Atlantic Division Season Preview Part 2- Toronto Maple Leafs

In part one of my Atlantic Division Preview, I broke down the Tampa Bay Lightning. Today, in part two, I take a look at my projected second ranked team in the division: the Toronto Maple Leafs. Let’s take a look at their depth chart at each position.

Last season, the Leafs set a franchise record for points and wins. They looked dominant for much of the season. However, for many, the Leafs season was an overall disappointment due to another first round exit at the hands of the Boston Bruins. The Leafs made a ton of personnel changes this offseason. Some were due to salary cap issues, but the Leafs also attempted to add depth defensively heading into the season.

Goalies

  1. Frederik Andersen
  2. Michael Hutchinson
  3. Michael Neuvirth (PTO)
  4. Kasimir Kaskisuo
  5. Joseph Woll
  6. Ian Scott

The Leafs have a bonafide number one goalie in Andersen. Frederik Andersen, in my opinion, is one of the top 5 goalies in the league. Since being traded from Anaheim to Toronto a few years ago, Andersen has been the backbone of a Leafs team that has lacked defensive depth and prowess. At this point in his career, it is safe to say he is consistent and even a potential Vezina Trophy Finalist. Where Andersen has struggled at times is in the playoffs, and many (including myself) think it has to do with the number of regular season starts he gets. The Leafs would like to ease his burden a bit, especially down the stretch.

However, they are still lacking depth at the position organizationally. Hutchinson has struggled to hold on to backup positions in the NHL. Whenever he plays in the AHL, he is dominant and looks like he could succeed at the NHL level, but for some reason, the jump to backup has been a struggle. At 29, he is unlikely to have a career renaissance. He did manage an excellent .914 save percentage last season after being traded from Florida to Toronto when the Leafs ran into injury trouble. The backup role is his to lose.

Michael Neuvirth, the often injured former Flyer, was signed to a try-out contract, and he will look to battle Hutchinson for the backup position. Neuvirth has been an NHL goalie for years now, but he has been injured more than healthy for the past few seasons. If he can regain his form and health, he could be a decent #2 option.

If injuries hit the Leafs, Kaskisuo is likely to get the call. At 25, Kaskisuo has carved out a career as an AHL backup. The Leafs gave Kaskisuo the starting job last year at the AHL level, and he struggled mightily. He played well in a playoff run for the Marlies. However, if the Leafs are in a position where has to play NHL games, then they will be in trouble.

Joseph Woll and Ian Scott are two rookies that will likely split time between the ECHL and AHL and are unlikely to get a call-up. Look for the Leafs to go to the waiver wire or a trade for goaltending depth if injuries necessitate.

Defense

  1. Morgan Reilly
  2. Tyson Barrie
  3. Jake Muzzin
  4. Travis Dermott
  5. Cody Ceci
  6. Martin Marincin
  7. Justin Holl
  8. Rasmus Sandin
  9. Jordan Schmaltz
  10. Ben Harpur
  11. Kevin Gravel
  12. Timothy Liljegren

The Leafs’ biggest hole the last few seasons has been on defense. This offseason, Leafs GM Kyle Dubas attempted to change that, trading away long-term center Nazem Kadri for right-shot defender Tyson Barrie. While Barrie adds much needed depth, offense, and puck movement to the right side, the Leafs still lost Jake Gardiner and long-time veteran Ron Hainsey. Hainsey is likely replaceable from within, but the Leafs will almost certainly feel the sting of losing Gardiner and his puck moving prowess at times.

However, the Leafs have definitely upgraded at this position. Morgan Reilly was one of the top defenders in the league last season. He is unlikely to put up the same offensive numbers as last year, but he should still be a 60 point guy who will play over 20 minutes a night. Jake Muzzin will return as the Leafs’ most well-rounded defender. He will play huge minutes in the top four next season as well.

The Leafs are hoping that Travis Dermott can take another step forward in his development when he returns from injury in November. Dermott has an uncanny ability to move pucks up the ice quickly, even in high pressure situations. The Leafs hope he can be relied upon for top four minutes in his return.

Cody Ceci, a surprising acquisition by the Leafs this past offseason, may also see some time in the top four. Ceci is often a whipping horse in the analytics community because of his poor possession numbers, but he has played top four minutes his entire career in Ottawa. His role with the Leafs will be intriguing.

Martin Marincin, Holl, Schmaltz, Harpur, and Gravel will all fight for positions 6-8 this season. Marincin likely has the upper hand. Leafs GM Kyle Dubas likes Holl, but he was used very limitedly last season by coach Mike Babcock. Schmatlz, a former St. Louis first rounder, has struggled in limited NHL minutes, but has managed to put up decent AHL numbers. Ben Harpur and Kevin Gravel are similar players, both big and depth defenders at best. They may find themselves playing minutes throughout the season, as Mike Babock loves big defenders.

If the Leafs want some younger options on the back-end, they may opt for Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren. Sandin had an excellent first season in the AHL as a 19 year-old and showed excellent speed and two-way ability. Liljegren has played the last two seasons in the AHL and may see some action due to injury, though he is unlikely to be the first call-up. Overall, the Leafs have improved their defensive depth, and they hope the addition of Barrie really helps shape out a decent top four next season.

Forwards

LW C RW
1. Andreas Johnsson 1. Auston Matthews 1. Mitch Marner
2. Zach Hyman 2. John Tavares 2. William Nylander
3. Trevor Moore 3. Alex Kerfoot 3. Kasperi Kapanen
4. Kenny Agostino 4. Jason Spezza 4. Nic Petan
5. Ilya Mikheyev 5. Frederick Gauthier 5. Pontas Aberg
6. Garret Wilson 6. Nick Shore 6. Jeremy Bracco
7. Mason Marchment 7. Kaie Kossila 7. Pierre Engvall

The Leafs were one of the highest scoring teams in the league last season, and that is likely to continue. Matthews and Tavares offer one of the best 1-2 punches at center in the NHL. Both can be penciled in for over 30 goals, and if healthy, Matthews could easily hit over 40.

Alex Kerfoot replaces Kadri as the third line center, and while he is a bit of a downgrade, it isn’t by much. Kerfoot has managed over 40 points a season in his first two seasons in the league, and there is no reason to think that won’t continue in the Leafs’ high flying offense. Veteran Jason Spezza, who could also see some time on the wing, will likely be a powerplay specialist and fourth-liner. He can move up and down the line-up easily. Gauthier did okay as a fourth-line center last season. He has more competition this year, but he will likely stick with the big club in a depth role.

On the wings, the Leafs are loaded on the right side with both Mitch Marner (if he signs) and William Nylander. Marner was top 10 in NHL scoring last season and could find himself in that position again this year, pending the signing of a new contract. Nylander sat out in a contract dispute until December last year and never really looked himself. Look for him to approach 60 points again with regular minutes alongside Auston Matthews.

Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson were excellent as first year full-time Leafs. Armed with new contracts, both could easily build offensively on last seasons’ success. Zach Hyman, the Leafs “energy engine” in many respects, will start the season on the injured reserve, but will likely fill in a top six role once again. Hyman is versatile and can play in all situations.

Depth wise, Trevor Moore, Petan, Aberg, Mikheyev, Shore, Bracco, Agostino, and Garret Wilson will all battle for 3-4 roster positions. Moore likely has the upper hand in this group. He is an elite skater and proved last year he is NHL ready. Petan played limited minutes, but GM Kyle Dubas is a fan, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him stick as well. Mikheyev, a big Russian rookie, may start the year in the NHL as well.

Agostino and Bracco are also intriguing options. Agostino has excellent underlying numbers and could excel in the puck possession heavy system the Leafs attempt to employ. Bracco had over a point per game in the AHL last year and is in need of a new challenge. Of this group, he is waiver-exempt, so he is the most likely to be sent down. Regardless, the Leafs have a plethora of winger depth, and there will be competition aplenty heading into the season.

Bottom Line

The Leafs are a slightly a better team from last season to this one. Similar to the Lightning, anything other than playoff success will be considered a failure in the eyes of both the ownership and fan base. The Leafs have the offense to compete with the best in the league. Their upgrades on defense may vault them into finally getting out of the first round.

However, in a loaded Atlantic Division, facing the Bruins in the first round again is a strong possibility. Leafs fans can hope that Marner re-signs before the beginning of the year and that the Leafs are ready to face any challenges thrown at them this season. Otherwise, Coach Mike Babcock may find himself without a job, and the roster may be in for another overhaul next July.