Toronto Maple Leafs

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:

Under Pressure: Mike Babcock

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When you’re the highest-paid coach in the history of the league, there’s going to be pressure.

When you take over the most valuable team in the league, there’s going to be pressure.

When you go to work under the most media scrutiny in the league, well, you get the point.

Mike Babcock is fully aware that the Toronto Maple Leafs represent the biggest challenge of his career.

“Whether you believe it or not, I believe this is Canada’s team, and we need to put Canada’s team back on the map,” he said upon his much-ballyhooed hiring.

“I love to win. I have a burning desire to win.”

Smartly, he also bought himself some time to accomplish that goal.

“If you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming,” he said. “This is going to be a long process. This is going to be a massive, massive challenge.”

So it’s not like the Leafs have to compete for a Stanley Cup next year. They don’t even have to make the playoffs.

But there has to be some semblance of progress, whether it’s from younger players like Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner, or simply in terms of how the Leafs go about their business.

“Anything that’s been going on is going to get cleaned up,” Babcock vowed at the draft. “We’re going to be a fit, fit team. We’re going to be a team that comes to the media everyday, after a win, after a loss, after practice, and owns their own stuff. Period.”

In other words, the Leafs can’t be a big ol’ tire fire again.

And remember, even with a Stanley Cup and a pair of Olympic gold medals on his coaching resume, Babcock still has his doubters. Not that he’s a good coach — pretty much everyone agrees that he’s a good coach — but that he’s as good as advertised.

The doubters point to the Red Wings team he won with in 2008, headlined by Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, and Henrik Zetterberg. They point to the loaded 2010 and 2014 editions of Team Canada. They say those teams could’ve won with just about any half-decent coach behind the bench.

And let’s face it, they’ve kind of got a point.

But if he can win with the Leafs?

“I’d like to be the best coach in my generation,” Babcock said in a magazine profile before he took the job in Toronto.

That’s pressure.

Looking to make the leap: William Nylander

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Head coach Mike Babcock has predicted that “there’s pain coming” to Toronto, which is pretty much all Maple Leafs fans have known during the salary-cap era anyways. But as difficult as the 2015-16 campaign might be, their fans also have some reasons to be optimistic, with one of the big ones being forward William Nylander.

Taken with the eighth overall pick in the 2014 draft, Nylander is coming off a strong and unusual season. He started with MODO of the Swedish League, but left Europe after scoring eight goals and 20 points in 21 contests. He reported to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies where he added another 14 goals and 32 points in 37 games.

That stint in the AHL was a big test for Nylander. Unlike most freshly drafted players, he already had experience playing against men in Sweden, but this was an opportunity to get used to a North American travel schedule as well as adjust to a more physical style of play.

His success under those conditions certainly helped his cause, but he still has a lot of work ahead of him in order to secure a roster spot with the Maple Leafs. Toronto already has 13 forwards signed to one-way contracts (not including Nathan Horton) and some other forward prospects that should get serious looks during training camp, including Kasperi Kapanen, Mitch Marner, and Zach Hyman. Ultimately, what his physical conditioning is like by the start of training camp could go a long way towards determining how well the 19-year-old will do against that level of competition.

“You don’t worry about his speed, you don’t worry about his skill,” Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas said of Nylander, per the Toronto Sun. “You just worry about him, as you would with any 18- or 19-year-old, being strong enough.”

Perhaps having more time to work on his conditioning will prove to be the best route for him, but Nylander could nevertheless force the Maple Leafs to make some tough decisions.

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.