The first post in a series, outlining a few predictions for a few of the bottom teams heading into the 2016-2017 season.
First up: The Toronto Maple Leafs
2015-2016 Important Notes:
Finish – 16th place in the Eastern Conference, 30th overall
Goals for vs. goals against – minus 48 (29th overall)
Picked 1st overall in 2016 NHL Entry Draft – Auston Matthews
Where will the Leafs finish?
While the Leafs are sure to improve overall as a club from last season, it’s difficult to predict how much of an improvement it will be overall. There will be an injection of youth into the lineup, with the likes of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and perhaps (most likely) even Mitch Marner, but how much will this improve the club?
While the Leafs fate will rely mostly with the youth movement, goalies Frederik Andersen and Jhonas Enroth will also be required to step in and perform better than the tandem they are replacing. The majority of this responsibility will rest on Andersen’s shoulders. He has posted good numbers during his time in Anaheim (77-26-0-12 in 114 starts, 125 games played), however this isn’t the same type of team he was backstopping in Anaheim. The Leafs will need Andersen to stay healthy (which is another cause for concern for Leafs fans) and contribute 50-60 starts in order to have any hope of improving over last year.
It’s hard to see the Leafs improving more than 13th position in the East, and out of the bottom 5 of the league. It appears that the Leafs are headed for another lottery pick, which isn’t a bad thing for on the rise. One thing’s for sure, this team will be a lot more fun to watch than it has been in previous seasons.
How will Auston Matthews perform?
The saviour!! No, calm down Leafs fans. While Auston Matthews projects to be a star in this league for many years, no single player can carry an entire franchise on it’s back. What Matthews does bring to Leafland is Hope and Optimism, something that has been lacking for many years. With players like Matthews in the fold, it’s sure to attract better and better players to Toronto, which hasn’t exactly been at the top of the list in desired locations among free agents.
So what can we expect out of Matthews in his rookie season? Mike Babcock will surely have him focused on learning the game at both ends of the ice, with a heavier emphasis on his defensive game to begin with. He has already stated Matthews will start as the 3rd line centre, and while we know this shouldn’t (won’t) last for long, Matthews won’t be starting out at 20 minutes of ice time per night. He’ll be eased into everyday life as an NHL’er, as he’s never before dealt with the rigorous schedule of an 82 game season. Still, Matthews has performed at exceptional levels in every scenario he’s played. He played his first full professional season last year in the Swiss National league, where he had 46 points in 36 games. He followed this up with an impressive performance at the World Championship, playing against NHL players.
The NHL is whole different level, however if Babcock was able to get 40+ point seasons out of PA Parenteau and Nazem Kadri on a weaker team, it’s not difficult to foresee Matthews reaching the 50 point plateau in his first season. I will go out and predict that if Matthews plays a full 82 game schedule, he will hit the 60 point plateau in his rookie season (64 pts for an exact prediction).
Biggest Surprise of the season?
Joffrey Lupul stays healthy, plays well, and gets traded to a contending team. If Lupul can stay healthy, he will surely face the weaker sets of defenders on most nights, playing on the 2nd or 3rd line. Maybe he can find some of the magic only a few short years ago. Plus, the Leafs somehow seem to be able to boost players’ values and then find teams willing to give up assets for them.
All in all, the Leafs are a team on the rise, just not as quickly as some fans would hope after drafting future star Auston Matthews.