Boy, is Brendan Shanahan ever a salesman.
When Shanny took over in 2014, talk of the playoffs seemed a universe away. They were going to endure pain. They were going to do things the right way, and they were going to be completely awful.
Until they weren’t.
It started with an impeccable first round resume: William Nylander at 8th overall in 2014, Mitch Marner 4th in 2015, and a can’t-miss first overall pick with Auston Matthews in 2016.
Already boasting a competent offense, the addition of those three launched the Leafs into another stratosphere.
Combine that with an excellent sign-and-trade for Frederik Andersen, and it looks as if for the first time since the early 2000s, the Leafs could be mainstays in the playoff picture.
Offensive Ratings + Depth Chart
Each player will have two ratings: a Current and Potential rating, separated by a comma.
Kasperi Kapanen, for example, is a 4, 1?.
The 4 means he’s currently a fourth liner. The 1? means he has top line player potential but could drop a rating.
Van Riemsdyk 1, 1 – Matthews F+, F++ – Nylander F, F+
Marleau 2, 2 – Kadri 1, 1 – Marner F, F+
Hyman 3+, 3+ – Bozak 1, 1 – Brown 3+, 2
Martin 4, 4 – Moore 3v, 3v – Komarov 3v, 3v
Soshnikov 4, 3+ – Kapanen 4, 1?
James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, and Leo Komarov are all that’s left from Toronto’s post-season date in 2013. And that is no accident.
Look, JVR and the gang were miscast as top line players for the Leafs back then. But they did it; they shouldered the media pressure, faced the opponent’s best players, and put up modest numbers doing so. They even made the playoffs once.
But, these players are just core players. They’re not the franchise players everyone was hoping them to be.
Enter: William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Mitchell Marner.
Bozak didn’t look great as a top center. JVR was solid, but he’s a 25-goal guy (or 30 with an elite offense), not the 40-goal 2nd overall pick the Flyers once dreamed of. Kadri, though skilled, was going to have to shore up his defensive game to truly become a top center.
And now, all of those men have thankfully been demoted. JVR goes from a solid top line winger to an elite second line winger. Kadri and Bozak’s demotions both come with perfect timing, giving Toronto an incredible center composition of Matthews-Kadri-Bozak. Both, might I add, who have played that top line role, and are capable of matching against the opponent’s best. I’m sure Babcock is tickled by that.
The addition of Patrick Marleau combined with the continued support of role players such as Leo Komarov, Connor Brown, and Dominic Moore means that the Leafs have franchise players for their top line, top line players for their second line, and capable checking forwards for their third line.
The offense this team has built is a juggernaut.
Can the rest of the squad keep pace?
Forward Ranking: Second best (2nd of 31)
Defense Ratings + Depth Chart
Reilly 1, F – Zaitsev 2, 1?
Gardiner 2, 2 – Hainsey 3v, 3v
Marincin 3, 3 – Carrick 3, 3
Rosen D, 3
This is where the Leafs’ playoff prospects get a little dicey.
I never thought I’d say this, but the Leafs might miss the departures of Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak (who has been invited to a PTO). The two, I’m sure, didn’t drive much offense. But together they killed 5 minutes of penalties per game and offered stability to the Leafs’ more skilled defensemen.
As this group stands now, it could use improvement.
But 3 pieces, namely Morgan Reilly, Nikita Zaitsev, and Jake Gardiner are at least a good starting point for a competitive defense core. Those three were the only Leafs defenders to average over 20 minutes of ice time per game last season, with Reilly handling top opposition and penalty killing duties. Gardiner’s usage tilted toward the power play, while Zaitsev proved he could handle both, averaging roughly two minutes of both PK and PP time per game.
To be honest, I love the way the Leafs are bringing Morgan Reilly along. Babcock has him handling the opponent’s best and also chewing up PK minutes. At 23 years old, that’s the part of the game Reilly needs to thrive in to truly become and elite defenseman – which he has the tools to do. As Reilly hits 25, 26 years old you can expect his offensive game to naturally progress, but he’ll have all that experience Babcock has given him as a shutdown defender. And really, all franchise defensemen are is offensive stalwarts who learn the defensive side of the game. Morgan Reilly could become that down the road.
But yeah, they should still get another good defenseman.
Defense Rating: Weak (28th of 31)
Goaltender Ratings + Depth Chart
Andersen 1, F – McElhinney 2, 2
The question facing Andersen when he became a member of the Leafs wasn’t “is he a good goalie?”. No, it was much more complex: how much did Anaheim’s physical, deep, veteran team help boost his numbers?
Andersen’s numbers in Anaheim were excellent: a ridiculous 77-26-12 record, a .918 save percentage, and a 2.33 GAA. Hard to ask for more.
So what were they going to look like with the Leafs?
Much of the same, it seems. Just a higher GAA due to the youth of the team in front of him. Andersen posted a .918 last year, good for 10th among the 26 goalies that appeared in 50 games or more.
Andersen has the potential to slowly climb the goaltending ranks. But for now, he gives the Leafs a strong option with the potential to push toward the top-10 stratosphere of elite goaltenders over the remainder of his contract.
Goaltender Rating: Strong (16th of 31)
Everything exciting about the Leafs has to do with that elite forward group. M n M (Matthews-Nylander-Marner) is the best trio of elite young forwards in the game, or the second best, depending on where Winnipeg’s Ehlers, Scheifele, and Laine rank in your eyes.
Not only do they possess elite skills, but their player composition is amazingly complementary.
Auston Matthews is the goal scorer, the work horse, and capable of everything required of a top centerman. Willy Nylander is the slick, smooth playmaker that still has a great, heavy wrist shot. And Mitch Marner is the dynamic, shifty winger whose creativity is off the charts, all while still possessing a sneaky good wrister.
The fact all three were rookies in the same year is an incredibly well-timed jolt of talent for Toronto management.
So what’s the ceiling for these three?
Matthews, for me, is a future 50-goal scorer, maybe even as early as this season. His ability around the net is incredible.
Nylander looks like a 30-goal 50-assist type player, and Marner might be a 25-goal 60-assist type – a purer playmaker than Nylander.
These kids are that good.
The question of course becomes: what will Leafs management continue to surround them with?
5 Most Valuable Assets
Auston Matthews F+, F++
Mitch Marner F, F+
William Nylander F, F+
Frederik Andersen 1, F
Morgan Reilly 1, F
Top 3 Prospects
RW, Kasperi Kapanen 4, 1?
D, Timothy Liljegren D, 1?
LW, Nikita Soshnikov 4, 3+
The Leafs end up 4th in the Atlantic and 7th in the East based on our model, which means theyconfidently can be predicted to reach the playoffs for the second consecutive season. But the margin for error may be thin.
If any of their top three defenders – Reilly, Gardiner, and Zaitsev miss extended time due to injury, then the Leafs’ chances will be severely compromised. The same, needless to say, goes for Frederik Andersen.
That being said, the elite talent at the top of their lineup combined with excellent secondary options up front should make the Leafs one of the most exciting teams in the league – and an offense this good could possibly shore up other deficiencies.
It also helps that Babcock is the coach. He’s pretty good.
Offense: Top 3 (2nd of 31)
Defense: Weak (28th of 31)
Goaltending: Strong (16th of 31)
Verdict: 4th in the Atlantic Division
Playoffs: This year, and if they can keep pending UFAs Tyler Bozak and James van Riemskdyk, then I’d happily say next year as well.