With training camp officially under way, the dawn of a new Leafs season is upon us. And with that comes time to carefully over-analyze every aspect of the team. Today that comes in the form of this question: what constitutes a successful season for the 2017-2018 Toronto Maple Leafs?
First, we need to remember that the goal of this team is, or at least should be, to win the Stanley Cup year after year after year. That’s the ultimate. Maybe it’s not realistic, but it should be the goal.
It makes sense then, that a successful season for this team would be to continue to build towards that. And for that, by my count six things need to happen this year:
Have the forwards continue to have the front-end talent and depth of a Stanley Cup contender
For starters, every Cup winner needs a first-line center, and notching 40 goals as a rookie means Matthews already fits the bill, or almost assuredly will. And tallying 61 points each, fellow rookies Nylander and Marner also gave strong reason to believe that they’ll provide top-end goalscoring on the wings. So first and foremost, Matthews, Nylander, and Marner need to at least come close to matching their production from last season to provide continued optimism about their ability to be top-flight players.
But you also need depth, and the Leafs also had that, with 7 forwards scoring at least 18 goals last season. The Leafs will also need to maintain that this season, which may be challenging as James Van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak are unrestricted free agents in under a year’s time. So whether the depth scoring comes from them or someone else, the Leafs will need to maintain their depth up front as well.
Keep improving the front-end talent and depth of the defense
Less certain for the Leafs is the defense. Most Cup winners have someone you would call a legitimate #1 defenseman, whether it’s Kris Letang, Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, or someone else. But last year’s Pittsburgh Penguins, for example, didn’t have that, and instead were able to win the Cup simply with six legitimate NHLers.
So the Leafs have two options: either get a #1 defenseman or continue to bolster the depth. Either will do and both are necessary though, as even the team’s best defensemen (Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner) are strong complimentary pieces at best, and the team still has concerns on their bottom pairing, particularly when it comes to who will play alongside Connor Carrick. So for the Leafs to keep themselves on track, they will need to acquire more talented defensemen.
Attempt to upgrade the depth in net
With 66 games and a .918 save percentage last season, Frederik Andersen showed he can shoulder the load as a #1 goalie in the NHL. And Curtis McElhinney played well, boasting a .914 save percentage in 14 games. But let me ask you this: come playoff time, if Andersen got hurt or just wasn’t cutting it, would you be comfortable turning to McElhinney full-time?
You probably answered no to that question, which is evidence of the fact that the Leafs should keep looking to improve their backup goaltending position. It’s become common for teams to roll two goalies in the playoffs. Just take the Penguins last year as an example. With Matt Murray injured, the Penguins needed to turn to Marc-Andre Fleury. who posted a .924 save percentage across 15 games.
Now imagine the Penguins had McElhinney as their backup. Do they still win the Cup? Almost definitely not.
So while the Leafs rightly have confidence in Andersen, I’d argue that the team should do their best to try and upgrade the backup position.
Keep the young talent coming
The Chicago Blackhawks’ constant influx of young talent is a massive reason they’ve been able to stay contenders every season since 2008-2009. It started with their gluttony of draft picks which led to the acquisition of stars like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith, but it also allowed them to overflow with depth in the form of players like Kris Versteeg, Dave Bolland, and Troy Brouwer. And when the time came that the Blackhawks could no longer afford to keep all of those players, they were able to turn those players into other young assets, such as draft picks that turned into players like Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw. The team has also had some good luck with free agent prospects like Artemi Panarin and Trevor Van Riemsdyk.
And when they can’t afford these players anymore, they flip them. And the cycle goes on, and on, and on.
It’s near-impossible to pull off, but the Leafs should try and mimic that practice as best as they can. But really what it comes down to is keeping the young talent coming, not just so that the team has talent, but also so that they can keep themselves under the salary cap ceiling.
So the Leafs will need to keep the young talent coming. They already have Kasperi Kapanen and Timothy Liljegren as two borderline blue-chip prospects, but they’ll need to try and do their best to keep adding to that stable. The easiest way to do that is through draft picks. So for starters, keeping their first round pick in 2018 would be a good idea.
Have at least one prospect emerge through exceeded expectations
Going back to the Blackhawks, the emergence of a guy like Andrew Shaw, who was drafted in the 5th round, is really big. You expect, or at least hope, you’ll draft elite young talent in the first round or two of the draft. And if you can do that, finding diamonds in the rough can really push you over the edge. Of course, the Leafs experienced that themselves last season, when Connor Brown exceeded the expectations of most people when he posted 20 goals and 36 points as a rookie. It would be hugely beneficial for the Leafs if they could have that happen again.
This one comes down to part player development, part player work ethic, and part dumb luck, but names to keep an eye on are guys like Jeremy Bracco, Carl Grundstrom, Travis Dermott, and Yegor Korshkov. If the Leafs can have even one guy like that emerge this year, whether it’s in the NHL or another league, that would be a big deal for them moving forward.
Keep the salary cap situation manageable
The Leafs are fairly tight under the cap, but they’re under it, and seem to be in a manageable position, albeit with long-term contract extensions looming for players like Van Riemsdyk, Nylander, Mattnews, and Marner.
So the Leafs will need to do what they can to keep the salary cap situation afloat moving forward. They will need to make a decision on Van Riemsdyk, and make sure that the contract won’t come back to haunt them if they do sing him long-term. They can also look at extending Nylander before he becomes a restricted free agent on July 1, 2018.
But they will also need to hope that existing longer deals don’t turn sour. For example, Andersen played well last season, but he’s still on the books for four more years at a $5.000M cap hit. If Andersen’s play were to take a dip this year, that contract could become a hindrance.
And of course there’s Patrick Marleau, who some already have pegged as a buy-out or Robidas Island candidate around the third year of his deal, given that he’s currently 38 and making $6.250M. He’ll also need to play well to keep the Leafs in a good salary cap situation.
Of course, the Leafs also have broader coaching and management to worry about to keep things sailing smoothly. Luckily they have Mike Babcock at coach, so there’s no reason to worry there. The team will have to eventually address the general manager role though, with Lou Lamoriello’s contract expiring next summer. That seems like more of an offseason priority though, at least from an outsider’s perspective.
All things considered then, the Leafs have several areas to concern themselves with, most of which seem manageable. So if the forwards can continue their dominance, if the team can improve the defense mid-season, if they can look at improving the goaltending position, if they can hold onto and their develop their young talent, and if they can continue to keep the salary cap situation manageable, they should continue to build from playoff threat to Stanley Cup threat. And if those things happen, the team will have had a successful season.
Of course, they could always just win the Stanley Cup this year. That would make things a lot easier.