Welcome to the opening of the Toronto Maple Leafs 2016-2017 season, otherwise known as Auston Matthews’ NHL liftoff. With a brand new logo and jersey in its centennial season, the Maple Leafs will finally introduce their new superstar in the making on Wednesday night when they visit the Ottawa Senators.
It feels like a rite of passage that to be a Leafs star, you have to torch the Senators. Phil Kessel did it. Mats Sundin did it. So it feels right that the start of the Matthews era takes a detour from the regular Leafs/Habs opening night to open against Ottawa.
This was the dream when the Brendan Shanahan led Maple Leafs ushered in what was to be a rebuild of the ages to finally set right one of the league’s storied franchises. By finishing 30th last season and winning the draft lottery, they got exactly what they were looking for in Matthews.
What sets him apart from prospects like William Nylander and Mitch Marner is that he’s already a great player. Matthews’ contribution with Zurich of the Swiss NLA was just another showing of the stardom he possesses, finishing 10th in scoring playing against men at the age of 18.
Now he has the task of leading a long disgruntled franchise back to the promised land. Mike Babcock says to expect him to start the season on the third line, but holding off on throwing all the minutes at him will be a challenge…
Alongside Matthews will be a plethora of young players in similar situations trying to establish their NHL careers. What was ranked as one of the top prospect crops in the league, first by ESPN, will get the chance to show its might as the Maple Leafs are electing to usher in a full frontal youth movement. It’s plausible that Matthews, Nylander, and Marner could all challenge for the Calder Trophy.
Seven of the players named to the opening day roster had not made their NHL debuts this time last year. Ten of the 23 players come into the season with less than 70 games of NHL experience. This may be a big factor in the Leafs choosing to go with role-defined line combos rather than a hierarchy of best-to-worst. Let’s take a look at the projected lines and their roles:
James van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Mitch Marner
SHELTERED: Mike Babcock is the first Leafs coach to figure out how to properly utilize Tyler Bozak. Lots of offensive zone starts with sheltered minutes against the opposition’s weaker lines. As a result, Bozak posted 35 points in 57 games proving to the world he can exist without Phil Kessel. Expect more of the same this season, in which JVR and a young offensive talent like Marner can benefit in unison.
Milan Michalek – Nazem Kadri – Leo Komarov
SHUTDOWN: Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov were the go-to guys for Babcock in the shutdown role. They can drive play and thwart opposition pressure by engaging in a cycling game. Adding Milan Michalek could be a nice compliment of that style but the jury is out on how much production he has left in the NHL.
William Nylander – Auston Matthews – Zach Hyman
ALL AROUND: Babcock has said Matthews will start the season on the third line. But how realistic is that when he quickly shows he deserves to be among the best players on the team? That’s exactly what he did at the World Cup with Team North America. It will be tough to keep these guys nailed down to minutes that don’t resemble top six usage.
Matt Martin – Peter Holland – Connor Brown
FOURTH LINE MIX: This may be the only line that actually sticks to the fourth line style. It’s the line that will offer a mix of skills with the high pace of Connor Brown, the grinding of Matt Martin, and the two-way balance of Peter Holland. It will also be used to rotate the likes of Seth Griffith and Josh Leivo, two prolific AHL scorers trying to translate their game to the NHL.
Extras: Seth Griffith, Josh Leivo (IR)
Morgan Rielly – Nikita Zaitsev
Martin Marincin – Matt Hunwick
Jake Gardiner – Connor Carrick
Extras: Roman Polak, Frank Corrado
A LOT TO PROVE: The Maple Leafs defense core has the most question marks in the interim and the long term. The forwards may be unproven, but there is a stronger reason to believe a few years from now the unit will look more-or-less the same. That can’t be said about the defense, where the likes of Nikita Zaitsev, Martin Marincin, Connor Carrick, and Frank Corrado have a lot to prove in the NHL. Some come into the season with good track records in lower leagues, namely Zaitsev and Carrick, while Marincin and Corrado have had their ups and downs in the NHL. It’s hard to know what the Leafs will get from this group this season, but it will go a long way in making a decision on their future with the franchise. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner will be relied upon to do the heavy lifting on the ice, and Roman Polak is the veteran leadership presence.
SOLVED BUT UNSOLVED: When Lou Lamoriello acquired Frederik Andersen from the Anaheim Ducks this off-season, it was important for him and the Leafs to include a five-year contract. He may be locked in as their goaltender of the future, but a track record of 153 NHL games is not nearly enough to be convincing that he is undoubtedly the answer. After an injury riddled September and a struggle to make stops in the pre-season, Andersen finding his game will be critical to the Leafs moving forward in this rebuild. Jhonas Enroth is a solid add to be a formidable backup in the NHL.
WHERE WILL THEY FINISH?
At this point in the rebuild, the Leafs are not ready to compete. They will go as far as the youngsters can take them. As they find early success in the NHL, so will the team. As they struggle through growing pains, so will the team.
Either scenario is acceptable, since another high pick in the draft will pay dividends in the future or actually winning games can go a long way as a developing experience.
The contracts and money situation with the team, particularly the likes of Michalek, Colin Greening, and Jared Cowen coming off the books after this season, indicate the franchise is better suited to focus on icing a team with hopes of contention starting next season.
LEAFS AWARDS PREDICTIONS
Here are my predictions for the award winners, Leafs edition:
Norris – Best Defenseman: Morgan Rielly
His first three years in the NHL saw point totals of 27, 29, and 36. What some are pegging as a future Team Canada defenseman, Rielly is improving every year and is poised for a big season. Expect him to easily play the most minutes on the backend.
Calder – Rookie of the Year: Auston Matthews
Nylander and Marner may end up playing in more favourable roles for point scoring success, but Matthews is just too good to bet against. His game is mature enough to have an impact defensively, too. Matthews may not just be the best rookie on the Leafs, but a favourite to win the award league wide.
Selke – Best Defensive Forward: Leo Komarov
There shouldn’t be any doubts who will be counted on as the top shutdown forward. It’s likely Leo is the best option, too. The eye test and the advanced metrics agree that Komarov is a great defensive forward.
Rocket Richard – Goal Scoring Leader: Tyler Bozak
It came to everyone’s surprise how valuable Bozak can be offensively. In the sheltered role Babcock will use him, van Riemsdyk and Marner should provide a lot of firepower to help him tally some goals this season. With his faceoff prowess, expect Bozak to see a lot of powerplay time, too.
Art Ross – Scoring Leader: James van Riemsdyk
People sometimes forget JVR still plays in Toronto. He’s a legitimate first line player in the NHL. Before his season was cut short with a leg injury, van Riemsdyk was on pace to score 60 points on the worst offensive team in the league. With more sheltered minutes and Marner on his wing to start, watch for another big year from JVR.
Hart – Most Valuable Player: Nazem Kadri
I expect him to be the best player this year. Fresh off a six-year extension, Kadri will be counted upon as a “veteran” to get this team through its transition phase. He won’t be sheltered and will play the big minutes. We already know Babcock is a big believer in him.
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