Their youth was apparent some nights, where they couldn't keep the puck out of their own net enough, but it was certainly more good than bad, as they managed to hold the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Islanders back from the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, sneaking their way in and turning no expectations into a very good season.
Unfortunately, sneaking into the last playoff spot meant that they had to take on the best team in the East, the best team in the league, the Washington Capitals, and again to their credit, they really made a series of it. They took the series to six games, losing 4-2 in the end, but it was a sure signal that there is a lot more to come from these kids, as they were able to throw a lot of moxie at the Caps and they could have just as easily had a bounce or three go their way and they'd be the ones losing to the Penguins in the second round.
Nevertheless, as much as the rest of the country may not like it, we are seeing the a pretty good surge coming from the centre of the universe and it could be that way for a long time. Salary cap implications still pending.
The hockey pool draft was quite hesitant on the prospect that the Leafs would be a force in the 2017 season, as there were 10 players picked and it wasn't until the 3rd round, before Matthews was eventually taken. Of course, the hype was starting to grow by Week Eight, as the first swap saw two Leafs picked up, one was a goon pick though. The second go-around saw two dropped and three picked, showing that there was still more to come out of these guys. The Leafs stood pat at the deadline for pool players and they finished with 13 players in total.
It wasn't the rookie sensation to lead the team in pool scoring, however, it was a the goalie that had many more question marks than answers, until the end of the season, that is. Frederik Andersen led the way for the Leafs, picking up 75 points from 33 wins in 66 appearances this year, which is a pretty good turnaround for a guy who got off to a rough & tumble start to the season. Andersen finished strong and was ranked 7th among all goalies in pool scoring, thanks to his enormous workload.
The Leafs had eight forwards in the pool worthiness conversation, which is a pretty good contribution to the top 200 among 30 teams in the NHL. Auston Matthews, James Van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Tyler Bozak, Connor Brown and Leo Komarov are that bunch, four of which were rookies in the 2017 season, a very impressive freshman class. Toronto had the same sort of production from their defense, as they had four of the top 100 in Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, Morgan Rielly and Matt Hunwick, one of which was also a freshman. Given the workload of Andersen, the Leafs back-up goaltending didn't measure up at the end of the season.
What I Said Last Year, At This Time...
There's no question that Auston Matthews is going to be a game-changer for the Maple Leafs, but like Connor McDavid and Jake Eichel last year, they were not immediately changing the landscape of their teams, as there is still a lot to build around these guys on their respective lineups. Nevertheless, with all the celebrations that are planned for Toronto next season, they will want to put an entertaining product on the ice, which they should. Will it win a bunch of games and get the team back into the playoffs right away? Probably not, but that's just with the lineup they'd have from the list above. I would imagine that this team will prep for a big year, hit the free agent market and give Matthews someone to play with. Steven Stamkos, perhaps?
Matthews was certainly a game-changer for the Leafs in the 2017 season, but you could also say that about the rest of the rookie class that the team dressed and they all combined for a fresh flavour that no one in the league expected and they offered up a pretty good season. I didn't say it was impossible for them to make the playoffs this year and I think we're all a little surprised that they were able to turn this thing around so quickly, but for the franchise, that's a very good thing to happen. It might have been even better, that they didn't acquire Stamkos last summer, wouldn't you think?
2018 Pool Outlook
|Nazem Kadri||4.500||Morgan Rielly||5.000||Frederik Andersen||5.000|
|James Van Riemsdyk||4.250||Nikita Zaitsev||4.500|
|Tyler Bozak||4.200||Jake Gardiner||4.050|
|Matt Martin||2.500||Alexey Marchenko||1.450||Kasimir Kaskisuo||0.925|
|Eric Fehr||2.000||Martin Marincin||1.250|
|Carl Grundstrom||0.925||Travis Dermott||0.894|
|Trevor Moore||0.925||Rinat Valiev||0.778|
|Frederik Gauthier||0.894||Connor Carrick||0.750|
The hype train has left the station on the Maple Leafs and the impact could be quite big for all those poolies looking to cash in on this new found talent in their lineup. The roster looks much cleaner than it did at this point in time last year, as a couple of those big lumped contracts have already disappeared and they have been replaced by pool worthy players. Now, it's going to be a matter of how many 1st round picks are these guys going to come up with.
Potential Losses in the Expansion Draft
The Leafs are going to have an easy time at the expansion draft, I'm thinking. Their rookies are all exempt from the draft, so they don't need to be protected and they can protect whichever alignment they want without fear of losing someone of great importance to the overall turnaround of this club. They may want to go the route of 7F/3D/1G, just to make sure they don't lose a kid like Connor Brown, but it would leave a Martin Marincin available or even a Connor Carrick on the blueline. Not huge losses either way, but the blueline is where they need to build now and losing a piece might knock them back a bit.
Free Agency and the Salary Cap
Unrestricted free agency is going to be the best friend of the Maple Leafs and it still has more to give in the years to come. Milan Michalek, Brooks Laich, Stephane Robidas, Roman Polak, Colin Greening and Brian Boyle will all have multi-million dollar contracts coming off the books, but I could see Polak and Boyle coming back, possibly at a reasonable cost.
Connor Brown and Matt Hunwick are the two pool-worthy free agents on their list, the first restricted, the second unrestricted, while Zach Hyman is considered to be a good fringe player and he'll be an RFA as well this summer.
IAccording to CapFriendly today, the Leafs are potentially on the hook for $5.8 million in bonuses and they were snuggled right up to the ceiling this year, so those bonuses will carryover to this year. That's a scary thought. The Leafs will have both Nathan Horton and Joffrey Lupul's contracts to head to the LTIR, if needed, and they likely will. This could be a real struggle for the Leafs, when it comes down to building the roster and it's a story line worth following. They won't be eating much salary, when it comes down to bad contracts, just for gaining assets anymore.
Having played at least six games in two previous seasons has taken away Kasperi Kapanen's rookie status for the 2018 season, but he is still one to watch. Kapanen was playing some pretty good hockey in the Leafs' short playoff run, as he seemed to elevate his game and was on the right end of some winning goals against Washington. It's not a guarantee that he'll see the lineup in the 2018 season, but I would say it's a pretty good bet right now.
Needs at the 2017 Entry Draft
The Maple Leafs still have their 1st round pick this year and it's the 17th overall selection and I think they should also be looking for some of that top end blueline talent, as their stocks there are looking a bit bare down the road. They are the kind of team that would benefit by taking the chance on Timothy Liljegren, who is an offensive specialist, a power play quarterback, who needs to work on his game in his own zone, but that's what time and development is for. The Leafs don't need a new quarterback just yet, but by the time he's ready, they could be shifting players around, due to their cap concerns and he would slide in nicely.
The Toronto Maple Leafs put a lot of eggs in the freshman basket in the 2017 season and it took a lot of teams by surprise. This will not be the case in the 2018 season, as teams will be ready for these guys and there will be better game plans set for them, especially as we go deeper and deeper into the season. Matthews and Zaitsev are the better bets to avoid the jinx, but it isn't a sure thing that they'll have the same seasons in the NHL either, while Marner and Nylander could face the struggles of some, if not larger, expectations, put upon them by the fans and the media. If there was a playoff team in the Eastern Conference that could fall out, it would be Toronto right now, as they wait for this foundation of youth to settle into their roles moving forward.