After a year defined by its predictability (Toronto’s brass warned of "pain" and they delivered), this year’s Toronto Maple Leafs offer significantly more intrigue, matched by an air of uncertainty. Nobody seriously expects the Leafs to become a contender, but a forthcoming infusion of youth and the return of a healthy James van Riemsdyk offer hope for more success than the 2015-2016 campaign produced.
Defensively, the team also welcomes a relative unknown in top KHL defender Nikita Zaitsev, who has thrived in international competition for Team Russia. In net, two new faces give the Leafs a fresh look, but there’s no guarantee Frederik Andersen and Jhonas Enroth will offer better goaltending than James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier otherwise would have. Still, despite the uncertainty, the Leafs appear to be heading in the right direction and there should be quicker adaptation to Mike Babcock’s structure and systems than there was in his first season with the team last year.
Can these Leafs climb out of the basement?
How will the kids fare?
Can the new goalie tandem carry the workload?
BEST CASE SCENARIO
Any best-case scenario for the Leafs will stem from the success of the team’s three top prospects. Moving forward, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander will have the biggest impact on whether the team performs well, and that will be true even in their rookie seasons this year. Frederik Andersen proving he can be a starting goalie in Toronto will also be a factor, and all of James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and Nikita Zaitsev will have to play well to round out the Leafs’ core, but Matthews, Marner and Nylander are the only players who can exceed expectations enough to make a real difference.
If the Leafs’ young trio can all take on starring roles, and one or two of them can work their way into the Calder Trophy conversation, the Leafs have the chance to be better than people anticipate. They might even make the playoffs (*GASP*)!
WORST CASE SCENARIO
Having a crack at projected first overall pick Nolan Patrick wouldn’t be a bad thing for a team like the Leafs, but they’ll be looking to take steps forward this season. If the Leafs finish 30th again, which is entirely possible, it will likely be because the youth struggles to transition and Andersen can’t carry a 60-game workload at an above NHL average level.
From a coaching standpoint, while it’s clear Mike Babcock plays an effective system, his over reliance on a handful of weak, aging veterans could also prove costly. If the likes of Matt Martin, Roman Polak, and Matt Hunwick play too high in the lineup, it could hurt the development of some of the more talented younger players. These first few years of their NHL careers will be key in turning them into dominant players when the Leafs arrive at a window to compete. Babcock and company can’t afford to waste those years.