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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Let’s ponder three questions facing the Maple Leafs:
1. When will Mitch Marner sign?
It’s a question that has dominated headlines around the NHL this summer and one still lacking an answer.
Marner’s contract stalemate is an all-too-familiar scenario playing out once again this summer. Last year, went through the same song and dance with William Nylander, an impasse that lasted all the way through training camp and the first two months of the season before seeing a resolution.
With Marner, there’s every possibility that lightning could strike twice and the Leafs could be without one of their stars — their leading scorer for last season no less — for a significant chunk of time.
It’s certainly not ideal, for the Leafs or for the laundry list of restricted free agents who may be waiting for the foot to drop on Marner’s contract before they sign their own. It’s one of the held beliefs this summer, that Marner’s situation has created a logjam-effect.
Marner, meanwhile, already has plans to train in Switzerland if nothing comes to pass before training camp opens up next month. He appears to be in it for the long haul.
And the truthful answer to the question is this: nobody knows.
2. Has the team done enough to improve its defense?
The Maple Leafs have all the talent in the world on forward and Frederik Andersen is a stalwart as a last line of defense.
Toronto’s problems last season weren’t a lack of scoring or quality goaltending — they got both. What they needed was a better blue line.
And Kyle Dubas has gone out re-tooled this summer, adding Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci to a right side that was lacking in the past. The return of Travis Dermott from injury will provide an added boost one healthy. And the team will have a healthy mix of competition vying for the bottom-pairing spots, including Ben Harpur and Justin Holl.
The Leafs have re-worked their coaching staff, too, adding former Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol along with Paul McFarland to Mike Babcock’s flanks.
Is it enough to stop the barrage of shots Andersen grew accustomed to facing on a nightly basis? Time will tell.
3. How long will the leash be on Mike Babcock’s job?
Kyle Dubas said he was ‘all-in’ on Babcock after the team crashed out of the first round in Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins back in April.
Babcock’s stubbornness was on full display, particularly in that final game where the Leafs were trailing and Babcock was throwing out 40-year-olds onto the ice ahead of some of his biggest stars. The move drew intense criticism and rightfully so. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner should be together when the team needs them the most.
[MORE: 2018-19 Review | X-factor | Under Pressure]
Babcock has certainly overseen improvements in his time, but Toronto is no ordinary hockey city and 100-point regular seasons mean nothing without a follow-up deep playoff run.
Babcock has been given new coaches to work with to try and improve where the team lacks the most with its defensive structure. Dubas has also handed him the keys to Barrie and Ceci, giving the team a revamped right side on the blue line.
Another year ending in a first-round exit and the Leafs will likely have to move on from Babcock. Dubas has a job to keep as well, and his lifeline will be installing his own, hand-picked coach before the crosshairs come to rest on his job.
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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