Did the Leafs actually get better defensively?
The Leafs allowed the eighth-most shots per game in the NHL. They must stop bleeding chances if they want to avoid a fourth straight first-round playoff exit. General manager Kyle Dubas overhauled his squad significantly. Gone from the defense are Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev and (likely) Jake Gardiner, while the forward corps bid Patrick Marleau, Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown farewell. Their replacements – including Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci on defense and Alexander Kerfoot and Jason Spezza up front – suggest Dubas is doubling down on high-skill players who defend by moving the puck rather than leaving opponents black and blue. Will “defense by offense” shrink the shots-against column? It’s a boom/bust gamble.
How much leash does Mike Babcock have left?
The rebuild is over in Toronto, as is the honeymoon. The fan base won’t tolerate another quick post-season defeat. The star-studded core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen needs to legitimately threaten for the Cup with a deep run. If Toronto bombs out in Round 1 again or, worse yet, regresses and misses the playoffs with a roster full of new faces who may or may not gel, coach Babcock’s fifth season with the team will be his last. The Leafs have been consistently strong in the regular season under his watch, but it’s difficult to lose many games with a team that talented, and Babcock’s tendency to rely on graying vets over young studs in clutch situations has drawn plenty of criticism.
Will William Nylander get his groove back?
Nylander’s protracted contract negotiation ended up sapping the energy from his legs once he signed and joined the team in December. He managed a woeful seven goals in 54 games and rarely escaped the third line. Underlying shot-attempt metrics suggest Nylander was better than his surface stats, and his shooting percentage was unlucky. He also dominated for Sweden at the World Championship with an incredible 18 points in eight games. If Nylander carries that momentum into camp and reclaims the first-line right wing job from Kasperi Kapanen, Nylander will rebound massively.
Stanley Cup Odds: 13/1
With Zach Hyman’s knee injury sidelining him to start the season, the left-wing job on the John Tavares/Mitch Marner line is up for grabs. Tenacious Trevor Moore is the most similar option to Hyman, but KHL import Ilya Mikheyev is also a strong contender to get a chance. Toronto’s brain trust is high on him.