Monday Mailbag: Let’s Get Swedish

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The Toronto Maple Leafs were my favorite tire fire this past season, so I actually probably watched more Leafs games than any other team I wasn’t covering. So, to give everyone an opportunity to get to know me, my stance on the Leafs, and exactly why we could all use a bit more Swede in our lives, I’m taking over the mailbag this week. Let’s take a look at what you threw my way:

@asmae_t: will Mike Babcock be able to fix the hot mess that is Toronto?

I don’t see why not. For years now, the Leafs have fallen short of their own expectations on paper – and eventually, the missing piece has to lock into place. I think that’s going to start with the right coach in the right system. 

Mike Babcock brings two things to Toronto that were missing before: a system that caters to showcasing players that don’t necessarily offer the all-around talent package, and an overwhelming sense of respect from those both playing at watching the game. I doubt you’ll hear as many Leafs fans criticizing Babock for painful moves simply because of who he is – and I’ve got a lot of faith in his ability to take the strengths each player brings to the table and use them to both thrive personally and mask the weaknesses of other players.

That being said, it’ll take Babcock making some adjustments to the lineup for his system to click. If the Leafs keep sending out a top line with three of the league’s least defensively responsible forwards, Jesus Christ himself could coach that team and they’d still continue to lose. 

@M_burke42: take your pick: who’s more likely to be on the Opening Night roster, Phillip Kessel or Dion Phaneuf?

Uh, neither?

Nah, at this point it looks more like Dion is the more likely of the two to stick around. The blue line free agent class is offering some seriously slim pickings on the back end, though, so if the Leafs can get a considerable return via trade it’s within their best interest to move Phaneuf over the summer. 

@FranklinSteele: Let’s talk reasonable expectations for William Nylander. What does his 2015-16 season look like? 

That’s all going to hinge on who – and, heck, even where – the team drafts. The Maple Leafs, from where I’m standing, are ill-advised to come out with a clear, confident prediction regarding where Nylander will be next year before the draft, free agency, and training camp. 

Let’s say you draft Noah Hanifin. You hope he stays at B.C. an extra year (although you risk him losing another piece of his soul for every year he stays there, so good luck with that), but what if he wants to go pro immediately? If he’s good enough to make the opening night roster, you probably play Nylander up with him. If you get Strome or Marner? Probably keep Nylander in the AHL another year, especially if you want to see how well he can lead the next group of guys – sans Andreas Johnson, who seems destined for a final year in Sweden. Johnson is a dark horse that many likely forgot about as a possibility for the lineup in as soon as two or three years, but he was very good for a high-profile club in Sweden last year. If you have the opportunity to play your Swedes to their best advantage, it’s silly not to make that happen. 

Of course, it’s also silly of me to act like there’s no flexibility between the NHL and the AHL. Nylander, the Scandinavian Prince here to save Toronto from itself, had more than a few moments during the AHL season where he made the competition look absolutely silly. If it looks like the Leafs are on a losing streak and he struggles in a top six role at the NHL level, though, there’s nothing wrong with time in the minors to log heavy minutes and play in top six situations. Putting your William Nylanders in with your fourth line grinders is how you ruin hockey players. 

Babcock and Shanahan seem like they’ll make the right choice, but this is Toronto- so realistically, expect to see him on a line with Tyler Bozak next year. (I’m mostly kidding).

@MCHisTweeting: Does Leipsic see NHL time this year? Was impressive at Preds camp and at AHL level all season. 

Like with Nylander, where he plays next year will be as much on how the team is composed as it will be how well he plays. Putting your best young talent on the ice for a losing season, as the Edmonton Oilers discovered with Leon Draisaitl last year, is a good way to piss off your supporters and potentially stunt growth. 

That being said, Leipsic seems like he’s going to be a holy pain in the ass to play against. If he does well at training camp, his style and efficiency could make him useful on an NHL roster by next season. 

@thejustinfisher: Why in God’s name did you agree to join the TLN staff?

First, Justin, ‘the TLN staff’ is redundant. TLN stands for ‘The Leafs Nation’. 

Second, that’s easy. 

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@SeanTierneyTSS: If you’re only keeping one Leafs player for the long haul of the rebuild, who is it? 

When I first read this, my only response was ‘Morgan Rielly, ya idiot.’ Then I thought about it. 

Assuming we’re talking only about bona fide NHLers with experience at the moment, Rielly is likely my choice – but it’s extremely hard not to wonder what Jake Gardiner would look like with the right supporting cast. I was shocked that Team USA played him as little as they did, although there was a sense that Todd Richards was pairing skaters who would play together in the regular season if possible – which gave Connor Murphy and John Moore reason to skate together over Gardiner. 

I was still pleased with Rielly as my answer, though, until I thought about Joffrey Lupul – who I think is always given the short end of the stick. Dude broke his foot tripping over what basically amounted to air and some loose equipment during practice this year. Hard not to feel bad for him. 

Although I would still trade him, though, thinking about Lupul made me realize that I hadn’t even considered whether or not to protect Nazem Kadri. Hard to imagine a deal sending him out of Toronto wouldn’t cause an uproar – especially with such a talented young cast coming up behind him.

It’s tough to pick just one, so I’m ignoring your question and giving you two guys to hold on to. Kadri and Rielly. 

@rascalgas: Would Leafs fans have been happier if the Sabres won the draft lottery instead of the Oilers? 

Come on. Everyone would have been happier. Edmonton winning the lottery was dumber and more surprising than the mumps outbreak this year.