The Toronto Maple Leafs took a huge leap forward last season.
Despite losing in the first round of the playoffs, they were able to hold their own against a first-place Washington Capitals team with Stanley Cup aspirations.
The Maple Leafs showed plenty of promise to be one of the biggest risers in the Eastern Conference in the next few years
As a new NHL season approaches, let’s take a look at five questions surrounding this team heading into 2017/18.
1. How much can Patrick Marleau contribute? Who will he play with?
Toronto were able to come away with one of the biggest names on the free-agent market this summer.
They signed former San Jose Sharks’ forward Patrick Marleau, to a three-year deal worth, $18.75 million.
Although Marleau is 38, he is still an elite finisher in the NHL, averaging 26 goals for the San Jose Sharks in his past four seasons.
A couple questions about Marleau is whether he will be able to produce at the same level in Toronto and where he will play in the Leafs’ lineup.
Most Maple Leaf fans probably want to see Marleau ride shotgun with Auston Matthews, which will probably be the case at the start. However, some might argue that Marleau is better off playing on a line with either Nazem Kadri or Tyler Bozak to balance out the offense.
No matter what decision head coach Mike Babcock makes, it is a good problem to have. With Marleau in the lineup, the Leafs should have another 20-goal scorer at their disposal to improve their offense next season.
The second question is how skilled Marleau will be for the Maple Leafs this coming season and beyond?
He will be 40 by the end of his contract and Marleau looks like he is in his declining years. So there is the risk that his numbers will drop significantly in the next few years.
2) Will they upgrade their defense?
Right now, one of the biggest weaknesses on the Maple Leafs’ roster is their defense.
A looming question that surrounded this team all summer was whether they will improve their blueline. It appears that they could definitely use a number one defenseman on the right side to round out their top-four.
As good as Nikita Zaitsev was for them last year, he seems more suitable as a second pairing guy with Morgan Rielly. If you look at the Leafs’ top-six defense right now, it looks something like this:
Jake Gardiner – Nikita Zaitsev
Morgan Rielly – Ron Hainsey
Martin Marincin – Connor Carrick
On paper, this defensive lineup doesn’t look good enough to make the Leafs a Stanley Cup contender next year.
General manager Lou Lamoriello definitely has the assets to trade for another proven defender if he desires.
Perhaps he is waiting to see if there are any surprises at camp this year.
3) Will James van Riemsdyk be traded?
With the addition of Patrick Marleau, the Maple Leafs currently have five left-wingers including James van Riemsdyk, Zach Hyman, Leo Komarov and Matt Martin.
Just looking at that depth chart, it doesn’t make sense for the Leafs to carry five NHL caliber left-wingers on their roster for the entire season.
As a result, van Riemsdyk could be moved for a quality defenseman for several reasons.
For one, JVR currently has one year left on his current contract which carries a cap-hit of $4.25M; but since the Leafs have already committed to Marleau, and extended Zach Hyman, they might not have much desire to re-sign van Riemsdyk. Secondly, the Leafs have to plan for the future.
They will have to extend William Nylander after next season, and Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner the year after that. With the big three likely demanding a big pay raise, they probably won’t have enough cap space to keep JVR in Toronto long-term.
Finally, the second overall pick from 2007 probably has the most trade value out of any available left winger in Toronto, when compared to Komarov and Martin. In that, he is probably the best bet for the Leafs to get a quality defenseman in return. JVR played in all 82 games last season for the team, scoring 29 goals and 33 assists in the process. He also made his presence known in the first round exit to Washington, scoring 3 points (2G, 1A) in six games.
For these reasons, there is a good chance the 28-year old will get moved if the Leafs want to upgrade their defense.
A few possible names the Maple Leafs might be interested in include Jacob Trouba of the Winnipeg Jets or Chris Tanev from the Vancouver Canucks.
4) Can Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander build on their successful rookie seasons?
Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander had very successful rookie campaigns for the Maple Leafs last year.
Matthews scored an impressive 40 goals, 69 points in 82 games. Number 34 finished the regular season as the Leafs’ leading scorer and took home the Calder Trophy, as the NHL rookie of the year.
Meanwhile, Nylander and Marner also had respectable seasons, both finishing in the top five on the team in scoring, with 61 points apiece.
Along with Matthews, the trio finished in the top four amongst all NHL rookies in scoring, and became only the second trio of rookies in the NHL history, to all score over 60 points.
Heading into the 2017/18 season expectations will be higher for the trio. Many people expect the center to crack the top-ten in NHL scoring and perhaps even the top-five.
In order for the Maple Leafs to continue to move up in the standings, the trio will need to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump and be huge impact players for the team going forward.
5) Are the Maple Leafs ready to contend this season?
Right now, it looks like the Toronto Maple Leafs are on the brink of being very good however it may be slightly premature to put them as a Stanley Cup contender next season.
They still have a few question marks, which includes their defense and whether Frederik Andersen is the guy to carry them far in the playoffs.
In spite of this, there is still a lot of time from now until next April, so the Leafs’ roster can look very different in the following months.
Regardless of what happens, Toronto fans should expect to see at least one round of playoff hockey, and advancing to the second round should be a realistic goal in “The Six” next year.
How do you think the Maple Leafs will do in 2017/18? Let us know in the comment section below and be sure to vote in the poll as well.
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