For the last six weeks, we’ve been taking a quick look at each of the 30 NHL clubs — examining their major storylines, pivotal players and the most important questions they need to answer heading into the 2016-17 season.
Today, we wrap up the series with the Toronto Maple Leafs…
The Toronto Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967. And they’ve only made the playoffs once since 2004, losing their first round series to the Boston Bruins in gut-wrenching fashion that year.
That’s a long drought for such any franchise, let alone one with Toronto’s history. The Leafs are in the self-proclaimed center of the hockey universe, they’ve won a total of 13 Cups and their fans are getting more than a little restless. In short, they have too many resources to be this bad.
That said, things are starting to look up for Toronto. The rebuild is in full effect and, if you subscribe to the theory that a hockey club needs to bottom out in order to completely hit the reset button, well, they just did that. The Leafs finished last in the entire NHL and — more importantly — managed to win the draft lottery over Edmonton and everyone else (mainly Edmonton, though).
The reward was Auston Matthews, giving the organization another building block to add to an already impressive collection of prospects. Except Matthews is different. As a generational talent with the potential to evolve into a true franchise center, he could be a game-changer.
How much longer will the fans in Toronto show patience?
Of course, “patience” is a relative term. For the most part, the fan base in Toronto has put frustrations aside and settled in to accept the fact that this turnaround isn’t going to happen overnight. At least now the Leafs seem to have direction though, and the addition of Matthews only reinforces that belief.
The presence of Matthews could also drive expectations back up faster than the roster as a whole is able to meet them — particularly when coupled with the summer trade that was completed to bring in new No. 1 netminder Frederik Andersen. Even if the Arizona native is as great as advertised right away, he’s still only one player.
Mitch Marner is an undersized, but electrifying prospect with NHL skill and William Nylander has already started delivering on his promise, with six goals and seven assists in 22 NHL games. That’s a young nucleus with exciting upside, but it’s still going to take some time.
NOTABLE SUMMER ACQUISITION
Auston Matthews (via draft)
Landing Matthews was definitely the major piece Toronto needed. The Leafs weren’t quite bad enough to snag Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel in 2015, but they were fortunate that Matthews missed the age cutoff for that draft by mere days. That meant consecutive drafts with truly elite centers available at the top, and prospects like that simply don’t come along very often.
Now all he has to do is change the fortunes of one of the most storied franchises in pro sports. So, no pressure or anything.
Auston Matthews (drafted: No. 1 overall in 2016)
Seeing the pattern here? Marner just lit up the junior ranks, leading London to the OHL title and a Memorial Cup win, while taking home a plethora of individual awards along the way. But he’s still only second-best in one of hockey’s top prospect pools, because of the arrival of Matthews.
BIGGEST CAP HIT
Joffrey Lupul ($5.25 million)
Technically, Nathan Horton carries a $5.3 million hit from the IR, but let’s just focus on the guy that’s playing right now. Lupul brings a lot of veteran experience to the table, and that’s certainly something a young roster like this one needs. But injuries have limited him to 11 goals or fewer in three of his last four seasons.
It’s not like this organization is going to fall into financial ruin by overpaying someone, but they could still use a little more production for the price tag here. Especially since Lupul still has two more years on his current deal.
2017 UFA TO KEEP AN EYE ON
The last time we saw Polak, he was nearly winning a Stanley Cup with the Sharks. And, prior to that, he was being dealt to San Jose by — you guessed it — Toronto. The Leafs surely won’t mind having a big physical presence on that blue line this season, but, assuming they’re not fighting for a playoff spot in February, Polak could find himself getting dealt to a contender again.
Taken seventh overall in the 2009 draft, Kadri’s career has had its ups and downs. And they’ve been well-documented. At 25 years of age, it’s possible he’s just now getting it all together, though.
He led the Leafs with 45 points last season. While those aren’t the sort of numbers that win a scoring title, they’re not a bad baseline either. With all the new talent making its way to town, improved play by Kadri could help push everything in the right direction a little faster.