The Toronto Maple Leafs will take to the 2015-2016 season with a new coach and a new general manager and they’ll hope to see a reversal of fortunes, but it may not be so simple. The team finished 30 points out of a playoff berth last season, posting a 30-44-8 record with a dismal 8-27-6 record on the road. They scored 206 goals and allowed 257 goals against.
The house-cleaning began with the firing of general manager Dave Nonis and interim head coach Peter Horachek along with assistant coaches and goalie coaches. Then came the hiring of Mike Babcock as the new head coach and the trading of star forward and whipping boy Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins. And then came the hiring of Lou Lamoriello as the new general manager.
Team president Brendan Shanahan definitely has a battle plan and it’s going to take some time for that to come to fruition, which is why fans would be well-advised to maintain their lowered expectations for the near future. He wants to build through the draft and has no intentions of trading prospects or high picks to make the post-season. This is a long-haul plan.
The Maple Leafs struggled enough last season with Kessel in the lineup that you have to wonder where the goals will come from in 2015-2016. James van Riemsdyk is expected to provide the lion’s share of offence. He had 56 points in 82 games last season and can reach that 30-goal mark from time to time. He had nine power play goals and four game-winners, plus he can make some pretty passes.
Tyler Bozak is expected to slot in as the top centre. The 29-year-old had 49 points last season, including 23 goals. Over half of his goals came on the power play. He’s not the most consistent player, but Bozak is capable of some quality two-way play. Joffrey Lupul, meanwhile, has seen a drop in production as of late and will need to pick it up. Unfortunately, injuries have been a problem for the 31-year-old. He could use a bounce-back season.
Nazem Kadri will have a chance to prove himself this season with more of the offensive burden on his shoulders. He had 39 points in 73 games last season, including 18 goals, and he has a nose for the net. The speedy Michael Grabner was acquired in a trade with the Islanders just this past week, with a number of prospects going the other way – including Carter Verhaeghe.
Babcock has been clear about having his Maple Leafs play a defensively responsible brand of hockey and having Lamoriello in the fold will surely help in that regard. With an emphasis on conditioning and performance, Toronto could be in for an entirely new brand of hockey. To that end, having Dion Phaneuf on the frontline isn’t such a bad thing. While he can be inconsistent, Phaneuf is a born leader. He can bring a big hit or a bit shot and is capable of changing a game with either. Sometimes, he’s invisible.
Luckily, Morgan Rielly is coming along. The 21-year-old from Vancouver has been a rare bright spot in Toronto’s last two seasons and he’ll be ready for more. He had 29 points in 81 games last season, including eight goals, and he’s been developing his offensive abilities to the point that he can look like a fourth forward out there.
Jake Gardiner is a smart player and a quality skater. He had 24 points last season and averages nearly 21 minutes of ice time a game. He can quarterback a power play, but he’s not the most aggressive of players. Toronto signed Matt Hunwick after the New York Rangers didn’t re-sign him. He brings a puck-moving style to the Maple Leafs, but he’s not that great without the biscuit.
Toronto signed goalie Jonathan Bernier to a two year deal after a team-elected arbitration hearing and it seems likely he’ll be the top guy, at least for now. He had a goals against average of 2.87 with a save percentage of .912 last season, but he can be a little unfocused at times. Bernier is also stuck on a team that will ensure he faces a ton of shots, but a change in the system can mitigate that.
James Reimer has an opportunity to take another go at it under Babcock. He seemed to wear out his welcome under the old guard and wasn’t given many chances, but it’s a new ball game now. He posted a 3.16 goals against average and a .907 save percentage in 35 games last season, but he kept his cool in the problem areas and made some big glove saves.
Defenceman Stuart Percy is one of the smartest prospects the Maple Leafs have. The 22-year-old Oakville native can move the puck and find the net, plus he’s decent without it and makes few mistakes in his own end. Toronto is certainly looking for a player of his capability and it helps that he didn’t look out of place when he spent nine games with the club last season.
Centre William Nylander is a lot like his father Michael. He has playmaking upside, but some say he’s a better skater and a better player than pops. The Calgary-born 19-year-old is a touch on the small side at 5’11, 169 pounds and he could use some work on his play without the puck, but there’s a lot to like about Nylander’s game.
The Path Ahead
While the changes to the front office were a long time coming, it’s hard to say much about how much this team has changed until they actually take the ice. Toronto is almost a lesser team on paper than they were last season, what with no Kessel to speak of. Fans will have to be patient down the line, especially as the Maple Leafs struggle for their wins and fight for the puck.
The good news is that the future is bright if Shanahan sticks to his guns. There may be lapses, like the Grabner trade, but holding on to this group of prospects and drafting well is a pretty sweet path to take to success. Toronto could do a lot worse at this point. Let’s hope they don’t.