COACH: Mike Babcock
2014-15 RECORD: 30-44-8, 68 points (fifth in Atlantic; missed playoffs)
VITAL SIGNS: 2.5 goals-for per game (24th); 3.1 goals-against per game (26th), 15.9 power play pct. (26th); 80.5 penalty kill pct. (22nd); PDO: 99.3 (23rd); Corsi For pct.: 51.9 (9th); Fenwick For pct.: 51.9 (10th); face-off pct.: 51.9 (6th)
NOTABLE DEPARTURES: F Phil Kessel, D Korbinian Holzer
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
James van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Michael Grabner
Joffrey Lupul – Nazem Kadri – PA Parenteau
Daniel Winnik – Shawn Matthias – Leo Komorov
Mark Acrobello – Peter Holland – Nick Spaling
Morgan Rielly – Dion Phaneuf
Jake Gardiner – Roman Polak
Stephane Robidas – Matt Hunwick
Scott Harrington – Martin Marincin
OUTLOOK: Not so proud owners of the NHL's longest Stanley Cup drought (48 years and counting) among non-expansion teams, the Maple Leafs—the league’s first billion dollar franchise—have pulled out the checkbook and reloaded for yet another rebuild. It all starts at the top. The front office has been dramatically overhauled with president Brendan Shanahan assembling a 48-person hockey operations staff that includes ex-Devils president Lou Lamoriello, former Cup-winning coach/Canadiens Hall of Famer Jacques Lemaire, an analytics crew, a director of sports science and performance, and a skating development consultant. But the centerpiece is coach Mike Babcock, who was lured away from Detroit by the challenge of restoring this benighted flagship franchise to glory not to mention his new NHL record eight-year $50 million contract.
Babcock has no illusions about the rough road ahead and he’s made it abundantly clear to the team’s devoted and ever-optimistic fan base that pain is in store, probably three years worth of it in the deep Atlantic Division. While Shanahan and Co. keep their eyes out for talent via trades or the draft, you can expect the demanding Babcock to turn this downtrodden and too often lackadaisical squad into one that at least plays hard, takes the body, gets after the puck and turns it over less frequently.
Despite Babcock’s obvious coaching genius, he must deal with a roster that lost its best goal scorer (Phil Kessel averaged 30 during his six seasons with the Leafs), a defense that lacks a true shutdown pair, and two goalies in James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier who have yet to excel in a starting role. The promise lies in young puckmoving defenders Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, what Babcock can extract from talented but mercurial center Nazem Kadri, and the future of top prospects William Nylander, 19, Kasperi Kapanen, 19, and Mitch Marner, 18, three talented forwards who need seasoning.
Probably the most interesting thing about the Leafs this season will be watching who gets shipped out to make way for the kind of players who fit Babcock's mold or will at least allow themselves to be molded by him. He can be an abrasive guy. It's his way or the highway now.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Michael Grabner
It took a few months, but the Leafs may have found their Kessel replacement when they acquired speedy forward Michael Grabner from the Islanders. Grabner, 27, is probably not the player who scored 34 goals in 2010-11—he’s only reached 20 once since then. Still, he is fast, occasionally electric, and gives the first line a legitimate wing presence. He's also an ace penalty killer. Tyler Bozak is not John Tavares, but Grabner should get plenty of playing time in all situations, enough for him to put up solid numbers.
PREDICTION: 69 points, eighth in Atlantic