Toronto Maple Leafs


by Scott Wheeler

1. Coaching.

You really can’t examine the Maple Leafs for the merits of their roster. With the departure of Phil Kessel, the Leafs have lost considerable star power and a player that drew a ton of attention from top opposing pairings and checking lines. If the Leafs exceed expectations this season, Mike Babcock’s success as a tactician will have a lot to do with it. Babcock is confident in his abilities as a coach, but now it’s time for him to make a tangible impact on the team in a way Randy Carlyle and Ron Wilson before him struggled to do.

And as much as the success of the coaching staff will be linked to Babcock, he’s not the only fresh voice. Notably, Babcock is joined by long-time assistant Jim Hiller and last year’s Memorial Cup-winning head coach D.J. Smith. Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer will also be working with a new goalie coach after the hiring of Steve Briere. Both Briere and Smith are known for being forward-thinking, progressive hockey minds, and the Leafs will need to depend on them if they’re going to be successful. As the rebuild gets underway, it appears the Leafs are in good hands and the players are excited to work with new voices.

2. Depth.

Since the hirings of Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter in the front office, the Leafs have shrewdly targeted cheap rentals lost in the midst of free agency after the cap has flattened out more than expected and teams are left without the money they’re accustomed to having for depth players. All of Daniel Winnik, P.A. Parenteau, Mark Arcobello, Nick Spalling and Shawn Matthias make less than $2.5 million and give Babcock some secondary scoring and the ability to roll four lines.

Brad Boyes earned a contract out of a pro tryout. Last season, Boyes played at a 40-point pace. The Leafs cleared out contracts in order to facilitate their potential signings and acquire Michael Grabner, another enticing depth piece. Martin Marincin and Matt Hunwick may help shore up a shallow group of defensemen more than Eric Brewer and Stephane Robidas did in 2014-15. For those who are successful, their short-term, low cap hits make them affordable pieces at the trade deadline -- where the Leafs will almost certainly be sellers. Without any marquee offensive threats, the Leafs will need to score by committee. All of the new acquisitions have proven to be effective possession players in the past -- a theme under the new Leafs management team.

3. Goaltending.

It may not have proven to be all that much of a strength last season, but Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer have both proven they’re capable of being starters in the NHL. Babcock has given each of them the chance to grab the reins and run with the starting job, insisting that he prefers to have a clear starter instead of a tandem. It should be comforting for the new bench boss to know he has two capable goaltenders, even if they both had down years last season.

It’s no secret that the Leafs haven’t done a good job of supporting their goaltenders in the last few years, and consistent odd-man rushes and heavy 40-shot workloads have been real issues. Last season, the Leafs gave up 33.5 shots per game, second most in the NHL behind the Buffalo Sabres (35.6). If the Leafs can shore up their puck possession under Babcock and effectively play his style, there’s a good chance Bernier and Reimer both have bounce-back years as difference makers for Toronto.


by Scott Wheeler

1. Lack of high-end firepower.

The strength of the Leafs' depth will be partially offset by the loss of Phil Kessel. The Kessel era came and went without the complementary scoring center he needed as it is. Having one pure scorer was already a weakness, now it’s really become an issue. Beyond James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri, the Leafs really don’t have any strong scorers. Kessel created space for his teammates and they’ll all face tougher competition with him gone. Joffrey Lupul and Michael Grabner, both plagued by injuries in recent years, will have to stay healthy and produce consistently for the Leafs to compete.

Even Babcock, with all his bravado, is worried.

"When I added up the goals the other day, they didn’t add up right. I tried to do it again and again, and I didn’t like the outcome. The reality is we’re going to have to find some people to score more goals than I put down on the sheet," he said ahead of training camp.

2. Defense.

The Leafs pairings on the backend are shaping up to look like Phaneuf-Hunwick, Gardiner-Rielly and Marincin-Polak. In recent years, Phaneuf has been forced to play huge minutes with below-average NHL defensemen. If Gardiner or Rielly don’t become the team’s go-to first pairing, and Phaneuf is forced back into his familiar role -- this time with Hunwick -- there could be trouble. Polak hasn’t proven he can be a good possession player and is more of a utility defender than anything else. Marincin has driven possession well on an awful Edmonton Oilers team, but needs to continue doing it. Hunwick isn’t suited for big minutes, and is more of a third pairing defender. Are you seeing a trend?

Under Babcock’s guidance, Gardiner and Rielly will need to be extremely good -- and healthy. If injuries strike, Stephane Robidas and T.J. Brennan aren’t the most exciting depth options on the defensive side of the puck. The Leafs' pool of prospects, despite being their strength, is thinnest on the backend. Stuart Percy is likely the only real candidate for a promotion this season.

3. Bad contracts.

Despite efforts to be prudent with signings, and the move to rid the team of David Clarkson’s contract, the Leafs still have a number of players locked up beyond this season with less than favorable contracts and an inability to move certain players for assets. Bozak is signed for $4.2 million for three more seasons, Lupul is signed for three more years at $5.25 million, Stephane Robidas still has two years at $3 million left on his deal, and Dion Phaneuf is locked up until 2021 at $7 million.

It’s hard to make an argument that any of those players offer fair value on their deals or present themselves as trade-able assets without having to retain salary. On top of it all, the Leafs are paying Tim Gleason, Carl Gunnarsson and Phil Kessel to play elsewhere.


1. Who’s next to go in the rebuild?

2. Is this the year Nazem Kadri becomes the Leafs’ No. 1 center?

3. Who will benefit the most from playing under Mike Babcock?

Get the answers at Pension Plan Puppets.


by Scott Wheeler

Any best-case scenario has to see the Leafs play a season of positively-driven possession hockey under Babcock. Not half a season; a full season clear of being heavily out-shot. The Leafs aren’t serious contenders, but if they can take steps towards improving the systemic problems that have dragged down the franchise, the season will be considered a success. If possession anchors like James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul can break some bad habits, there’s a chance they aren’t horribly out-shot on a nightly basis.

If a ton of things go right, they may have a shot at the playoffs but it’s unlikely. Jonathan Bernier will need to be lights-out good. Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly will need to take leaps forward. Nazem Kadri will need to become the team’s No. 1 center. They will need to stay healthy. There are a lot of things that would need to happen for even a sliver of a shot. A season with decent possession has to be the more realistic goal.


by Scott Wheeler

The worst-case scenario is probably a lot more likely than the reverse. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Leafs near the bottom of the NHL’s standings. In the Atlantic Division alone, the Sabres have added Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane and Cody Franson among others; the Detroit Red Wings have added Mike Green and Brad Richards; the Florida Panthers are young and really talented; the Montreal Canadiens will continue to be good; the Boston Bruins may continue to regress but have Tuukka Rask to lean on; the Tampa Bay Lightning are scary; the Ottawa Senators are mediocre.

On paper, the Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils are probably the only teams in the Eastern Conference that are clearly weaker than the Leafs, and if Cory Schneider plays to his potential he can carry the Devils. The worst-case scenario may not be bad for the team long-term ,though. A better chance at Auston Matthews, Jacob Chychrun and Jesse Puljujarvi in the 2016 NHL Draft may be a blessing in disguise.