I’d like to think that this is the ‘first’ full year of the rebuild, but really it’s the second since Kessel and Phaneuf have departed us. Trust me, it doesn’t seem like that long, but yes it has been.
I think we can all say that we did not expect the rebuild to start off so well or so quickly. Year two into the rebuild and the Leafs clinch a playoff spot, in the first time they’ve clinched a full season playoff spot since 2004. Making the playoffs this soon into the rebuild is impressive, but facing Presidents’ Trophy winners, the Washington Capitals, is proving to be difficult. This young team is very inexperienced and acing a well experienced playoff team isn’t easy, but here we are. There’s still hope and always have faith in our young Leafs!
The rebuild started coming into place when Leafs drafted Mitch Marner 4th overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. They would’ve liked Connor McDavid, but unfortunately we didn’t win the lottery. The first full regular season for the Leafs rebuild was a dumpster fire, which lead to winning the first overall pick and selecting the franchise center we’ve waited for since Sundin: Auston Matthews.
Here’s a look at the difference that one year made in the Leafs roster:
JVR – Kadri – Boyes
Matthias – Bozak – Lupul
Winnik – Holland – Parenteau
Komarov – Spaling – Arcobello
Hunwick – Phaneuf
Gardiner – Rielly
Marincin – Harrington
Komarov – Kadri – Brown
Hyman – Matthews – Nylander
JVR – Bozak – Marner
Martin – Boyle – Soshnikov/Kapanen
Rielly – Zaitsev
Gardiner – Carrick
Hunwick – Polak
Marincin – Marchenko
The difference between the two lineups is hilarious. The 2015-2016 lineup was so bad I hardly wanted to watch any of it. I’d say four of their forwards were top-quality and the rest were bottom line players.
Other teams might say that the Leafs were ‘tanking’, which they pretty much were, but I still think that team was just bad enough in general and the goal tending was below average.
Aside from Marner and Matthews, the Leafs have an abundance of young stars in Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and many more, the list goes on and on. The Leafs have been stock-piling rookies in the Marlies for a few years and ‘hoarding’ draft picks. Signing rental guys in off season and then trading them at the trade deadline these past few years has helped them to get younger and faster, and get more picks.
This season they added a total of eight rookies to the lineup: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov, Nikita Zaitsev, and Josh Leivo, as well as Frederik Gauthier and Kasperi Kapanen who only played a handful of games. I think we can all say that the big 3 were Matthews, Marner and Nylander but don’t leave out the incredible rookie seasons of Zaitsev, Brown, and Hyman.
Matthews leads the team with 40g – 29a – 69 points. Matthews also lead the league in rookie scoring with five points ahead of second place Patrik Laine. It truly is amazing how much Matthews achieved in his rookie season. Most expected Matthews to only score 20 and thought 50 points was a good achievement, and he exceeded all expectations. Matthews is only going to get better from now on; his two way game is already impressive at such a young age and he will be respected highly by Leafs fans for years to come.
Marner and Nylander also exceeded expectations, finishing with 61 points which is pretty good. These guys are only going to get better. They both have tremendous speed and skill, great hockey IQ, and they have so much patience with the puck. It seems as though they can have the puck on a string, wait for the right opportunity for the right play, and usually develop a Grade A scoring chance when doing so. They know where to go; it’s like the puck follows them wherever they go.
Back halfway through the season, TSN analysts were discussing Nylander being traded for a defenseman, which the Leafs really need. But in my opinion, you don’t give up on such a high talent at such a young age. He could be a very promising player down the line for the Leafs. Since everyone discussing him being traded, he has lit the lamp. In the month of March he had a 12-game point streak putting up 4g and 10a over the 12 game streak. Nylander was named rookie of the month twice this year, in October and March.
Hyman and Brown are valuated a bit differently; they weren’t expected to get 50 points or score 30 goals. Their role was to be the ‘utility’ players. Hyman played on Matthews’ wing the entire season, putting up 10g 18a for 28pts, but that’s just fine for what his role was. He was on the Matthews line to go into the corners and be the grit grinder and get the puck loose for Matthews and Nylander to do their magic. Hyman was also the Leafs best penalty killer. He killed every penalty he was available for; the team scored six SHG this season and Hyman had four of them. Hyman’s energy and persistence to get the puck and pressure the puck carriers just made him so successful and Babcock loves guys that play ‘hard’.
Brown is my pick for the most utility player in the lineup, and by that I mean he can be used in all situations. Brown plays the powerplay, penalty kill, and in five on five he’s playing against top lines in the league. He knows how to use his stick and his size well; his backchecking is tremendous and his play along the boards to fight for pucks is similar to Hyman. Brown put up 20g 16a for 36pts; nobody expected that and his 20 goals was a nice add for depth scoring. Like Hyman, his role is mainly being a solid two-way player and help his line mates to get the puck in battles along boards and behind the net. Brown also showing great discipline, only 10 PIM in a full 82 games.
Going to the back end here, Zaitsev I think did a solid job coming over from Russia. He handled some big minutes and a big role, and he played in all situations throughout the season. Zaitsev will be 25 this fall and will be a RFA this summer… I expect the Leafs to resign him for somewhere around four to five years.
Frederik Andersen… where would we be without him? To be honest, probably not in the playoffs. I’ve lost track of how many games he’s bailed us out for and somehow won them when we were totally outplayed. At the start of the season he had a rough start with only one win in his first five games, giving up 22 goals on 148 shots for an .851 save %. Fans were having a fit and going on and on that we gave up too much and he isn’t the right fit. Meanwhile Andersen was still coming back from injury and had to come into the big spotlight in Toronto and try to shine. Andersen finished the season with a .918 save % which is pretty decent on a weak defensive team. He had a really good month in December, only giving up 17 goals on 328 shots for a .948 save %. Since then he’s been fairly solid and he’s got us into the playoffs. I think it’ll pay off and he will be solid for us in the future.
Another thing I want to touch on is the special teams and how much they’ve improved this year. Already talked a bit about the penalty kill in Hyman and Brown being two workhorses on the PK, and then you have Komarov and Boyle who have a bit more size and they take the face offs. Boyle mainly brought in for that and also for his leadership and experience. Polak was a key player as well. He always seemed to be blocking shots and breaking up those cross ice passes and he used his stick very well. The thing that makes this PK so successful is the aggressiveness and how they attack the puck carrier and don’t back off… they sure aren’t afraid of blocking shots either. Their penalty kill finished 10th overall and I think we will see it be a top five in the future.
The power play was their better of the two special teams. I don’t know where to start but the puck movement and the speed of this power-play is going to dominate the league for years. The Leafs’ power play was ranked second in the NHL behind the Buffalo Sabres, which was a big improvement from last year when the Leafs’ power play was 29th in the league at an ugly 15.4%. This year it’s 23.8%.
We can all say that the reason this power play is better is because of the skill set and speed of Marner, Nylander, Matthews, Kadri and Gardiner back at the point holding the line numerous times to keep plays alive. Komarov, JVR, and Kadri are there for their net front presence and Komarov and Kadri usually piss off the goaltenders and defensemen in some way. Marner, Nylander, and Matthews have great vision, threading passes across ice like it’s no problem. We’ve seen many times Matthews to Nylander for a quick release or vice versa. This power play has some lethal weapons and look out for it in the future because it can only get better.
Now our main focus this off season is defense. It will definitely help us to hold more leads and it will help with our matchups so that Gardiner and Rielly don’t have to play 25 minutes a night.
We do have some potential NHL dmen down in the Marlies right now in Andrew Nielsen, Travis Demott and Rinat Valiev. Hopefully they can turn out and that at least one of them can help us with our top four. I feel that Valiev or Dermott may get a chance on the Leafs next season for a bit with Polak and Hunwick’s expiring contracts.
We have a number of forwards to keep an eye on as well; Jeremy Bracco signed his entry-level deal just recently and will be with the Marlies next season. We also have a number of prospects waiting for their NHL chance in Brendan Leipsic, Kerby Rychel, Tobias Lindberg, Trevor Moore, Andreas Johnsson and Dmytro Timashov.
Also a few that could be signing an entry level deal next season are Nikita Korostelev (Peterborough Petes – OHL), Adam Brooks (Regina Pats – WHL), and Yegor Korshkov (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl).
The rebuild is well on it’s way. Be patient and BELEAF!
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