this summer and well that hasn’t exactly inspired confidence amongst Leafs fans but hey let’s give him a chance. Notable departures include fan favourite Jake Gardiner (sarcasm) and 83-year-old Ron Hainsey (he is actually 38). Overall the offseason must be classified under the win column for the Leafs and fan excitement should be at an all-time high for the year.
To start, we are going to look at the Leafs forward lines.
One thing that instantly pops out at you is speed and skill. Kyle Dubas has definitely put his imprint on this team and he knows what way he wants the Leafs to play. Other than Tampa Bay, you’ll be hard-pressed to find four lines this good anywhere else in the league. The decision to put William Nylander back with Auston Matthews is an obvious one to most but it will feel like a breath of fresh air. No more Kapanen throwing the puck in Matthews’s skates when he is waiting in the slot. Johnsson is a candidate to really break out this year and he is the perfect fit on the left side for this line. Speedy and skilled enough to keep up with the other two, he is also willing to do the dirty work that this line needs, it is a cliche thing to say, but the fact is it’s true. This line should be flying from the first puck drop. Line two will be interesting, to say the least. Marner and JT work, we know that, but it will be fascinating to see how Kapanen gels with the two superstars. He is the fastest player on the Leafs roster but sometimes he is too fast for his own good and he tends to get out of control. If he can get his shot and hands under control, then he has a real chance to get 30 goals this year as he is playing with two elite playmakers in Marner and Tavares. If anything, this line will definitely have the puck a lot.
The third and fourth lines are both very intriguing in their own way. The third line is pretty much a whole new unit as none of the players played more than 25 games for the Leafs last year. Kerfoot was on the Avs and Mikheyev was bumming it out in Russia, Trevor Moore the only player who was on the Leafs last year. Again, this line just oozes speed. Moore and Kerfoot are short speedsters who use their small stature, their hockey IQ and above-average skill to get into high danger areas. Kerfoot has put up 42 and 43 points in his first two seasons in the show, Moore impressed everyone in his short stint with the Leafs last year playing just 10 minutes a game on the bottom line. The wildcard here is Mikheyev, he is 6’2, 200 pounds and frankly looks like a beast. He put up 45 points in 62 games in Russia last season. He skates very well for a bigger guy and has great hands, he uses his frame to protect the puck expertly and his ability to beat a defender and then find an open teammate is very impressive. Safe to say I am excited about Mikheyev and the Russian gas he is bringing to the Leafs. The fourth line isn’t really anything to write home about, but it should do the job nonetheless. A good camp and a strong preseason by Fredrik Gauthier and Dimtro Timashov got them roster spots and Jason Spezza is a really old veteran player so you know what that means: LEADERSHIP!
Now onto the defence.
The Leafs issues at defence have been well documented in the past, I mean even Eugene Melnyk chirped them about their shortcomings on the blue line. But dare I say that the Toronto Maple Leafs (if everyone stays healthy) have a top ten D-Core in the league. Okay, that may be overshooting it a bit, but it is at least in the top half. A bonafide Norris candidate in Morgan Rielly (72 points last year) two high-level top four guys in Tyson Barrie and Jake Muzzin who form what seems to be a perfect pairing on paper. Rasmus Sandin and Travis Dermott who, once Dermott returns to full health, are two players just waiting to breakout. We will leave Ceci and Marincin off to the side for now. A backend full of puck-moving ability, both by skating and passing, as well as high-end skill and a couple of wicked shots. For the Leafs, possession and getting the puck to the forwards is the name of the game and they certainly have a top-six that can do that.
The lines look a little like this. Rielly and the newly acquired Ceci didn’t exactly hit it off in the preseason, but Rielly playing with someone who holds the stick differently than him is a good thing. Morgan is a special player and if Ceci just isn’t horrible, they should be okay.
The projected second pairing is what I am most excited for. Barrie and Muzzin are two of the most under-recognized defencemen in the league and they should complement each other very well. Both are strong skaters and are good puck movers, but where Barrie lacks Muzzin doesn’t and vice versa. Barrie is by no means a physical defenceman and he isn’t really that great at defence either based on his analytics. Muzzin, however, is a highly capable defender and as Torrey Krug found out last spring, he loves to throw the body. Look for Babcock to lean on this pairing a lot late in games and against the opponent’s top line.
The final pairing is interesting. Travis Dermott being out until probably late November opened an opportunity. Boy did 29th overall pick in the 2018 draft Rasmus Sandin take that opportunity. The former Sault Greyhound was absolutely incredible for the Toronto Marlies last year, proving he could play with men. And if that wasn’t enough he went out and had arguably the best preseason of any Leaf. The 19-year-old does not play to his age. He just does so many things well for a player his age. His passing ability, his skating ability, his knack for knowing when to join the rush, his wicked one-timer, his smart stick at the blueline, his ability to get shots through multiple players from the point. The list goes on and on. He will play with Martin Marincin to start the year which isn’t exactly great news but at least he’s playing. The hope for Leafs fans is to see Dermott return and hop in with Sandin on the third pair. Pardon my French but holy shit would that be amazing.
Now I wasn’t going to talk about the goaltending situation because frankly, it is quite simple but alas. Freddy Andersen has played over 60 games in his first three years with the Leafs. I personally, do not see any issue with Freddy playing 60 games a year, he is a top ten goalie in the league and well a lot better than the second option. But some fans and maybe even the coaching staff believe that if Andersen continues at this pace, he will burn out in the playoffs or worse, suffer a long-term injury. The Leafs backup right now is Michael Hutchinson. Look maybe it is because he catches left-handed, but Hutch doesn’t exactly inspire me. Sure, throw him in on a backend of a back to back but if he isn’t needed then why put yourself at a disadvantage? Garrett Sparks cost the Leafs home-ice advantage last year due to his poor play when he filled in for Freddy and the Leafs cannot have that happen again.
What to Expect
This may come as a shock to some, but the Leafs do a lot of things very well. Now I am not going to act like I am some analytics guru. (for more info on analytics and what they mean read here: https://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/corsi-pdo-explaining-hockeys-analytics-terms/) But I do find them very useful and extremely telling to see what a team is good at and how they play. For starters, the Leafs were in the top three in the league last year in expected Goals For and Goals For per 60 and in the top two in both Corsi For and Corsi For per 60. They also had the third-highest shooting percentage. So, what does this all mean? Well it means they have the puck a lot, they shoot the puck a lot and well they have some skilled shooters getting some very good chances. Obviously, all good things. They were also third in the league in scoring chances against, so ya that isn’t great. But that should tighten up at least a bit this year and hopefully, Fredrik Andersen isn’t as worked as he has been in previous years. The point being here is that well, expect a fun, high scoring, fast team this season. The only thing that should or could stand in their way is the Head Coach. The Leafs have high-end skill pretty much everywhere which is why it was a mystery as to why their powerplay was so bad last year. With more balance between the two units, the Leafs should also go back to be a top ten powerplay in the league. Goals, goals and more goals are ahead, probably for both teams whenever the Leafs are involved.
(You can find all the information about Leafs analytics on corcsica and hockeyreference.com)
If you are still reading, thank you. Here is the part where I probably embarrass myself. (self-depreciation is key) Here’s the thing, the Atlantic is good, really good. It probably houses the three best teams in the East if not the entire league. Then there is Florida who looks like this could finally be their year to breakthrough, there is the pesky Canadiens who missed out on the playoffs by a point last season. Buffalo could make some noise…. Ottawa and Detroit are there too. The Leafs should and will come in the top three, but it won’t be that easy. Here is my prediction, the Leafs come second in the conference with 105 points behind the Lightning and open the playoffs at home against the team that they have absolutely zero histories with, Boston.
Auston Matthews scores 50 goals, Nylander hits 80 points, Tavares and Marner both hit 90 again and Fredrik Andersen comes in the top three for Vezina voting. Oh, and Rasmus Sandin gets a few Calder votes too. The Leafs beat the Bruins in six games in the first round and move on to a date with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Leafs’ first trip to the second round in a decade and a half sees them go the distance in an enthralling series between the leagues two best teams (a reminder of how dumb the NHL playoff structure is) but ultimately fall short in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup Champ. Now to paraphrase what The Big Lebowski once said, this is just like my opinion man. As a Leafs fan, I could not be more excited for the new year, hockey is back everyone, let us enjoy it while it lasts.