It’s time for Mike Babcock to show what he can do with the Maple Leafs. The franchise has been in a tailspin for the past several seasons, but Babcock and Co. will begin the change necessary to attempt to turn Toronto into a winner. Nazem Kadri will have his chance to show he can be a star in 2015-16.
2014-15 Record: 30-44-8 (68 pts.)
THN’s Prediction: 8th, Atlantic Division
What To Expect: After quietly evaluating his club in his first year as president, Brendan Shanahan tore apart the foundation of the Maple Leafs and began building a new one. Out is
Phil Kessel, the face of the franchise since 2009, dealt to the Penguins for prospects. Installed as coach is Mike Babcock, who enters with a winning pedigree and the job security of an eight-year, $50-million contract – the largest ever for a bench boss. Shanahan stunned the hockey world with the Babcock hire and did it again when he recruited Lou Lamoriello as GM. With two hires, the Leafs solidified the brain trust to guide the rebuild. The suit-wearing segment of the organization is set, but the jersey-wearing segment is another story.
The departure of Kessel’s annual 30 goals from the league’s 24th-best offense tells the story of this team’s ability.
Nazem Kadri and
James van Riemsdyk are now the top dogs. Most of the forwards are bottom-six talents who’ll be asked to score by committee. The Leafs picked up stopgap UFAs
Daniel Winnik and
Mark Arcobello, along with
Nick Spaling (Kessel trade). Toronto has also brought in Curtis Glencross on a PTO with hopes he can bring 15-20 goals to the lineup. The D-corps is mostly unchanged, anchored by
Morgan Rielly and
Jake Gardiner. The Babcock influence should see the Leafs play a tighter structure and allow fewer prime chances.
Martin Marincin and
Scott Harrington are new faces competing for depth roles.
Jonathan Bernier signed a two-year extension and is the assumed starter as he seeks to prove himself as a No. 1. Shanahan and Babcock are keen on letting prospects marinate in the AHL, but they’ll have rookie options out of camp.
Connor Brown and
Brendan Leipsic had three of the five-best rookie scoring rates in the AHL last season. The special teams units, both dreadful in 2014-15, will be overhauled. The power play, especially, will have a new identity without centerpiece Kessel. With no expectations for immediate success, Babcock will be afforded the latitude to implement systems and develop individuals.
Best-Case Scenario: As much as Toronto’s fans are sick of the team losing, the Maple Leafs are trying to build a team that can compete in the future. Babcock has admitted that turning the club into a contender will be a process and it could be a long one. Landing a top draft pick potentially gives the Maple Leafs an instant star to start building around. Personal victories — good seasons from Kadri, Phaneuf, Bernier — would be great for the team and help make tough decisions easy moving forward. They want to know what they have to work with before they start adding pieces.
Worst-Case Scenario: It’s tough for the Maple Leafs to have a worst-case scenario in 2015-16. No one is expecting much from Toronto — they’re in rebuild mode and it’s going to be
at least two more years before the Maple Leafs are ready to compete. The worst-case scenario might be the Maple Leafs going on a run late in the season and finishing with a draft pick in the middle of the first round. If they do that, they’re almost definitely out of the running for the first-overall selection. Toronto could use a young star to build around and getting a pick inside the top three could help expedite a rebuild.
Who To Watch: Kadri is coming into this season with the opportunity to become the face of the franchise. He signed a one-year, $4.1-million deal in the off-season as a restricted free agent, which was the organizations way of saying they want Kadri to show them what he can do. After spending last season bouncing between the second and third line, Kadri will almost undoubtedly be the first-line center this season and play alongside arguably the best linemates he has had in his entire career. Kadri is immensely talented. Look no further than his 18 goals and 44 points during the 48-game lockout-shortened season. If he excels in 2015-16, he can stake his claim as a cornerstone player on the new-look Maple Leafs. If he flops, he may have played his way out of Toronto.
What The Numbers Say (by Dom Luszczyszyn):
Click here for more detail on these predictions. There’s no question the Leafs will be bad this season, but it’s possible that many are overstating just how much. The team was dismal in the second half last season, but even if they’re a worse team on paper this season, they should still improve in the standings on the basis that very few teams are true talent 68-point clubs. Losing Kessel will hurt a lot, but the team had a productive off-season where they mostly replaced his absence in the aggregate. What that means for Toronto is that they have a very capable bottom six thanks to new faces like Matthias and Arcobello – one that’s near the top ten in the league – but an extremely lacklustre top-end group that is the second worst on paper.
Aside from Kadri, no Leafs forward is projected to be worth more than one WAR. It should be no surprise that Kadri is rated well considering the components that go into WAR, but just how high might be a bit shocking as he compares well to the game’s elite. What helps Kadri is that his best strengths are the two things in WAR that are most repeatable: offensive shot rates and penalty differential. The Leafs have been clamoring for a No. 1 center since Mats Sundin left, and the numbers suggest Kadri is already there. On the flip-side for shock value is how low van Riemsdyk is. The simplest reason for that is he’s posted some very poor defensive numbers as a Leaf which offsets his offensive abilities. That’s true for almost every player on the roster, though, and it’s the biggest reason for the Leafs weak possession over the past few years. Defense will be the first priority for Babcock and if that improves team wide, this team won’t necessarily be the pushover that everyone sees.
THN is rolling out its 2015-16 Team Previews daily, in reverse alphabetical order, until the start of the season. Check out our ‘Previews’ section to see other team breakdowns.