Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2018-19, where Last Word On Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2018-19 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
2018-19 Toronto Maple Leafs Preview
The 2017-18 NHL season was an eventful one for the Toronto Maple Leafs. They set franchise records for regular season points, wins, and Frederik Andersen set a franchise record for wins by a goaltender in a single season at 37. Finishing just third in the Atlantic. However, the team finished sixth in the NHL standings. This was their best finish since the 2003-04 season when the Leafs finished fifth in the NHL with 103 points.
With the season seeing the Leafs finish as a top team in the NHL, they ended up facing a team who finished third in the NHL standings due to the current playoff format. Meeting with the Boston Bruins for the first time since the 2013 Game seven collapse. Many Leafs fans were hoping for revenge. It wasn’t implausible for the Leafs to win the series going into the playoffs, winning the regular season series 3-1, It would just be a matter of getting through the Bruins top line. Forcing a Game seven, the Leafs held the lead many times; all to lose it 7-4 in the end. This left an empty feeling for most Leafs fans.
Front Office Changes
President Brendan Shanahan had some major decisions to make this off-season. Former GM Lou Lamoriello had it in his contract that he would cease being the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs at the end of the 2017-18 season. With Lou seeming to prefer remaining as a GM of a team, there were three people who wanted the job of General Manager. Kyle Dubas was promoted over Mark Hunter who later left to return as the London Knight GM and Lou took the position of president of Hockey Operations and GM with the New York Islanders.
Dubas had lots of work cut out for him even before the draft and free agency by filling the holes left in the organization. First was a promotion of capologist Brandon Pridham to assistant GM as well as hiring Laurence Gilman to assistant GM. Gilman hadn’t been with an NHL team since the 2015 off-season where he and the Vancouver Canucks parted ways. Since then, Gilman was a large contributor to creating the rules for the 2017 expansion draft that gave the Vegas Golden Knights a team.
Dubas continued with a complete re-tooling of the front office shaping it to his image. Dubas has continuously been bringing in new people to give his front office a larger variety of views and ways that the game is seen. Hayley Wickenheiser and Noelle Needham were also brought in with the Dubas regime as Assistant Director of Player Development and as Amateur Scout, respectively. Wickenheiser has been known as one of the greatest, if not the best, female hockey players ever. Recently retired, Wickenheiser has won at every level, including four Olympic gold medals while she captained team Canada in 2010.
The Leafs had eight picks going into the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. However, when it came to their turn to pick 25th overall, Dubas and his team decided to trade down the 25th pick and received from the St. Louis Blues the 29th overall pick and 76th overall in the third round to finish the draft picking nine times.
Selections by round:
1-29: Rasmus Sandin
2-52: Sean Durzi
3-76: Semyon Der-Arguchintsev
3-83: Riley Stotts
4-118: Mac Hollowell
5-149: Filip Kral
6-156: Pontus Holmberg
7-209: Zachary Bouthillier
7-211: Semyon Kizimov
The Leafs made the biggest splash of free agency this year by signing John Tavares to a seven-year, $77 million contract that shook the hockey world. When the news broke, every fan of every team was stunned. This was the biggest free agent to leave their previous team in the salary cap era. Adding Tavares provides the Leafs with both the center and forward depth required to win championships.
After Tavares, the Leafs haven’t had any major off-season signings. Tyler Ennis, Adam Cracknell, Josh Jooris and Jordan Subban were the only signings. Of these additions, the three forwards are no more than depth players for the team to potentially play on the fourth line. Subban however, is more intriguing than the rest. He seems to be a “reclamation project” of sorts. Like Justin Holl was years ago, now he is a potential NHLer. Subban has the skills in the offensive aspect of his game. However, the Leafs organization will need to work with him for the rest of his game. He is a long-term pickup for the organization and will work with the Marlies staff to improve his areas of weakness.
After the Leafs signed John Tavares, coach Mike Babcock made it very clear what he envisioned the top-six would be to start the season. Separating Hyman and Matthews, who have been basically glued together for the past two seasons, and placing Hyman with Tavares and Marner indicates Babcock will want the Tavares line taking the difficult matchups at five-on-five. This opens the way for Matthews and Nylander to take on easier matchups at even strength. Matthews, who was already dominant at five-on-five, averaged 2.93 points per 60 (ranking third among players with a minimum of 200 minutes played in 2017-18) will have the opportunity to dominate even more.
The defence for the Leafs is not as easy to project as the forward group. The defence had several issues last year. The Leafs left side on defence last year of Rielly/Gardiner/Dermott was better than fans give credit to. However, the right side of Zaitsev/Hainsey/Roman Polak was poor to put it kindly. With the defence being such a liability, Coach Mike Babcock needs to find a way to get the most out of this group. The first idea would be to take Ron Hainsey off the top line and not play him an average of 21:52 a night as a 37-year-old. Controlling possession is a key item to look for from the defenseman. To exit the zone cleanly and with control (either through a pass or carrying the puck) will be key. Gardiner, Dermott, and Rielly were all more successful in this than Zaitsev, Hainsey, and Polak.
Getting More From The Defense
With the roster players that the Leafs have, putting the Gardiner/Rielly pairing makes a lot of sense from previous success and something GM Kyle Dubas could encourage Babcock to do. The pairing averaged a 5v5 Corsi F% of 59.05 over the past three seasons (2016-2018) when playing together. It’s worked in a small sample size, but the numbers suggest that it is worth playing them together for more time. Rielly has even played on his off side (right) in the past so it wouldn’t come as new territory for him. Separating Gardiner from Zaitsev will also allow the Leafs to use Gardiner more effectively than he was last season.
As the chart clearly depicts, Gardiner was much more effective in every category. Zaitsev was below average (the 50th percentile) in the majority of the categories above, whereas Gardiner is consistently one of the better players in the league in each category. This continues to show in their wowy (with or without you) stats.
Data supplied by http://www.naturalstattrick.com
By placing Zaitsev on the 3rd pair, the Leafs can control how big of an impact he has on the team. Through 2016-18 Zaitsev had a Rec CF% of -2.69. The only players who had worse numbers through that time were Polak and Hainsey. Gardiner, on the other hand, has a positive Rel CF% through the same years, and placing him with another dynamic defenseman in Morgan Rielly has shown, in albeit a relatively low sample size, that it is extremely effective.
A New Look For The Bottom Pair
Travis Dermott played most of his year with Roman Polak, but with him gone, the choice that seems most obvious would be to go with his linemate in the AHL, Justin Holl. Holl only played 2 games in the NHL, however, he was incredible for the Marlies all season. Many people have Holl making the roster this year. Holl was Dubas’ project in the AHL and knows the type of player he is. Dubas as the GM has a large say in who makes the team. Putting him with Dermott makes sense for the chemistry and the fact that you can have a RHD and a LHD together as Babcock prefers.
The starting goalie for the Leafs is very clear. It will be Frederik Andersen as usual, however, the backup goalie could see a change this coming season. Curtis McElhinney had been the backup for the 2017-18 season and most of the 2016-17 season, although, he has only played 32 games for the Leafs over those two seasons. Andersen, on the other hand, has played back to back in 66 games last season and will likely need a backup who can play in more games than just relief and on the tail end of a back to back game. Sparks, who won the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award for the AHL’s Goaltender of The Year, had incredible numbers with the Marlies and led them to a Calder Cup championship. Sparks put up a 0.936 save percentage through 42 games this season, which is too good to ignore if you’re the Leafs looking for a goalie to play more than 16 games a year.
Players To Watch
Going into his contract year, Mitch Marner will have the opportunity to play on the wing of John Tavares. This will more than likely increase Marner’s point totals to higher than they could have been anywhere else. As of right now, the Leafs are looking at comparables similar to David Pastrnak, Nikolaj Ehlers, and potentially teammate William Nylander after he re-signs his contract. If Tavares takes Marner to the next level he could potentially ask for more for his next contract. Also, keep an eye on Marner’s power play production. The Leafs had the best power play unit in the NHL last season with the Marner line, and it could be hard to sustain for Marner producing at that rate on the power play, so it could potentially regress to the mean this season.
Zaitsev is in need of a bounce-back season. He struggled throughout the year last season and it reflected in his numbers. The Leafs need to see more of the 2016-17 Zaitsev and less of the 2017-18 Zaitsev. Being put back on the powerplay could potentially help Zaitsev inflate his point totals if GM Kyle Dubas wanted to potentially trade the player to get out from the 6 years that are left on his contract at $4.5M per season. If Zaitsev proves that he is, in fact, the player he was in his rookie season and last year was an outlier it could strengthen the Leafs right side as he was a large part of the problem last year.
The Toronto Maple Leafs could potentially break the 100 point marker again this year. With as much shuffling of the lines that will happen, don’t be shocked if the Leafs struggle out of the gate. The team is potentially going into the season with three new lines for their top-nine. However, with these changes, they will surely find their offensive stride quickly with the amount of skill they have on the team. Last season the Leafs set a franchise record with 105 points and 49 wins. This season could see them in the same area when they’re done the season, potentially pushing for a top 2 spot in the Atlantic.
The Leafs will have another difficult playoff run as the top-three teams in the Atlantic should remain in the top three. The Leafs could potentially be facing the Bruins in round one again, and should they make it through, Tampa potentially in round two. It’s a tough run through the playoffs for the Leafs. Expect the team to make round two this year as the Leafs have added this off-season and the Bruins haven’t acquired many large pieces this off-season. In round two, the Leafs would be put to the test against the Lightning and it would be very tough to make it past. If the Leafs do not win a playoff round this year, however, it can be seen as a failure of a season. At this point in a rebuild, the team should be making it into later rounds.
Embed from Getty Images