TORONTO- The long overhaul rebuild may have paid off dramatically for the Toronto Maple Leafs. When Brendan Shanahan was named team president and CEO in 2014, he had a vision and that vision was to build a team by drafting and developing young and talented players. Last season the Maple Leafs opened up the season with six rookies including the 2016 overall pick and rookie of the year, Auston Matthews. And in result, the young squad did the unthinkable by clinching the playoffs. So it seems that Shanahan’s rebuild plan may have been worth the wait for die hard Maple Leafs fans.
After the youth fought a hard and gusty battle against the Washington Capitals during their playoff run, their tremendous performance proved that the Maple Leafs are for real and they could bring the Stanley Cup back to Toronto for the first time since 1967.
The signings of three veterans free agents with the likes of Patrick Marleau, Dominic Moore and Ron Hainsey should help the youth move forward to their Stanley Cup dreams.
Auston Matthews is their new face of the franchise and number one centre that they been searching after Mats Sundin left the Maple Leafs in 2008. The twenty-years-old set a franchise record with 40 goals and 69 points. But Matthews wasn’t the only impressive rookie for the Maple Leafs. Mitch Marner and William Nylander each had 61 points as rookies and displayed their high ceiling potential last season. The Maple Leafs still have their key veterans like James Van Reimsdyk, who contributed with 29 goals and 62 points, and Nazeem Kadri, who had a career year with 32 goals and 61 points. Marleau maybe 38, but he still remains a reliable goal scorer after scoring 27 with the San Jose Sharks last season. Look for Kasperi Kapanen to fight for a spot in the fourth line after he played really well late last season and playoffs.
Jake Gardner improved his play dramatically since Mike Babcock took over as head coach two years ago. Gardiner establish a career high with 43 points and improved his defense. Nikita Zaitsev was so impressive during his rookie season that he signed a long term contract for the next seven years. Morgan Reilly still have the potential to be a top pairing and mobile defenseman. Ron Hainsey should play a major role for this youthful blue line. The 36-years-old should help by sharing his Stanley Cup experience with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Frederik Andersen played a career high 66 games during his first full season with the Maple Leafs. He had a save percentage at .918 and four shutouts. Andresen proved that he can be a number one goaltender on any team. Backup Curtis McElhinney should be reliable if Andersen needs a day off once in awhile.
The improved power play made strides after finishing second in the NHL in power play goals. Nylander led the team with 26 power play points while Matthews and Marner each had 21 points. Their penalty killing got significantly better with Zach Hyman leading the way with the most shorthanded goals. Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick logged a tons of PK minutes. While Polak could be back with the team after signing a tryout contract, Hainsey should look to take over in the PK unit.
Coaching and Management
There’s nothing to complain about the job the the Maple Leafs front office done over the last few years. Shanahan was probably the best thing that ever happen for Leafs Nation. He brought in one of the NHL’s greatest head coach in Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello is one tough negotiator as their general manager. Babcock just transformed his team to the absolute worst into the absolute threats in the NHL.
The Maple Leafs are set up to contend for the next decade. While there will be questions as to whether or not Matthews, Marner or Nylander could hit the sophomore slumps. They should come into their second seasons with even higher expectations. Leafs nation saw a glimpse of their potential during their playoff run last year. Now it should be interested to see how far they can reach their potential.
Prediction: Finished 2nd in the Atlantic Division and make it to the Eastern Conference Semi-finals.