Season Primer from Peter Baracchini.
Now that summer has come and gone, teams around the NHL are gearing up for training camp. This time around, there is a major buzz surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs after the season they had last year.
From Auston Matthews’ four- goal debut, to an exciting overtime- filled first round playoff match-up against the Washington Capitals, the Leafs gave everyone a reason to be optimistic for years to come.
Last season brought high expectations for an extremely young and inexperienced Leafs squad. After making the playoffs for the first time in a full 82- game season since 2003/04, the Leafs surpassed those expectations and will continue to do so this year. After years of failure, the Leafs seem to be on track for success. Now, the only thing to do is to continue going forward and take the next step.
This off-season was a little different in terms of trying to improve the team. Everything was in place with the play of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander. Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev also proved to be effective on defense, which earned the latter a cap friendly contract over seven years. Furthermore, Connor Brown signed a great and cheap deal at the end of August making him a regular for the next three years.
With our core in tact, the Leafs went to try and find some veteran presence to help them win. While we have the likes of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov and Matt Martin, they were still missing some players who have extensive playoff experience.
The Leafs addressed that this off-season, bringing in a couple of guys with excellent resumes.
The biggest off-season acquisition was that of former San Jose Sharks star, Patrick Marleau, as the Leafs signed him to a three- year, $18.75 million dollar deal. Last season was not a great year for Marleau, but he still managed to score 27 goals and add 19 assists. He owned a 51.4 CF% and started 51.3 per cent of his shifts in offensive zone.
Marleau will look to bring his scoring touch to a young Leafs roster while also being a great veteran presence for the young players on the team. Over his 19 seasons, Marleau has amassed a total of 1,082 career points in 1,493 games played. In addition, he has proved to be effective when it came to the playoffs. In 177 playoff games, he has totaled 120 points. Even when the Sharks, didn’t go the full distance in the layoffs, Marleau was still able to put up the points.
Marleau’s signing came with mixed reactions. The term isn’t that bad as it’s only three years. But then again, when the contract expires, he’ll be 40. The term is also questionable, as they’ll be paying him $6.25 million per year. That is a high price to pay for a guy who is almost 38.
Although there seems to be some worry over this deal, he has proved to be very durable and hasn’t lost a lot of time due to injury, even if his play is starting to decline. He still has great speed and his offensive instinct is still evident and he can still provide close to 30 goals and 50 points. We’ve seen Jaromir Jagr, Shane Doan and Jarome Iginla all play well into their 40’s and they managed to hold their own. He is able to play throughout the lineup but he’ll look to play in a top-six role, possibly playing along side Matthews and Nylander.
While his production has dropped, the points will come playing with two of the Leafs young stars.
The signing of Dominic Moore is more of a depth signing, but a great one at that.
Moore is excellent in the face- off circle, winning 54.6 per cent of face-offs last year and holds a career percentage of 54.2. He scored 11 goals and added 14 assists last season with the Boston Bruins.
This will be Moore’s second go- around with the Leafs. When he was with the Leafs in 2008/09, he had a career best 41 points and finished with 45 total after being traded to the Buffalo Sabres. Moore has also seen some time in the post season with stints with the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers and Boston Bruins.
At 37- years- old, Moore wants to have another shot at trying to win the Stanley Cup. When he signed the one- year, one million dollar deal, Moore stated that it was a “great opportunity to join a great team.” http://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/dominic-moore-toronto-maple-leafs-faceoffs-penalty-kill-kids-return-auston-matthews-smashfest-sign/
Moore will be an excellent depth player, but will be a better mentor for the younger players on the team. His playoff experience will also help in the long run. Moore was a key player for the Rangers in 2013/14, falling just short of the Stanley Cup to the Los Angeles Kings in the finals. He’s strong in the circle and at killing penalties, which will make up for the absence of Brian Boyle when he signed wit the New Jersey Devils.
The fourth line centre job would’ve been up for grabs had Fredrik Gauthier been healthy. Gauthier has been out with an injury sustained during the American Hockey League Playoffs when Jake Dotchin made a low hit on Gauthier’s knee. Moore will look to fill the role until Gauthier is fully healed.
The Leafs signed Hainsey to a two- year, six- million dollar deal to add some depth to their blueline.
Hainsey split last season with the Carolina Hurricanes and the Pittsburgh Penguins, tallying four goals and 13 assists combined.
Like Marleau and Moore, Hainsey has been in the NHL for a while and is a seasoned vet. The only difference, he has a Stanley Cup ring. Hainsey became a full- time NHLer in 2005/06. He had to play 907 games before he got his first taste of post- season hockey. He finally got the chance with the Penguins and he made the most of it winning the Cup. Hainsey played in 25 games and added two goals and six assists.
He became a more impactful player as the Penguins defenseman dealt with a lot of injuries during their repeat as Cup Champions. He handled the ice- time and pressure very well. Hainsey was second on the team in ice time per game with 21:06. He was also a factor on special teams being fifth on short- handed time per game (2:08). During the regular season, Hainsey averaged 3:01 per game on the penalty- kill.
Hainsey will look to be effective at both five on five and on the penalty kill. His veteran leadership will have a lasting impression on a young Leafs squad that looks to challenge for the Cup.
Here’s a break down of each position as we head into the regular season.
When the Leafs acquired and signed Fredrik Andersen prior to the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, it was known that he was going to be the starter for the team.
The Leafs have had a revolving door of goalies since their last playoff appearance in a full 82- game season. For the last couple of years, they went with a 1A, 1B with Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer. While both played well at times, they weren’t poised to be starters for the Leafs for the future. As a result, both Reimer and Bernier were dealt.
Like any other statistic being compared to the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons, there were massive improvements both offensively and defensively, especially at the goalie position. Here’s a look at the goaltending numbers from those two:
Comparison from 15/16 and 16/17:
|2015/ 16||2016/ 17|
|Goalie(s)||James Reimer||Jonathan Bernier||Fredrik Andersen|
|Record||17- 14- 7||12- 21- 3||33- 16- 14|
|Goals Against Average||2.31||2.88||2.67|
|Shots Against/ Goals Against||1128/ 88||1114/ 103||2052/ 169|
As you can see, Frederik Andersen had better numbers than both Reimer and Bernier. Then again, Andersen did have a better team in front of him than Reimer and Bernier. Among goalies that started in more than 50 games, Andersen was ranked ninth in save percentage. Reimer was ranked sixth in goalies that played more than 30 games and Bernier was ranked 33rd overall. Even with their Shots Against and Goals Against combined, Andersen had better numbers than the other two.
Even though Andersen had a more talented team in front of him, he showed the consistency to be a starter more than Reimer and Bernier. This was even evident with his time with the Anaheim Ducks when he was battling the starting job with John Gibson. Both are young goalies, the Ducks just envisioned the team with Gibson as the starter than Andersen.
The Leafs relied heavily on Andersen starting and playing in 66 games last year. They’ll look to rely on him again, as they try to take the next step forward. It goes without saying that unless you have a starting goalie you won’t win. The Leafs addressed that area last year and are in a good position to win.
Last year, the Leafs defense improved in comparison to the previous year. Although throughout the season, we still saw some flaws that required some areas of improvement. They addressed that this off-season by signing Hainsey and drafted the high- end, puck moving defenseman Timothy Liljegren. The NHL might be a long shot this year, but anything can happen.
After last season, Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev all played extremely well to lead the offensive charge on the blueline. Hainsey will provide some steady stay- at home play and Connor Carrick will look to be an effective player on the third pairing.
They will look to be balanced on each pairing heading into the season. Both in terms of skating and defensive play. Zaitsev will compliment Gardiner as he is able to skate with the puck and Hainsey will assume the defensive role as Rielly will have more of an opportunity to rush and create plays.
Which leaves only one spot left in the top six.
Since his smooth transition into the pro level, 2015 second- round pick Travis Dermott has done nothing but continued to get better each game. Out of all the defenseman the Leafs have to make the team, he has the best chance to make to the jump into the NHL.
In his rookie season with the Toronto Marlies, Dermott put up 19 assists and 24 points in 54 games while providing steady defensive play in his own end. His vision on the ice and decision- making will be a major strength for him as he enters training camp. He can make plays and think quickly in an NHL game, which is a fast paced environment. He’s definitely a player that everyone should keep an eye on, as he will look to crack the roster.
I had the chance to interview Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe last year. This is what he had to say about Dermott:
“His transition to this league was really good and he was playing really important minutes for us, playing extremely well with and without the puck. I thought he’s done really well.”
Keefe was extremely pleased with his play last year. As the season went on, he continued to leave an impression with the Leafs coaching staff. He is definitely on the Leafs radar this year and has a great chance to make the roster with his two-way play.
With the additions of Marleau and Moore and with very few changes up front, there are minimal spots up for grabs. And if some of the younger plays exceeds expectations, a veteran player maybe on the way out.
Here is a projection of how think the Leafs line up will look like come opening day. (Bold indicates off- season acquisition):
As of now, the top six seems to be set, but not in stone. With Marleau coming in, there’s no doubt that he will fit in well with Auston Matthews and William Nylander. Even at 37, he still has the speed to keep up with a couple of youngsters. The second unit of Tyler Bozak, Mitch Marner and James van Riesmdyk will stay in tact (pending some unforeseen trade with JvR as he’ll be an unrestricted free agent).
Zach Hyman may be pushed down the depth chart and will benefit as the other winger on Nazem Kadri’s line with Connor Brown. Hyman is an effective young forward and had a great season last year.
Hyman was tied for second in short- handed goals with four and was in the top 30 skaters with the most short- handed time on ice with 2:47. However, he isn’t top line material. Marleau is a better fit on the top line as Hyman isn’t the typical player to play with Matthews and Nylander. As the two eclipsed 60 points as rookies, Hyman only had 28 in total. He can battle hard in the corners and get a cycle going, but when you’re playing with the two high-end players, the points should be coming more often than not.
The fourth line is where things get interesting. Moore will handle the centre duties and Matt Martin will be one of the wingers.
As of now, with the changes in the lineup Leo Komarov is the final winger. The key phrase being, “as of now”. Like JvR, Komaorv will be a UFA at the end of year. At 30, Komarov is still effective at being a pest and Babcock will have a fourth line with a mix of everything. However, there are two other young players who are capable of making the jump and earn a full- time roster spot.
Josh Leivo and Kasperi Kapanen proved last year that they belong in the NHL when they were given the chance. Leivo almost averaged a point per game (10 points in 13 games) and Kapanen proved to effective with great speed and scoring touch, especially in the playoffs. If any of the players may be on the fence, it might be Komarov, especially if Leivo and Kapanen really impress Babcock and the coaching staff.
Should JvR or Komarov get moved at any point during the season, that spot would be given to one of Leivo or Kapanen. And let us not forget Nikita Soshnikov.
It goes without saying that the main focus will be on Matthews, Marner and Nylander.
After an outstanding rookie campaigns form all three, they were able to finish one, three and four in rookie scoring, The second season is going to be more challenging for this young squad, but the skill level just makes everyone giddy for the season to start and see what they can accomplish. Elite players on any team, not just on the Leafs, have yet to have shown any regression in their second season in the NHL.
Patrick Kane (70 points) almost matched his rookie total (72); Anze Kopitar tallied 77 points; Steven Stamkos went from 46 points to 95; John Tavares had 54 in his rookie year and 67 in his second and Nicklas Backstrom finished with 88 points.
With the skill and talent that the Leafs have at the moment, they should be able to match or even surpass their rookie totals like players mentioned above.
Need some more convincing, here’s a video of Mitch Marner training this off- season:
Auston Matthews recently stated that every team in the league has taken notice of their skill and that the Leafs won’t be taken lightly. Here’s what he said according to Lance Hornby of the Toronto Sun. http://www.torontosun.com/2017/09/01/maple-leafs-matthews-picked-up-pilates-during-quiet-off-season
“Only 16 teams make it and it’s not going to be easy. We surprised some teams last year,” Matthews said. “That doesn’t really matter now. It’s a new season, they’re going to know that we have some firepower and they’re not going to take us so lightly.”
While teams have taken notice, it’s up to not only the big three, but everyone on the team to do their part and step their game up in order to throw off the opposition even more.
There’s no doubt that the optimism in Leafs Land has increased after last season. By adding a couple of key veteran players in addition to young skill that the team has, the Leafs appear to be in a “win now” mode. There was no massive shake- up as Lou Lamiorello and company have complete faith in the team that they have, albeit being one piece short. We have a number of players at the end of contracts that could be moved to improve the team between now and the trade deadline. When that time comes, the Leafs will be making a massive push trying to win a championship.
Joe Bowen stated that he hasn’t been this excited for a Maple Leafs season since the early nineties. http://www.tsn.ca/nhl/video/bowen-i-haven-t-been-this-excited-for-a-maple-leafs-season-since-the-early-nineties~1197974
I agree, but I would even go further than what Bowen said. This is the closest team that has the potential of winning a Championship since the early nineties.
**Leafs Hub Admin note: Special Thanks to Peter for all that he did for Leafs Hub. Best wishes as you move forward in your career**