The Toronto Maple Leafs are looking to see results after improving the team in the offseason, and to avoid finishing in last place again.
The Leafs finished last season with a 29-42-11 record to go with 69 points. One of the biggest problems was that they only scored 192 goals on the season while allowing 240, which was the seventh most allowed in the NHL. They finished last in the Eastern Conference, but it was Head Coach Mike Babcock’s first season with the team. Plus, they had a lot of player movement going on with trades and injuries.
In the offseason, the Leafs added Auston Matthews to the team after selecting him with the number one overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Toronto also added free agent defenseman Nikita Zaitsev and left winger Matt Martin. The crease will have two faces in Frederik Andersen and Jhonas Enroth. They also acquired Kerby Rychel from the Columbus Blue Jackets and signed defenseman Roman Polak to a one-year deal. They lost P. A. Parenteau and Jonathan Bernier in the offseason.
The key to an improved season for the Leafs will be for James Van Riemsdyk to remain healthy for a majority of the season. Van Riemsdyk played in 40 games last season while scoring 14 goals, getting 15 assists for 29 total points. If JVR can stay healthy then he has a good shot at getting 25 or more goals this season. He’ll most likely start the season on the top line, which means he’ll be facing better opposition, but he has the speed and strength to get to the front of the net. He has the potential to be one of the better power forwards in the league if he can stay relatively injury free. He’ll be used on the power play, where he should be able to accumulate a decent amount of goals by being in front of the opposing goalie looking for deflections and rebounds.
The goaltending will be the x-factor in determining how much Toronto improves by this season. Andersen was acquired in the offseason via a trade with the Anaheim Ducks, and is expected to be the Leafs’ number one goalie at the start of the season. Enroth signed a one-year deal in free agency and is Andersen’s backup. It will be interesting to see how Andersen does playing behind the Leafs defense as opposed to the Ducks defense. Andersen will see more shots and quality chances this year, so he’ll need to stay focused during the game. Like JVR, staying healthy is a big issue with Andersen. It will not serve the Leafs if he is out for any extended period of time because Enroth just isn’t a starting goalie at the NHL level yet.
Mitch Marner will be the surprise player for the Leafs this year even though he may not even play the full season at the NHL level. He made the roster after having a really good training camp and preseason. He was getting top six minutes and if he continues to play the way he did in the preseason then he could force the Leafs into keeping him for the entire season. Marner can skate and pass the puck. He’s on the smaller side so he’ll have to use his speed and keep his head up to avoid injury. If he can impress and stick around for a full season, he’ll definitely add some more offense to the Leafs balanced lineup.
The offense should be an improved area of the Leafs’ game since the lines are pretty balanced and have a scoring threat on each one. Matthews will contribute some goals and points since he’s not afraid to go to the net and should see some power play time. A healthy JVR and Leo Komarov will also help in the goal tallies. The Leafs have a good mix of veterans and young kids up front, who have the ability to put the puck in the net so there should be a noted increase in the number of goals the team scores this season.
The defense will be a concern heading into the season, a result of some youth and inexperience on the blue line. Connor Carrick, Martin Marincin and Nikita Zaitsev have played a combined 203 NHL games. The biggest concern is the lack of a true number one pairing. Morgan Rielly has shown that he has the potential to be a top two defenseman, but who will be his defensive partner? The defense will give up its fair share of opportunities to the opposition so the goalies need to be ready.
The special teams, specifically the power play, should be better this season. The addition of Matthews, a healthy JVR, Rielly at the point and William Nylander should help the team get some more goals while on the man advantage. They need to limit the number of shorthanded goals allowed as they gave up eight last year, which was fifth most in the league. The ability of the defense to move the puck should also help. Toronto needs to stay out of the penalty box this year, and when playing shorthanded Andersen and Enroth may be forced to be the best player on the ice.
The Leafs won’t finish last this season, but they will miss out on the postseason again. The goaltending will be the ultimate difference in how big of a difference an improvement the team shows.