Toronto became one of the most potent offenses in the NHL last season with the infusion of Calder Trophy winner Auston Matthews and rookies William Nylander and Mitch Marner, who all scored more than 60 points.
Complacency and sophomore slumps have to be the greatest concern for head coach Mike Babcock. The Leafs scored 251 goals last season and had no serious injuries. Nazem Kadri (30 goals), Tyler Bozak (55 points) and James van Riemsdyk (62 points) all had career years.
It is uncertain whether the club’s young core can repeat their rookie success with the spotlight affixed on them and whether veterans can pick up the slack if they don’t. This uncertainty may be the reason that GM Lou Lamoriello’s signed winger Patrick Marleau to a three-year, $18.75 Million contract this summer and added veteran Dominic Moore for depth up the middle.
The Maple Leafs success and making the postseason just one season after finishing 30th overall took many by surprise, but the young club’s defensive struggles and inability to hold leads nearly derailed their playoff aspirations.
Toronto was 22nd in the NHL with 242 goals allowed and failed to add a top-four blueliner over the summer. GM Lou Lamoriello did add veteran free agent Ron Hainsey, who was pressed into top pairing duty with Pittsburgh’s defense decimated by injuries during their Stanley Cup run.
Hainsey will partner with Morgan Rielly, who was utilized in more of a shutdown role last season. Jake Gardiner had his most complete season, leading the club in defensive scoring (43 points) and plus/minus (+24). Nikita Zaitsev made the transition from the KHL to the NHL with little trouble and signed a seven-year, $31.5 Million extension over the summer.
The Leafs are counting on the maturation of Rielly, Zaitsev, Gardiner and Connor Carrick to improve their blueline, but also are hoping that free agents Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman (signed out of the SHL) can have the same positive impact that Zaitsev had last season.
Roman Polak was added on a professional tryout and is likely to be signed to an NHL contract if the veteran is fully healed after suffering a broken leg in the first round series against Washington.
After struggling early on, goaltender Frederik Andersen lived up to expectations in his first season with Toronto. The 27-year-old proved he could handle the workload of a starting goaltender (playing a career-high 66 games and winning 33 of the club’s 40 victories last season) and will have to do so again for the Leafs to make the postseason for the second straight year.
34-year-old Curtis McElhinney was claimed off waivers in January and provided more stability in back of Andersen than Jhonas Enroth or Antoine Bibeau. The veteran netminder signed a two-year, $1.7 Million contract extension over the summer.
Looking ahead to trade deadline – if sellers who could be on the move. If buyers, what area might they need to improve? Toronto has three prominent pending UFA’s in Bozak, van Riemsdyk, and Leo Komarov. Even if the club is contending for a playoff spot, it is possible that Lamoriello could deal any of the veterans before the deadline if he gets a good return, with a stockpile of prospects within the organization pushing for NHL jobs.
As buyers, the Leafs would likely use that prospect depth to add a top-four blueliner, if it is someone that is signed or under control for multiple years.
What rookies could make the team? Former KHLer Miro Aaltonen is challenging for the fourth line center job but can be sent down without fear of being claimed on waivers. On defense, Rosen, Borgman and rookie Travis Dermott have impressed Babcock during camp, and one of them will likely start the season on the Leafs bottom defensive pairing. (Aaltonen and Dermott were sent to AHL this morning)
Which player could take a step forward this season? It may be too much to Leafs fans to hope for, but Matthews looks stronger, quicker and more sure of himself in training camp than he did as a rookie. Nylander is motivated to put up big numbers this season, with a new contract looming next summer.
Which players could regress? Age has to be a consideration, and with both Marleau and Hainsey in their late 30’s, a sudden drop off has to be a concern. Connor Brown scored 20 goals as a rookie, but with the Leafs depth up front, the winger will be on the fourth line to start the season.
Are there any training camp battles expected? Aaltonen is battling Moore and Eric Fehr for the fourth line job. Moore is more experienced, a better penalty killer and face-off specialist than the 24-year-old Finn. Rosen and Borgman appear to have moved ahead in the race for the bottom pairing spot.
Polak could supplant the gaffe-prone Martin Marincin if his leg is fully recovered.