Pittsburgh Penguins

Maple Leafs ’15-16 Outlook

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After finishing with a 30-44-8 record last season, the Maple Leafs have undergone substantial changes, but none of the decisions made were about getting back into the playoffs in the short-term. When the Maple Leafs dealt Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh, it was a clear sign that they were embracing a rebuild and its 2015-16 roster will reflects the early stages of that transition.

Toronto isn’t likely to enter the season with a lot of promising youngsters on its squad, but that will come later. For now, the Maple Leafs have signed veterans that can serve as placeholders like Shawn Matthias and P.A. Parenteau to give the top prospects time to develop properly. Matthias and Parenteau are only inked for one season and both might be traded at the deadline for picks or prospects to continue the Maple Leafs’ long-term goals.

Other veterans like Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, and Tyler Bozak might also end up being dealt either before the season or at the deadline. In addition to providing the Maple Leafs with more assets, moving them would also increase Toronto’s chances of ending up with projected 2016 top pick Auston Matthews.

Meanwhile, Toronto has undergone a massive transformation on the management side as president Brendan Shanahan is now supported by GM Lou Lamoriello and coach Mike Babcock, which provides the franchise with the experience to see this rebuild through to the end. That’s a new thing for Toronto because while the franchise has barely seen any playoff actions since the start of the salary cap era, that hasn’t previously led to the Maple Leafs fully embracing a long-term rebuilding effort.

In fact, trading Kessel is the perfect symbol of the philosophical shift, not just because of what he represented now, but also due to the context of his acquisition. When Toronto got him back in 2009 for two first-round draft picks, it was a sign that then GM Brian Burke wanted to move forward without a traditional rebuild. That didn’t work, so now a new group is trying a different, more patient approach.

Maple Leafs’ biggest question: Who will follow Kessel out the door?

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When Phil Kessel was traded, Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan called it a “recognition” that “what we’ve been doing here, and the group that we’d assembled here, wasn’t getting the job done, and it wasn’t good enough.”

But for all that Kessel was criticized during his time in Toronto, he was only one piece of the core that “wasn’t good enough.” Hence, the trade speculation that continues to surround Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, and many others.

Basically, if you played for the Leafs last year and your name isn’t Morgan Rielly, if you’re still on the roster, you may not be for long.

Unfortunately for the Leafs, it’s not a great time to be dumping salaries. They had to eat part of Kessel’s contract to move him to Pittsburgh. They’d likely be asked to do the same in any swap involving Phaneuf, Bozak, or Lupul, the latter of whom may be untradeable, period.

And remember that a team can only retain the salaries of three players. Kessel is on the books through 2022. Carl Gunnarsson is on there (for a paltry $200,000) through next season.

In addition to the veterans, there’s the younger guys like Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, and Jonathan Bernier. They still have to show management that they can be part of the long-term solution.

To illustrate, here’s what Mike Babcock said when Kadri re-signed for one year: “I expect him to be an elite player. He gets to come in and have a heck of a year and put the screws to us.”

Gauntlet: thrown down.

A youngish player like James van Riemsdyk isn’t safe either, even after leading the Leafs with 27 goals last season. The 26-year-old has three years left before he can become an unrestricted free agent. So, do the Leafs envision him re-signing? Because the way they’re talking, he’ll be closing on 30 when the team is ready to start contending.

“We are here to build a team that is capable of winning a Stanley Cup. There are no shortcuts to go around doing that,” said Shanahan.

“We’ve got to build this thing the right way, through the draft, with prospects. Sometimes that might take a little bit longer.”

In the meantime, expect the Leafs to be active on the trade front, as it’s out with old core and in with the new.

Related: Wings reportedly no longer interested in Phaneuf

Poll: What’s the best reason for optimism in Toronto?

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For the last decade or so, Toronto Maple Leafs fans haven’t had much to feel good about.

Some even called last season the worst in franchise history, which is saying something if you followed this team in the ’80s.

But after all the pain and shame, there’s hope that rock bottom has finally been hit.

A new management team lead by Brendan Shanahan now features Hall of Fame GM Lou Lamoriello, who’s supported by young analytics whiz Kyle Dubas and well-regarded talent evaluator Mark Hunter.

And of course there’s a new coach in Mike Babcock. Assuming he didn’t just take the job for the money, if Babcock feels the Leafs are worth risking his reputation on, that has to be a good sign, no?

All that losing has also gifted the Leafs some blue-chip prospects. In the last four years, they’ve drafted defenseman Morgan Rielly fifth overall, forward William Nylander eighth overall, and forward Mitch Marner fourth overall. In June, Marner was one of nine Toronto selections, including five in the first three rounds.

Finally, the trading of Phil Kessel was clear-cut proof that the Leafs were serious about going in a new direction. More veterans are expected to follow Kessel out the door, as management dismantles the core that failed so famously in hopes of assembling one that can win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1967.

OK, time to vote:

It’s Toronto Maple Leafs Day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Toronto Maple Leafs.

Going into the 2014-15 campaign, the Maple Leafs were trying to end a disturbing trend of late season collapses and…in a way they succeeded.

Toronto got off to a 19-9-3 start, but there were already warning signs of what was to come as the Maple Leafs had suffered two embarrassing blowout losses to the Buffalo Sabres and Nashville Predators earlier in the season. On top of that, the Maple Leafs were struggling from a puck possession perspective even at their height as they had the fourth-worst five-on-five Corsi in the league (45.5%) through Dec. 17.

It seemed like it would only be a matter of time before the other shoe dropped, but the degree to which they collapsed was still stunning. It started with a three-game losing streak from Dec. 18-21 where they were outscored 15-5. By Jan. 6, Toronto had lost seven of its last nine games, prompting the Leafs to fire head coach Randy Carlyle.

At the time, new bench boss Peter Horachek was inheriting a team that still seemed salvageable as it had a 21-16-3 record, but the Maple Leafs only won nine of 42 games under him. During his tenure, they scored just 79 goals, putting them behind every team in the league except Arizona over that span.

The Maple Leafs finished with a 30-44-8 record, their worst of the salary cap era, which says a lot given their lack of success since the system started. But still, the collapse started on Dec. 18, so it wasn’t late season. So there’s that.

Off-season recap

After that disastrous season, team president Brendan Shanahan set out to change the culture of this team. Leafs GM Dave Nonis was fired along with Horachek and replaced with Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock respectively.

Toronto also pushed its rebuild forward by trading Phil Kessel, Tim Erixon, Tyler Biggs, and a conditional second-round draft pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for prospects Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington, as well as a conditional first rounder, a third round pick, and Nick Spaling.

On the free agent front, the Maple Leafs added a slew of veterans to short-term contracts including Shawn Matthias, Mark Arcobello, and P.A. Parenteau to help fill out the roster during the transitional period.

Canucks ink Brandon Sutter to five-year, $21.875 million extension

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The Canucks believe recently acquired Brandon Sutter is a “foundation piece” and now they’ve ensured that he’ll be spending his prime years with the team.

Vancouver announced that Sutter has agreed to a five-year, $21.875 million contract extension. He still has a season remaining on his two-year, $6.6 million deal, so Sutter is now under Vancouver’s control through 2020-21.

Sutter, 26, is a two-way center that scored 21 goals and 33 points in 80 contests with Pittsburgh last season while playing primarily on the Penguins’ third line. He has 98 goals and 185 points in 495 career games.

The Canucks acquired him on July 28 along with a third-round draft pick in exchange for forward Nick Bonino, defenseman Adam Clendening and a second-round pick.

In Vancouver, Sutter is projected to play on the second line so that 20-year-old Bo Horvat is facing less pressure.