Toronto is currently swept up in Blue Jays fever, with the Toronto baseball club sweeping the Texas Rangers en route to the American League Championship Series, so it’s rather excusable that the start of the NHL season doesn’t exactly seem like a priority right now. But here we are, it’s Opening Night Eve, with the Maple Leafs heading to Ottawa to partake in the first Battle of Ontario of the 2016/2017 season tomorrow night.
It’s no secret to anyone that watches hockey that the storied Maple Leaf franchise has fallen upon hard times in the last decade, following a relatively successful pre-2005 lockout period that saw two Leaf squads make the Eastern Conference Final under the tutelage of the late, great Pat Quinn.
Since then, we’ve seen exactly one Leafs team make the playoffs, during the lockout shortened 2013 season, which every Leafs fan knows ended in spectacular heartbreak. The team was dismantled, coaches fired, GM’s let go, star players, fan favourites and captains either bought out, forced into the minors, long-term injured reserve or retirement, traded, or let go in free agency. A new braintrust featuring Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello, Kyle Dubas, Mike Babcock and Co. was assembled, and a full-blown long term rebuild was set to commence.
Well, here we are. It’s officially Year Two of “The Rebuild” and we’ve seen the Leafs move on from virtually everyone from their past teams, with Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly being notable exceptions. That trend continued this off-season, with the following players who appeared in at least one game with the Leafs last year no longer in Toronto’s plans whatsoever:
Jonathan Bernier —> Anaheim Ducks
James Reimer —> San Jose Sharks —> Florida Panthers
Scott Harrington —> Columbus Blue Jackets
Stuart Percy —> Pittsburgh Penguins
Dion Phaneuf —> Ottawa Senators
T.J. Brennan —> Philadelphia Flyers
Shawn Matthias —> Colorado Avalanche —> Winnipeg Jets
Daniel Winnik —> Washington Capitals
Sam Carrick —> Chicago Blackhawks
Mark Arcobello —> Bern SC
Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau —> New York Islanders
Michael Grabner —> New York Rangers
Brad Boyes —> UFA
Ben Smith —> Colorado Avalanche
Players joining the Leafs organization this off season include (their means of acquisition in brackets):
Auston Matthews (Draft)
Matt Martin (FA – New York Islanders)
Roman Polak (FA – San Jose Sharks)
Seth Griffith (Waivers – Boston Bruins)
Jhonas Enroth (FA – Los Angeles Kings)
Frederik Andersen (Trade – Anaheim Ducks)
Kerby Rychel (Trade – Columbus Blue Jackets)
Nikita Zaitsev (FA – Europe)
Joffrey Lupul, Stephane Robidas and Nathan Horton are all expected to be placed on long-term injured reserve to start the season, and there is no reason to expect any of the three to see any action in a Leafs uniform. An interesting note is that with today’s waiver claim of Seth Griffith, Josh Leivo is currently day-to-day and is also expected to start the season on the IR, likely to strategically avoid potentially losing him to waivers, Griffith style.
Late season veteran acquisitions Colin Greening and Brooks Laich were late cuts this training camp and are starting the season with the AHL Toronto Marlies, along with fellow vets Rich Clune and Marc-Andre Cliche, who are signed to AHL deals. Brandon Prust, the old school enforcer signed to a PTO, was also cut today.
So yes, the youth movement and rebuild is definitely in full effect, with the likes of William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, etc. getting their first taste of NHL action late last season, and prized rookies like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Nikita Zaitsev set to debut this season.
Not every young prospect is going to break into the lineup immediately, or necessarily this year at all, as seen with the recent roster cuts that saw Kasperi Kapanen, Brendan Leipsic, Nikita Soshnikov, among others, get sent to the Marlies. However, that’s to be expected, and it’s a great thing for Toronto that they have so many top notch young prospects now that there’s no room for all of them to crack the opening night roster.
For the first time in possibly decades, the Leafs actually have a bevy of good, young prospects, and the future is seemingly bright. This season will have its growing pains, this team is still not expected to immediately contend for a playoff spot, and is still a few years away from serious playoff contention. However, this current edition of the Maple Leafs should be an incredibly exciting and intriguing team to watch and follow, and it will be interesting to see which prospects and vets with something to prove (à la Milan Michalek) sink and which ones swim.
Here are the expected lines for the start of the season, via dailyfaceoff.com.
Captain – none Assistants – Matt Hunwick, Morgan Rielly, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov
LW C RW
Milan Michalek Nazem Kadri Leo Komarov
James van Riemsdyk Tyler Bozak Mitch Marner
William Nylander Auston Matthews Zach Hyman
Matt Martin Peter Holland Connor Brown
LD RD G
Morgan Rielly Martin Marincin Frederik Andersen
Jake Gardiner Connor Carrick Jhonas Enroth
Matt Hunwick Nikita Zaitsev
Scratches: Frank Corrado, Seth Griffith, Roman Polak
IR: Nathan Horton, Stephane Robidas, Joffrey Lupul, Josh Leivo
Season Prediction –
Best Case Scenario:
The rookies, led by Matthews and Marner, perform well beyond expectations, with Matthews ascending to Connor McDavid-level status and Marner becoming Toronto’s Johnny Gaudreau. Nylander, Rielly, and the second tier of prospects continue to develop nicely, the veterans provide steady leadership, timely goals and solid defensive play, and the Leafs squeak into the playoffs, or barely fall short.
Worst Case Scenario:
The rookies stumble out of the gate, the media and fans quickly turn on them and kill whatever confidence and potential for growth they had. The vets underperform and end up getting moved out for a less than idea return. Frederik Andersen ends up being Jonathan Bernier 2.0. Toronto ends up in the bottom five of the league and lose out on the top lottery picks, meaning no chance at drafting Nolan Patrick or Timothy Liljegren.
Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Rielly and Co. continue to develop and spark real fan interest for the first time in years. Steady growth commences and certain vets are moved out for younger assets. Although the Leafs miss the playoffs, they move out of the league basement and the long-term rebuild continues on to year three, with a positive step forward into next season.
There’s still a lot of uncertainty surrounding Toronto as they head into their centennial season, but one thing is for sure. These are NOT the Leafs of previous regimes. Gone is the heavy emphasis on “truculence and tenacity” and in is a more modern take on the game, led by skill, speed, and advanced stats. These young Leafs give Toronto fans a reason to be excited, both for this season and for the future, and that’s more than these Stanley Cup starved fans are used to in recent years.