The Toronto Maple Leafs went from 30th to the Playoffs last season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs surprised nearly everyone last season my making such a big jump in the standings. Mike Babcock promised us pain, then gave us nothing but pleasure.
The Leafs were also a bit unlucky last year. In the NHL, the team winning after the second period wins around 90% of the time, but the Leafs blew something like 15 games they were leading after two. As bad as they were defensively (second worst in the NHL) they still blew more leads than they should have. Furthermore, they lost nearly the same amount of OT/Shootout games. The Leafs record in extra time (where winning is a coin flip) was atrocious. Their ability to play with a lead and to win after regulation are both going to improve, suggesting an even higher point total than last year.
Where they’ll end up this season is anyone’s guess. I don’t think a Stanley Cup, or at least an appearance in the Finals is out of the question. The Leafs boast one of the groups of forwards in the NHL, they have some cap room, some tradable assets, a decent group of prospects, a pretty good defense and a lower-top-ten goalie.
All in all, there is reason for optimism. The team, as is, is very good. Potentially they could be even better because they added Marleau and will have another year of experience and growth for their young team.
Without further Ado, here are three predictions for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season.
1. The Leafs Win the Atlantic Division
The Atlantic Division is currently the weakest division in hockey. Consisting of the Sabres, Panthers, Red Wings, Bruins, Leafs, Senators and Canadiens, the Atlantic Division is very weak compared to every other division in the NHL. As such, the Toronto Maple Leafs should be seen as heavy favorites to win it.
Like I said, there is no reason this can’t be a Cup Contending team, and I think they could probably even win the Conference. But I’d be willing to guarantee an Atlantic Division title for the first time since it’s been called the Atlantic Division.
The Canadiens won the Atlantic last year with just four more wins than the Leafs (who squeaked into the Playoffs by a single point). They were a non-playoff team bouyed by an insane 10 game winning streak to start the year. There’s no chance that’s happening again.
The Canadiens have a great goalie, a bad defense and a bunch of question marks. It’s questionable whether they improved over last year, but if they did, it wasn’t by much.
The Senators were one of the NHL’s worst teams but rode insanely hot goaltending into a surprise playoff spot. Barring a miracle, they’ll be closer to competing for the #1 Draft Pick than they will for the Playoffs.
The Sabres, Panthers, and Red Wings could all give Ottawa a run for their money in the race to the bottom. The Bruins are old and declining, and the Lightning are banking on the return of Stamkos and a rookie goalie. Not to mention that for some reason they signed Dan Girardi.
Overall, it looks like the Toronto Maple Leafs could potentially run away with the Atlantic Division.
2. Auston Matthews Wins Hart Trophy/Scoring Title
After scoring 40 goals, leading the NHL in even-strength goals and winning the Calder (by six miles) what does Auston Matthews do for an encore?
How about solidify himself as the best player in the NHL not named Connor McDavid? How about win the Hart, Art Ross and Rocket Richard Trophies? I mean, why the hell not?
Sure, he’s going to have some tough competition, but I highly doubt the Calder ends up being the last of his major trophy wins. Matthews has got the talent, and what’s more, the numbers to vastly improve even over last year.
Matthews played less than most players in his scoring stratosphere, including a nearly full minute less power play time. He’s get more time on the ice this year and his numbers will go up.
Also, his play last year wasn’t based on good luck. He was robbed of many assists due to the low shooting percentage of players he played with. He himself didn’t have a very high shooting percentage individually, and if it goes up at all, he’s going to rack up the goals at an insane rate.
Furthermore, last year his PDO was right around 100, making his Expected Goals about the same as what he actually scored. This means there is no reason to think his numbers aren’t sustainable. Add in another year of training, growth and maturity, better linemates, more ice time, and some actual assists, and it’s easy to see how he could completely eclipse his already amazing numbers from last season.
I predict Auston Matthews, like Connor McDavid, wins the Hart Trophy in his sophomore season.
3. Tyler Bozak Gets Traded
The Toronto Maple Leafs longest serving player is going to get traded. A pending unrestricted free-agent, Bozak’s days with the Leafs are numbered.
The Leafs are a team who could use a little salary cap relief, and Bozak makes over a $4 million dollar cap hit. The Leafs are a team with too many wingers. For example, Connor Brown, a 20 goal rookie, looks like he’s going to start the year on the fourth line. That’s not to mention that the team is also considering starting the year without it’s second best defensive forward, and it’s fastest skater, Kasperi Kapanen. And Josh Leivo? Forget it.
In addition to having too many wingers, the Toronto Maple Leafs also have Bozak’s replacement ready and waiting to take over at centre ice. William Nylander is a natural centre who put up a positive shot-differential playing centre for 25 games as a rookie two years ago. In fact, his defensive numbers were better during that stint than Bozak has ever had.
When you consider that Bozak is a terrible defensive player, and that that is the Toronto Maple Leafs main weakness as a team, as well as how foolish it is to be wasting a potentially elite centre as a winger, this move becomes a no-brainer.
The Leafs are going to have the best three centre combo in the league once they are lining up Matthews, Nylander and Kadri down the middle. Moving Bozak will allow Kapanen to get into the linup and the Leafs will be an even better team.
I expected this to happen already, but I predict it will go down before the season starts, since its such an obvious move to make.