Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.
49-26-7, 105 pts. (3rd in the Atlantic Division, 4th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in seven games to the Boston Bruins, first round
James van Riemsdyk
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Let’s start this off by quickly recounting last season’s Toronto Maple Leafs.
– Won some games
– Made the playoffs
– Got ousted from the playoffs in the first round
– Wallowed in offseason mode for a while
– Signed John Tavares
– Won the offseason
Do Toronto fans really care about last season at this point?
Call it a B.C. vs. A.D. sort of thing, only its B.J.T. and A.J.T. in this case (Before John Tavares and After John Tavares, for those not following the dating system bit).
He may not be the Messiah, nor the second coming, but signing John Tavares after a drawn out courting period instantly turned the Maple Leafs into a contender, and proved new general manager Kyle Dubas certainly has the chops for the gig he’s earned.
[Maple Leafs Day: Under Pressure | Breakthrough | Three Questions]
The Leafs were already a damn good hockey team beforehand, filled with young talent with the likes of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Adding a veteran superstar in John Tavares only sped up Toronto’s velocity as they make their ascent to the top of the league.
In terms of the season, Toronto’s Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in the first round was disappointing after allowing four goals in the third period to lose 7-4. A bitter pill to swallow, surely, but also a valuable lesson for a young team on how difficult it is to close out a playoff series.
Toronto shut down in that third period, and they’ll need to learn to handle the ebbs and flows of playoff hockey, and not let the lows get as low as they did in that final frame.
Of course, last season was a giant leap forward for the Maple Leafs, at least in the regular season, where Toronto set a new franchise record with 49 wins and 105 points.
The playoffs were essentially the same story as the year before, losing in the first round, only that time to the Washington Capitals. Matthews lost his way in the series, getting just a single goal and a single assist in the series against the Bruins. And that Game 7 performance by Jake Gardiner was, well, horrible.
But it wasn’t all on Gardiner. Their defense in the series was poor all around, and depth at that position is an over-arching concern as the Leafs roll into the new season. Improving on the back end would certainly help their goaltending out, too. Frederik Anderson saw enough shots all season for two starting goaltenders, and his .896 save percentage in the first round wasn’t good enough.
The Maple Leafs have already ripped off the rear-view mirror though. They went big with Tavares and now have some of the loftiest expectations in the NHL. It should be an exciting season in The Six. Perhaps that 51-season Stanley Cup drought could be nearing an end.
Now, how are they going to fit Nylander under the cap?
• Travis Dermott, D, 21, Toronto Marlies (AHL) – 2015 second-round pick
An improvement on defense is what the Maple Leafs need, and they might have it in Dermott. Smart, two-way, puck-moving defenseman that plays well at both ends of the ice. He played 37 games with the Leafs last season and also helped the Marlies win the Calder Cup, along with being named an AHL All-Star. There’s a lot of hope being placed in Dermott, who could be in line for a top-four spot this season with the Maple Leafs.
• Timothy Liljegren, D, 19, Toronto Marlies (AHL) – 2017 first-round pick
Another defenseman that the Leafs are putting a lot of stock into. Liljegren decided to make the jump from Sweden to North America last year, suiting up with the Marlies. It took him some time to adjust to the professional game in the American Hockey League, but now seems he’s ready to take another step in his progression.
“If you play over here, you have to make fast plays and move the puck quick,” Liljegren told The Canadian Press. “That’s something I developed over the year. I feel comfortable now.”
• Andreas Johnsson, LW/RW, 23, Toronto Marlies (AHL) – 2013 seventh-round pick
Alright, how many seventh-round draft picks have gone on to become Calder Cup MVPs? The answer is out there somewhere (by this I mean I have no idea), but Johnsson is now on that list. Taken 202nd overall in 2013, Johnsson paced the Calder Cup playoffs with 14 assists and 24 points to help the Marlies to the title.
“He’s a special, special kid,” Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe said after the team won the Calder Cup.“He’s taken the long road to road to get here. He’s another example that it doesn’t matter when you’re drafted or even if you’re drafted, you just keep working and the cream rises to the top eventually.”
Time for a shot in the Show.
Related: Maple Leafs should be NHL’s best offensive team
Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck