Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2017-18, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the starts of this hockey season and offers are insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around till the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2017-2018 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on the Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2017-18 Toronto Maple Leafs.
Puck Drop Preview: 2017-18 Toronto Maple Leafs
It’s hard to believe, but just one year ago the Toronto Maple Leafs were the reigning 30th place team in the National Hockey League. The Leafs entered the 2016-17 season with minimal expectations. With as many as seven rookies in the regular lineup, most simply didn’t know what to expect out of Toronto.
The roster was completely revamped heading into last season. Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Nikita Zaitsev, and Frederik Andersen were just a few of the new names in the lineup, and boy did they make an impact.
In one off-season, Toronto went from a boring, last placed team to an exciting, high-octane team with the ability to win on any given night. Questions about the team’s offence quickly dissipated with incredible performances from Matthews, Nylander, and Marner. The rookie trio reinvigorated veterans on the Leafs as well, giving Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, and Nazem Kadri new offensive life after the painful 2015-16 campaign.
Defying the Expectations
By the trade deadline, the Leafs found themselves in the thick of the playoff race. Looking to upgrade the fourth line centre position, Toronto went out and acquired Brian Boyle from the Tampa Bay Lightning. This ensured management believed in this team, and that the “tanking” component of the rebuild was in the rearview mirror.
In the final weekend of the season, the Leafs had control of their own fate. All they had to do was win one of the final two games against the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Columbus Blue Jackets, and they were in. One win, and a matchup against the President Trophy winning Washington Capitals. Two victories, and a much more favourable series against the Ottawa Senators.
In Game 81 against the Penguins, Kasperi Kapanen and Connor Brown came through in the clutch to clinch the Wild Card spot against the Capitals. The Leafs would lose the final game of the year against Columbus, setting up a David vs. Goliath series versus Washington.
The rookie led Maple Leafs pushed the Presidents Trophy-winning Capitals to Game Six, each game being decided by one goal, five of which going to overtime. The Leafs even had the series lead after Game Three thanks to two spectacular overtime efforts from Kasperi Kapanen and Tyler Bozak.
After pushing Washington to six games, the Leafs were no longer the underdog. Heading into the summer, Toronto’s management knew this team could do something special. With Matthews, Nylander, and Marner all on their entry-level contracts for one more year, the Leafs saw an opportunity to make a splash in free agency.
Before this, however, was the Expansion Draft. With all of their key players so young, Toronto didn’t have to worry about losing anyone that important to the Vegas Golden Knights. In the end, George McPhee chose AHL standout Brendan Leipsic, who requires waivers to be sent down this year. Although Leipsic had been impressive with the Toronto Marlies, it was unlikely he would win a job in the with Toronto due to the Leafs logjam on the wings. Overall, Leipsic was a minor loss in the Expansion Draft.
Then came the NHL Entry Draft. With the 17th overall pick, former top two talent Timothy Liljegren fell all the way to the Leafs. With a clear organizational weakness at right defence, it was a no-brainer for Mark Hunter to step up to the microphone and select the Kristianstad native.
The Leafs would go on to select Eemeli Rasanen, Ian Scott, Vladislav Kara, Fedor Gordeev, Ryan McGregor, and Ryan O’Connell on Day Two of the Entry Draft, setting their sights on unrestricted free agency.
Toronto would lose Antoine Bibeau (San Jose), Brian Boyle (New Jersey), Andrew Campbell (Arizona), Seth Griffith (Buffalo), Matt Hunwick (Pittsburgh), Steve Oleksy (Anaheim), and Dominic Toninato (Colorado) in free agency. Other than Boyle and Hunwick, all players lost were minor leaguers or prospects with minimal to no future in the Leafs organization.
Coming into the Leafs organization, however, were much more notable players. Prior to free agency, Toronto inked European free agents Miro Aaltonen, Calle Rosen, and Andreas Borgman to entry-level deals. Prospects Adam Brooks, Jeremy Bracco, and Carl Grundstrom also received their first contracts, while Garret Sparks, Ben Smith, and Curtis McElhinney were extended on low-cost deals. Nikita Zaitsev was officially extended on a seven-year, $31.5 million contract on May 2, though rumours of a big extension had been around for a while.
On July 1, Toronto signed Vincent LoVerde, Colin Greening, and Chris Mueller in an effort to bolster the Toronto Marlies. To help the NHL club, the Leafs started the day by inking Stanley Cup Champion defenceman Ron Hainsey to a two-year, $6 million deal. Later in the day, Toronto signed veteran fourth-line centre Dominic Moore to a one-year, $1 million contract to replace the recently departed Brian Boyle.
Then, on July 2, Toronto shocked the hockey world. Although they had been rumoured to be in on Patrick Marleau, most believed he would just re-sign back in San Jose to finish his career. Instead, Marleau signed a three-year, $18.75 million contract to come to Toronto and try to win his first Stanley Cup.
After the big splash, Toronto went relatively quiet for the rest of the summer. They only came back into the news cycle to announce the re-signing of Zach Hyman (four years, $10 million) and Connor Brown (three years, $6.3 million).
2017-2018 Line Predictions
As training camp and the preseason have continued, head coach Mike Babcock has, for the most part, revealed his plans for the Leafs lineup. The Hyman-Matthews-Nylander trio remains together from last year, as do van Riemsdyk-Bozak-Marner.
Kadri and Komarov’s shutdown line sees Connor Brown removed, Leo Komarov moving back to the right side, and Patrick Marleau added on the left. The unit will be expected to match up against the top lines on a nightly basis. The offensive power from Kadri and Marleau should be fun to watch, as well as Komarov’s extraordinary defensive play and ability to get under opponents skin.
The fourth line sees a significant upgrade from the 2016-17 season. Although Matt Martin remains an offensive black hole on the line, 20 goal scorer Connor Brown provides incredible depth. Miro Aaltonen is also a wild card, as he had a great offensive year in the KHL last season with Vityaz Podolsk and has beat Dominic Moore for the job at fourth line centre by the looks of things.
Extra: Martin Marincin
The Gardiner-Zaitsev pairing impressed at the end of last season, and with the addition of Hainsey, Mike Babcock now has the ability to put the two together. Gardiner really came into his own last year, emerging as (arguably) the Leafs best defenceman. Zaitsev logged top minutes last season and will be an improvement over Carrick, who Gardiner was often paired with a season ago.
Rielly gets his eleventh partner in the NHL in Ron Hainsey, a defensive stalwart coming to the Air Canada Centre after a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh. Hainsey’s defensive play should allow Rielly to play more offensively, which we have already witnessed in the preseason.
Calle Rosen has impressed in the time he has received in the preseason, often beside his projected partner on the third pairing in Connor Carrick. Carrick was a regular last year and should be better in a more limited role. He has plenty more to give on the offensive side, but beside Jake Gardiner for most of the season, found himself playing second fiddle in the offensive zone. Rosen is still a wild card, but his preseason play is intriguing. His passing has been very impressive, finding players from deep in his own zone on tape to tape stretch passes multiple times over training camp and the preseason.
Although Martin Marincin has been very disappointing in the preseason, it makes more sense for Toronto to send down Travis Dermott and Andreas Borgman to the Marlies to receive consistent minutes in the lineup. This could change very quickly depending on the play of Rosen, but to start the year, Dermott and Borgman could very well find themselves in the AHL even after their impressive play in the preseason.
There isn’t much to talk about in goal for Toronto for the first time in forever. Andersen is the obvious starter, and although Curtis McElhinney is far from the ideal backup, he is a decent option. Garret Sparks needed to be lights out to push for the job and has not done so. Sparks will find himself in the AHL, but could very easily find himself in the NHL as the backup if McElhinney has a Jhonas Enroth-esque start to the year.
Players To Watch
The 38-year-old will be playing for a new team for the first time since 1997. Marleau finds himself alongside Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov in a shutdown line that features some offensive punch. After a 27 goal season in San Jose, Patrick Marleau has already shown off his elite shot in the preseason, giving Leafs fans a glimpse of what could be a fantastic year in Toronto. He also finds himself on the first powerplay unit with Auston Matthews and William Nylander, which is among the league’s best on paper.
After a disappointing offensive year to start his Leafs career, Matt Martin will have much more opportunity to score some points if, in fact, the fourth line features Miro Aaltonen and Connor Brown. Brown scored 20 goals last year, while Aaltonen was among the best U24 players in the KHL. With Ben Smith on the fourth line last year, the fourth line became a black hole in the lineup. Although Nikita Soshnikov has the talent to score in the NHL, he simply couldn’t carry his two offensively deficient linemates as a 23-year-old rookie.
When played alongside Brian Boyle and Kasperi Kapanen, two players with NHL level talent, at the end of the 2016-17 season and into the playoffs, Martin looked like a different player. With Brown and Aaltonen, Martin should look like a much-improved player. He has already shown this in the preseason, with a crisp pass to Miro Aaltonen that nearly resulted in a goal against the Montreal Canadiens.
With a new defensive partner in Ron Hainsey, as well as a sturdier second pairing with Gardiner and Zaitsev, Morgan Rielly should receive much more offensive opportunity than a year ago. Rielly has shown time and time again his offensive prowess, but in the 2016-17 season, Mike Babcock chose to give him tough defensive minutes. The year may not have given him offensive opportunity, but Rielly was able to improve in the defensive zone. Hainsey’s defensive play should allow Rielly to push more offensively. Combine that with the Gardiner-Zaitsev pairing splitting tough minutes, look for more scoring out of Rielly this season.
Players On The Decline
The unfortunate part about the depth the Leafs have at wing is that one top nine quality forward will be forced to play fourth line minutes. At the moment, that man seems to be Connor Brown. Although he scored 20 goals in his rookie season, the signing of Patrick Marleau pushes the 23-year-old down to the fourth line. He may be just as, if not more talented than a season ago, but Brown should not be expected to score 20 goals again if he plays extended periods of time on the fourth line with Matt Martin and Miro Aaltonen.
Nazem Kadri had an incredible 2016-17 season, emerging as a premier two-way center in the NHL. With Patrick Marleau now on his line, Kadri will likely be dishing the puck to the future Hall of Famer more often than he will be firing it himself. Although he may hit 60+ points once again, don’t expect Nazem Kadri to score 32 goals in 2017-18.
2017-18 Toronto Maple Leafs Season Prediction
After a spectacular 2016-17 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ secret is out of the bag. They will no longer be able to play the underdog card and will have to face the heavy expectations of a rabid fan base.
The Leafs were very lucky in terms of health a year ago, with nine (!) players playing in all 82 games. Although that kind of health is unlikely to occur again, Toronto will need their key players to remain healthy in order to contend for the Atlantic Division.
In just two years, Toronto has gone from a bottom feeder to a contender in the Atlantic. Although a healthy Tampa Bay looks like the early favourite, the Leafs often find themselves ranked second in the division. Their offensive depth makes them one of the most feared teams in the league on a nightly basis, though their defence will need to prove they can hold the fort and win Toronto a few more games in 2017-18.
A reasonable prediction for Toronto in 2017-18 would be a divisional playoff spot. Finishing in the top three and avoiding the division winners would be deemed a success and give Toronto much greater odds of reaching the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, or potentially even further.
For now, second in the Atlantic seems to be the place for the Maple Leafs. They may not be the perennial threat that the Lightning are (when healthy), but Toronto is not very far from becoming a premier team in the National Hockey League.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images