The Maple Leafs' rebuild continues and another last-place finish is very likely, but this year, thanks to an injection of young talent, they will improve, and be fun to watch.
THN is rolling out its 2016-17 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of 2015-16 overall finish, until the start of the season. We start with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who finished in 30th last season.
THN's Prediction: 8th in Atlantic
Stanley Cup odds: 90-1
Key additions: Auston Matthews, C; Matt Martin, LW; Nikita Zaitsev, D; Roman Polak, D; Frederik Andersen, G; Jhonas Enroth, G
Key departures: P-A Parenteau, RW; Jonathan Bernier, G; Michael Grabner, RW; T.J. Brennan, D
-Who is Toronto’s No. 1 center? Technically, it’s going to be Nazem Kadri again. Yes, highly vaunted rookie Auston Matthews arrives, but he’ll need to be protected at least somewhat, just as Buffalo has Ryan O’Reilly for Jack Eichel. Kadri has been playing some of the toughest competition and coming out with good possession numbers, so really, nothing will change. But make no mistake: in a year or two, Matthews takes over. If his World Championship performance with Team USA was any indication, you basically just have to tell Matthews when it’s time to take over a team and he’ll do it. Must be nice.
-What is the next step for Morgan Rielly? Toronto’s best defenseman at 22, Rielly plays tough competition and drives possession. His offense is pretty decent for a blueliner, but the next mission will be to kick it up another notch. The Leafs were starved for scoring last year, and the power play was a drag. Rielly had eight points with the man advantage. He’s capable of improving on that, and once he does, his totals will be more in line with what they should be. Breaking 40 points should be the goal to begin with.
-Is Frederik Andersen the answer in net? He could be, but don’t expect too much this season. The Maple Leafs may have landed Matthews, but they’re still in the midst of a rebuild that will see them take on more water before the leaks get plugged. Anaheim was a slightly better possession team than Toronto and gave up fewer shots against, so Andersen will be busier. Plus, he'll coming off an injury sustained at an Olympic qualifying tournament. As long as he doesn’t take this year’s stats personally, the workload could help him in the long run.
Player projections are based off a three-year version of Game Score (which you can read about here) weighted by recency and repeatability and then translated to its approximate win value (Game Score Value Added or GSVA). Team strength was derived from the combined value of every player’s GSVA on a team. The season was then simulated 10,000 times factoring in team strength, opponent strength and rest.
There’s a lot of pessimism surrounding this team, which is fair because, well, they were the worst team in the league last season, but Toronto will be much improved this season. The Leafs were one of the unluckiest teams last season thanks to abysmal shooting and save percentages, both of which should bounce back this season. The latter should especially improve with the addition of former Duck goalie Frederik Andersen.
There’s also a huge injection of talent coming into the lineup that should boost them higher up the standings. James van Riemsdyk missed half the season last year and his presence alone should be enough to provide a spark. Then there’s the big three prospects who likely make their full season debuts for the team. The trio is oozing with a dynamic offensive skill-set that was sorely missed last year.
Based on his limited NHL playing time, Nylander looks to make the biggest projected impact of the three, and on the team for that matter. He only played 22 games, but it was enough to impress this model into believing he’s already a first line talent. The other two don’t have any NHL experience, so their impacts were based on their projected points combined with the average Leaf forward’s possession driving ability. (Projected points were based on a combination of NHLe and our own Poolbook’s projections.)
Based on that method, the Leafs likely have three of the top five rookies this season with their combined impact being worth roughly seven standings points. (NHLe for players from the Finnish league are usually low so that skews Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and Sebastian Aho lower than expected).
It’s a lot to expect out of three kids, none of whom can even drink at a bar during any road trips to an American city, but these aren’t three ordinary kids. The Leafs still won’t be a good team – especially considering their putrid defence core – and there’s still plenty of pain on the horizon, but there’s plenty of reason for optimism too. This team could surprise this season, although a lot depends on what the lineup actually looks like. They likely won’t repeat as the league’s worst team, but a bottom five finish is still probable.
Up next: Edmonton Oilers