The Toronto Maple Leafs had a busy offseason after missing the playoffs the last two seasons.
They finished 27th in the league, or fourth-worst, with 68 points last season. The team only won 30 games while struggling to score goals (211) and to defend against goals (262). They finished 15th out of 16 teams in the Eastern Conference. The Maple Leafs fired head coach Randy Caryle around midseason and interim head coach Peter Horachek took over.
In the offseason, the Leafs acquired the top free agent head coach, Mike Babcock, who was signed to an eight-year, $50 million contract. The Leafs traded one of its big scorers, Phil Kessel, to the Pittsburgh Penguins and received some good prospects in return. The Leafs also acquired forward Michael Grabner in a trade with the New York Islanders. The Leafs also got defenseman, Martin Marincin in a trade. The team signed Shawn Matthias, Daniel Winnik, Mark Arcobello, P.A. Parenteau and Matt Hunwick via free agency. The Leafs let David Booth, Zach Sill, Eric Brewer, Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren go in free agency.
If the Leafs want to improve this season then Mike Babcock will be one of the keys to its season. He is a proven coach, who made the playoffs in all ten seasons that he coached the Detroit Red Wings. He has been to the Stanley Cup Final three times in his career, once with the Anaheim Ducks and twice with the Red Wings, and has one Stanley Cup. The Leafs should be a better possession team this season with Babcock behind the bench since that’s his style of coaching. It will take time for the team to learn the new system as well as each other since there was a lot of player turnover.
The x-factor for the Maple Leafs season is going to be the goaltending. The biggest question will be who is the number one goalie going into the season? Jonathan Bernier was signed to a two-year contract extension in the offseason, but struggled a little last season. In his two seasons with the Maple Leafs he is 47-47-14 with a 2.90 goals against average and a .918 save percentage. James Reimer settled for the backup role last season. He also struggled while in net last season at times. The goalies need to prove that they can be consistent, and make keep the team in games.
Nazem Kadri will be the surprise player for the Leafs. He’ll have the breakout season that everyone has been waiting for from him. He will be one of the guys that will benefit from playing more of a possession game. The more he has the puck, the more confidence he will be able to gain. If he has the puck more that means more shots on goal, which means more chances to score or get the assist.
The biggest question for the Leafs offense will be who replaces the offense lost from the Kessel trade? Kessel contributed 25 goals and 61 points to the offense last season. Joffrey Lupul should be able to contribute more to the offense should he stay healthy this season. James Van Riemsdyk will be leaned on a lot and Grabner will contribute some as well. Kadri, Tyler Bozak, Matthias, Parenteau, Nick Spaling and some of the defensemen will contribute in the offensive zone too.
The defense led by captain Dion Phaneuf, aren’t afraid to block shots. There is no true number one defensive pairing. The defense can move the puck and be physical. The defense is just mediocre and will give up some bad goals and good scoring chances because they will be out of position. The goalies will have to do their best to bail out the defense occasionally. The Leafs won’t be able to rely solely on its defensive corps for stops, but the forwards will also have to play better in the defensive zone.
The special teams can only get better this season. The power play was ranked 26th in the league last season. Parenteau will contribute on the man advantage. The Leafs should look for Kadri to produce more on the power play. The penalty kill was a little better at 22nd in the NHL last season. The additions of Grabner, Winnik, Spaling and Matthias should improve the penalty kill. Also, the puck possession game will also help improve the special teams.
The Leafs will be learning-on-the-go this season. The team will have to learn a new system, get used to a new coach and develop chemistry with new linemates. The defense will give up goals and the goalies have to show that they can stop the puck and be more consistent in their play. The Leafs will miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season.