With the start of the regular season less than a week away, we continue to look at each team’s offseason and preview the upcoming year. Today, we focus on the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Last Season: 29-42-11 record (69 points), 8th in the Atlantic Division.
Key Newcomers: W Matt Martin (UFA, NY Islanders), C Auston Matthews (draft, NLA), RW Mitch Marner (draft, OHL), D Roman Polak (UFA, San Jose), G Frederik Andersen (trade, Anaheim), G Jhonas Enroth (UFA, Los Angeles), D Nikita Zaitzev (UFA, KHL), W Kerby Rychel (trade, Columbus)
Key Departures: RW P.A. Parenteau (UFA, NY Islanders), RW Brad Boyes (UFA, unsigned), RW Michael Grabner (UFA, NY Rangers), C Shawn Matthias (UFA, Winnipeg), C Mark Arcobello (UFA, NLA), G Jonathan Bernier (trade, Anaheim)
[Related: Leafs Depth Chart from Roster Resource]
Players To Watch: C Mitch Marner – Obviously, one of the biggest storylines this year will be first-overall draft pick Auston Matthews and his ascension to the number-one center position on the Maple Leafs. Not to be forgotten however, is the other top-five draft pick that the Leafs have yet to unveil: Mitch Marner. Marner is coming off a season where he basically won every team and individual trophy possible, leading the OHL’s London Knights to the Memorial Cup and scoring 160 points in 75 total games (regular and post-season).
The diminutive forward played some center in junior, and was once expected to take that position on the Maple Leafs. Now that Matthews is in the fold though, the Leafs have been playing Marner on the wing to fully utilize his elite offensive skills. In fact, for the last two days at least, Marner has been skating beside Matthews on what would be one of the youngest lines in the NHL regardless of the third player.
D Nikita Zaitsev – One of the most underrated signings of the offseason may come in Leafland, as Nikita Zaitsev will make his NHL debut this year after a number of successful seasons in the KHL. The 24-year old has already completed seven seasons in the Russian professional league, starred internationally for Russia and even made his Toronto debut in the recent World Cup. His right-handed shot fits in nicely with a group sorely lacking them, and should immediately jump to the Leafs top two pairings (depending on if Morgan Rielly moves back to his natural left side or not).
Zaitsev is an all-around blueliner who can work in both ends of the rink, and contribute on both special teams. While he may not possess any one elite skill, he’s proven that he can compete at the highest level. Already turning heads at Maple Leafs camp, Zaitsev scored his first preseason goal against Montreal on Sunday night and, according to Chris Johnston of Sportsnet, should already be considered part of the Leafs’ core.
While the Maple Leafs were clearly headed for the basement of the league last year (some would say on purpose), this year has a slightly different feeling in Toronto. While they’re not expected to make the playoffs or contend for any trophies, the youth injection is exciting enough to hope for a much improved club. With head coach Mike Babcock in no danger of losing his seat, the team can take a slow approach to development and shelter their young prospects.
In truth, the Leafs brass are just hoping for a slightly improved season, but will hope for another high draft pick to continue the rebuild. If they were to select in the top-10 once again, they could add another top prospect to their stocked cupboard, and focus on the free agent market next summer. With cap room, a hugely experienced front office and youth at all positions, the team is poised to succeed in the near future; whether that means contention for the Stanley Cup remains to be seen.