The Hockey News’ 2018-19 Season Preview series dives into off-season transactions, best- and worst-case scenarios and one burning question for each team in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds.
Stanley Cup odds: 10-1
Key Additions: John Tavares, C; Par Lindholm, C; Tyler Ennis, RW; Igor Ozhiganov, D; Josh Jooris, C
Key Departures: James van Riemsdyk, LW; Tyler Bozak, C; Leo Komarov, C; Roman Polak, D; Dominic Moore, C; Tomas Plekanec, C; Matt Martin, LW; Connor Carrick, D
The addition of John Tavares, the most coveted free agent in NHL history, to a group of already lethal forwards was a game-changer. It pushes the Maple Leafs closer to winning a Stanley Cup than they’ve been since George Armstrong carried it off the ice in 1967. Consider Nazem Kadri scored a career-high 32 goals a second straight season, and he’s the third-line center. That is some kind of depth down the middle. The Leafs also have a promising group of prospects, many of whom led the AHL Toronto Marlies to a Calder Cup, which means plenty of competition for roster spots as well as injury insurance.
Toronto’s defense corps also has skill, but is a little deficient on the defensive side of the puck. But here’s the thing. You don’t have to rely too much on your defensemen when you have the puck all the time, something the Leafs are counting on. Goalie Frederik Andersen was one spot away from being a Vezina finalist, and coach Mike Babcock is among the best out there.
Toronto’s path to the final could see it play four powerhouses – Boston and Tampa in the first and second rounds, the Metropolitan champ in the third round and a Western titan in the Cup final.
Let’s see, how many hell-bent-for-leather goal-suck teams that are defensively challenged have won the Cup in recent years? Zero. Until Toronto plays with more responsibility in its own zone and keeps the puck out of its net at crucial times, this team isn’t going anywhere in the playoffs regardless of its talent.
The Leafs were something of a train wreck in their own end last season, and while Andersen was sensational for stretches, he was also plagued by inconsistency and posted an .896 save percentage in the playoffs. Tavares has MVP ability, but his 37 goals were only one more than the 36 James van Riemsdyk scored before he departed as a free agent. And then there’s Auston Matthews, who suffered through injuries and was invisible in the playoffs against Boston. Against a backdrop of reports of a rift between him and Babcock, it was a disappointing season for him.
Ron Hainsey has given a yeoman’s effort as the team’s best defensive defenseman and penalty killer, but the Leafs are wearing the guy down to a nub. He’ll be 38 by the time the playoffs start. Is another first-round gut-punch in the cards before the Leafs realize they have to fortify their defense?
When does William Nylander return to the lineup?
There are long-term questions facing the Maple Leafs in their quest for the Stanley Cup — how do they patch up the blueline? Can Andersen get the job done in the post-season? Will the kids be more prepared for playoff hockey this time around? — but the most pressing question has to do with the immediate situation facing Toronto and young star winger William Nylander. After back-to-back 61-point seasons, Nylander is, by all reports, seeking a hefty raise on a long-term deal that would put an end to the restricted free agent’s impasse with the Maple Leafs. True as it may be that Toronto has one of the most pure offensive forwards groups in the NHL with Tavares, Matthews, Kadri, Mitch Marner and even veteran Patrick Marleau, Nylander brings another element to the offense that makes the Maple Leafs almost impossible to contain.
Unfortunately, it has been three months without much talk of the negotiations moving forward. Some see a bridge deal as the way to get a new contract in place, others see the Maple Leafs and Nylander working out a long-term pact of some sort and others yet believe the only way this situation concludes is with Nylander leaving town. The latter is the most unlikely scenario, of course, and Toronto will do everything it can to get Nylander under contract before opening night. Reality is, though, that it might take more time than that to finalize a deal.
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ PREDICTION: 2nd in the Atlantic Division. A top-heavy division all but ensures that Toronto will be playoff bound, but getting out of the division come the post-season is going to be much more difficult. The Lightning and the Bruins are certain to stand in the Maple Leafs’ way.
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