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Scott Cullen

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The Toronto Maple Leafs promised pain and delivered with a 30th-place finish in 2015-2016, but there is reason for optimism; more than there has been in Toronto for a long time.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Leafs moving forward, with lots of young talent ready to push its way into the lineup.

When Mike Babcock was hired as head coach, it marked a dramatic change in approach and a team that had been a possession bottom-dweller for years suddenly shot up to the middle of the pack, despite clearly having a talent-deficient roster.

The challenge in executing this rebuilding plan is sticking with it through tough times, but the Leafs set expectations low going into last season, then met those expectations. However, it's not going to be as easy to maintain low expectations after winning the draft lottery - getting the right to choose Auston Matthews with the first pick. With Matthews presumably in the fold (barring any kind of trade), the Leafs should have enough cornerstone pieces in the organization to start their ascent out of the basement.

With a front office that has been making consistently good decisions, the Maple Leafs have dramatically improved their organizational depth and still have a boatload of draft picks - the first pick in this year's draft is one of 12 that the Leafs have at their disposal. Having quality young assets is no guarantee that the Maple Leafs will be good, but they certainly appear to be on the right path.
 

HOCKEY OPS/COACH

Brendan Shanahan/Mike Babcock

 

RETURNING FORWARDS

 

NAME

GP

G

A

PTS

CF%

RelCF%

PDO

OZS%

ATOI

2016-17 CAP

Nazem Kadri

76

17

28

45

53.7

0.9

97.3

51.6

18:16

$4.5M

Leo Komarov

67

19

17

36

53.9

2.4

97.0

50.8

17:50

$2.95M

Tyler Bozak

57

12

23

35

52.5

1.6

99.0

57.2

17:20

$4.2M

James van Riemsdyk

40

14

15

29

55.2

7.7

100.8

64.3

17:46

$4.25M

Milan Michalek

45

7

9

16

44.9

-7.8

101.8

37.5

16:07

$4.0M

Colin Greening

31

7

8

15

53.9

0.8

99.8

50.0

14:06

$2.65M

Joffrey Lupul

46

11

3

14

47.6

-6.5

98.0

48.3

14:37

$5.25M

Brooks Laich

81

2

12

14

49.4

-2.6

96.8

47.5

11:26

$4.5M

William Nylander

22

6

7

13

55.7

2.5

101.3

62.0

16:20

$894K

Byron Froese

56

2

3

5

48.4

-6.0

96.7

30.9

12:38

$575K

Nathan Horton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

$5.3M

 

 

The Maple Leafs spent a lot of time praising Nazem Kadri this past season, some might consider too much for a player who scored 45 points, but that point total doesn't tell the whole story. Kadri continued to be a solid possession player, as always, but his offensive numbers were down because of percentages - a career 10.5% shooter, he scored on 6.5% of his shots and his average on-ice shooting percentage is 8.4%, but was 5.7% last season. Expecting that his point totals should recover (especially with more talented teammates) is probably part of the reason that the Leafs were willing to invest in Kadri with a long-term deal.

Leo Komarov played in the NHL All-Star game after a surprisingly productive first half of the season, but his percentages started to fall off later in the season. Though he scored 19 goals, Komarov isn't skilled enough to be a top-line offensive threat. However, he's a relentlessly physical player, ranking third among forwards in hits over the past couple of seasons. He's also the kind of player that Babcock likes to play alongside skilled forwards, not unlike how he deployed Tomas Holmstrom, Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm in Detroit.

Portrayed as a rider of Phil Kessel's coattails, Tyler Bozak showed that he could produce, even without No. 81 on his wing, scoring 35 points in 57 games. That's decent production but it was also in a reduced role, as Bozak is no longer playing 20 minutes a night. He's a complementary player - good on faceoffs and can contribute on the power play - that should be able to handle a third-line role in Toronto, but might also have some appeal on the trade market if Toronto is suddenly feeling crowded down the middle of the ice.

A consistent scoring winger with good size, James van Riemsdyk didn't return to the lineup after suffering a broken foot in January. As the Leafs look to inject young talent into their lineup, having a proven performer who is still in his prime, and ranks 22nd in goals per game over the past four seasons, ought to ease the transition for some of those young players.

Acquired as part of the Dion Phaneuf deal, Milan Michalek is more of a place-holder at this stage of his career. The 31-year-old has scored 20-plus goals five times in his career, but injuries have taken their toll and he has missed at least 15 games in five of the past seven seasons. He's going into the last year of his contract and, when healthy, he may still be able to fill a role in the bottom six.

Buried in the minors with Ottawa, Colin Greening played well for the Leafs down the stretch; well enough that he might be able to get a regular NHL job next season. He's big, physical and can chip in offensively. He's also going into the final year of a contract that pays more than his contributions merit, but the Leafs weren't taking good value deals in return for that Phaneuf contract.

A 32-year-old winger whose career has been derailed by injuries, Joffrey Lupul is an interesting case moving forward. He has missed 211 games over the past seven seasons and is coming off sports hernia surgery, yet still has a couple of years remaining on his contract. It would be hard to count on much from Lupul next season, so what happens with that contract? Does he get the Stephane Robidas treatment (ie. paid to not play)?

Brooks Laich may be a high-character veteran player, but he's also a forward who scored two goals in 81 games last season and counts $4.5-million against the cap. While the idea of Laich as a fourth-line depth option isn't outlandish, it's also conceivable that the Maple Leafs buy out his contract because the cost far exceeds his production.

 

Embedded Image
William Nylander impressed late in the season, with 13 points and positive possession in 22 games.

The eighth overall pick in the 2014 Draft, William Nylander was destroying the American Hockey League as a teenager before suffering a concussion while playing for Sweden at the World Junior Hockey Championship. Once he recovered, the skilled centre got to play for the Leafs after the trade deadline and showed flashes of brilliance, certainly enough to understand why he's expected to be an offensive threat at this level. Nylander should be fun to watch as he rounds out his game, and plays with more offensively-gifted linemates.

Fourth-line centre Byron Froese got a long look with the Maple Leafs last season and while he seemed to appeal to Babcock in a Luke Glendening sort of way, it wouldn't be much of a reach to see him back in the AHL if Toronto needs room for more talented young forwards.

A 25-year-old forward with good size and decent hands, Peter Holland can adequately fill a top-nine role, and last season's production could have been significantly better if not for a miserable (4.5%) on-ice shooting percentage. 

Late in the season, the Maple Leafs got a good look at some of their forward prospects and there should be stiff competition for jobs next season. Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshkinov, Connor Brown, Josh Leivo and Brendan Leipsic may be the closest to ready from the AHL group while Kasperi Kapanen and Tobias Lindberg may need more development. Add in top prospect Mitch Marner, who has been unstoppable in the Ontario Hockey League, and Toronto could be looking at quite a few new faces next season.

None of those new faces figure to come under the scrutiny that Auston Matthews will face as the presumed No. 1 overall pick. A physically strong goal-scoring centre, Matthews dominated the Swiss league as an 18-year-old, tallying 46 points in 36 games, and will offer an immediate - and long-term - upgrade to the Maple Leafs' forward ranks. Really, with Matthews, Marner and Nylander, the Maple Leafs have an impressive core of skilled young forwards.

One more question for the Leafs is whether or not they will get into the Steven Stamkos sweepstakes. The opportunity to add a premier scoring talent could accelerate the Maple Leafs' rebuilding plan but, at the risk of postponing parade plans, I'm going to leave Stamkos off of my projected lineup.

RETURNING DEFENCE

 

NAME

GP

G

A

PTS

CF%

RelCF%

PDO

OZS%

ATOI

2016-17 CAP

Morgan Rielly

82

9

27

36

50.6

-2.7

99.0

47.1

23:14

$5.0M

Jake Gardiner

79

7

24

31

54.4

3.1

97.5

52.0

20:37

$4.05M

Matt Hunwick

60

2

8

10

47.0

-8.7

98.5

42.5

22:34

$1.2M

Jared Cowen

37

0

4

4

42.6

-6.5

103.2

44.1

14:55

$3.1M

Stephane Robidas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

$3.0M

 

 

FREE AGENT DEFENCE

 

NAME

GP

G

A

PTS

CF%

RelCF%

PDO

OZS%

ATOI

2015-16 CAP

STATUS

Martin Marincin

65

1

6

7

53.3

-0.4

99.4

52.6

16:46

$700K

RFA

Frank Corrado

39

1

5

6

54.2

-1.1

94.9

57.8

14:27

$633K

RFA

 

The Maple Leafs handed Morgan Rielly a heavy dose of tough matchups in his third NHL season, and the 22-year-old made progress as an all-around defenceman. He's a strong skater and puck-handler, but how well Rielly handles those tough defensive assignments should go a long way to determining whether he will be a legitimate No. 1 defenceman or whether he slots not quite at that level.

 

Embedded Image
Jake Gardiner tied a career-high with 31 points and had career-best 53.3% Corsi last season.

A tremendous skater who makes some high-visibility miscues, Jake Gardiner consistently drives play in the right direction and tends to generate better results for most of his defensive partners. Ideally, that ought to fit Gardiner in Toronto's top four but, given the current depth chart, he may need to handle even more responsibility.

Undersized blueliner Matt Hunwick is a scrappy underdog story, and it's great when he's putting up solid possession numbers as a third-pair or depth defenceman, as he did for the Rangers in 2014-2015, but the Maple Leafs used Hunwick as a top-pair defender for much of last season, as he played a career-high 22:34 per game, and he was overmatched. Part of the need for defensive upgrades is so that the Leafs can play Hunwick in a more suitable role.

Lanky 24-year-old Martin Marincin is a curious case. He looks awkward at times and his decision-making with the puck can stand to improve, yet he's stellar at defending the blueline and that allows him to produce strong possession stats. His role increased dramatically down the stretch, and he fared all right, a decent audition for next season.

After Frank Corrado was claimed on waivers from Vancouver, he didn't play a game until mid-December and played five games through the end of January, before trades started to open up some room on the Maple Leafs' blueline. The 23-year-old held his own in a limited role, but he may not be more than an extra defenceman, depending on how the depth chart fills out.

The ninth overall pick in the 2009 Draft, Jared Cowen is on his way to being bought out. His rights were acquired in the Phaneuf trade, but Cowen was a disappointment in the 249 games that he played for the Senators, so the most cost-effective strategy going forward is to get out of his contract. On the way to being bought out, though, Cowen could still be a trade asset.

39-year-old defenceman Stephane Robidas didn't play for the Maple Leafs last season, exiled after struggling in training camp. He obviously has some wear and tear on him after 984 (regular season plus playoff) games, but he's effectively disappeared.

How quickly the Maple Leafs can upgrade their blueline will go a long way towards determining how soon they can be competitive. At the moment, they are forward-heavy when it comes to talent distribution. Of course, that presents an opportunity to trade forward talent for defence, if need be.

The free agent market isn't great, but the Maple Leafs already appear to have Russian blueliner Nikita Zaitsev on the way from the KHL. The 24-year-old has 58 points in 103 games over the past two seasons and, as a right shot, he could see significant playing time in Toronto.

A few other right-shooting options include restricted free agent puck-movers like Anaheim's Sami Vatanen, Colorado's Tyson Barrie or Minnesota's Matt Dumba, which would be blockbuster acquisitions that would require paying a premium price, or unrestricted free agent Jason Demers, currently of the Dallas Stars, who is a solid enough top-four defender when healthy.

 

RETURNING GOALTENDER

 

NAME

GP

W

L

T

SV%

EV SV%

2016-17 CAP

Jonathan Bernier

38

12

21

3

.908

.913

$4.15M

 

Jonathan Bernier was a disaster in the first half of the season, posting a .895 save percentage in 26 games through February 20, but he played better down the stretch, with a .930 save percentage in his last dozen starts.

It's difficult to put a ton of faith in the 27-year-old as a full-time starter, but with a $4.15-million cap hit, he's getting paid like a starting netminder.

If there is real urgency to upgrading the position for next season, Toronto can explore trade possibilities. Anaheim's Frederik Andersen or St. Louis' Brian Elliott may be prized targets, but it could be worth checking out other options too.

Depending on how expansion draft rules play out (ie. teams are allowed to protect only one goaltender), teams may have to do some roster shuffling over the next year, and that could mean that it will be easier to find that long-term goaltending answer.

 

TOP PROSPECTS

 

PLAYER

POS.

GP

G

A

PTS

+/-

TEAM (LEAGUE)

Mitch Marner

RW

57

39

77

116

+45

London (OHL)

Kasperi Kapanen

RW

44

9

16

25

+7

Toronto (AHL)

Brendan Leipsic

LW

65

20

34

54

+16

Toronto (AHL)

Travis Dermott

D

51

6

37

43

+36

Erie (OHL)

Jeremy Bracco

RW

49

21

43

64

+15

Kitchener (OHL)

Zach Hyman

RW

59

15

22

37

+31

Toronto (AHL)

Nikita Soshnikov

RW

52

18

10

28

+26

Toronto (AHL)

Tobias Lindberg

RW

56

11

23

34

+12

Toronto (AHL)

Connor Brown

RW

34

11

18

29

+10

Toronto (AHL)

Andrew Nielsen

D

71

18

52

70

+30

Lethbridge (WHL)

Connor Carrick

D

52

11

18

29

+25

Toronto (AHL)

Andreas Johnson

RW

52

19

25

44

+8

Frolunda (SHL)

Josh Leivo

LW

51

17

31

48

+14

Toronto (AHL)

Dmytro Timashov

LW

57

22

63

85

+27

Shawinigan (QMJHL)

Scott Harrington

D

17

1

2

3

+4

Toronto (AHL)

 


DRAFT

1st - Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine
27th * (Pittsburgh's pick) - Rasmus Asplund, Brett Howden, Dennis Cholowski

FREE AGENCY

The Maple Leafs have approximately $63.0M committed to the 2016-2017 salary cap for 16 players. At least two (Nathan Horton and Stephane Robidas) are highly unlikely to play.

NEEDS

Two top-six forwards, depth forwards, two top-four defencemen, goaltender

WHAT I SAID THE MAPLE LEAFS NEEDED LAST YEAR

Two top-six forwards, depth forwards, one top-pair defenceman, depth defencemen

THEY ADDED

P.A. Parenteau, Brad Boyes, Michael Grabner, Shawn Matthias, Daniel Winnik, Nick Spaling, Mark Arcobello, Matt Hunwick, Martin Marincin

TRADE MARKET

Tyler Bozak, Peter Holland, Matt Hunwick, Jonathan Bernier, draft picks

 

Much of the data included comes from www.war-on-ice.comcorsica.hockey, stats.hockeyanalysis.com www.hockey-reference.com and www.naturalstattrick.com

Scott Cullen can be reached at scott.cullen@bellmedia.ca