The Maple Leafs finished the 2017-18 season with 105 points and a 49-26-7 record. They were bounced in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight season, losing in 7 games to their divisional rivals, the Boston Bruins.
They made easily the biggest splash of the off-season, signing free agent John Tavares to a seven-year, $77 million contract. Tavares quite obviously bolsters the attack and expectations of the 2018-19 Maple Leafs. Another first round exit would have to be considered a disappointment. Finishing atop the Atlantic Division will go a long way towards getting them past round one. If they can’t, they’ll almost certainly be looking at one of Boston or Tampa Bay in the first round.
➕ John Tavares (Free Agency)
➕ Tyler Ennis (Free Agency)
➕ Par Lindholm (Free Agency)
➕ Josh Jooris (Free Agency)
➕ Jordan Subban (Free Agency)
The Leafs couldn’t have done a better job filling the holes left by unrestricted free agents Tyler Bozak and James van Reimsdyk. The Tavares signing bumps Nazem Kadri down to Bozak’s former role as third-line centre, and a pair of serviceable wingers coming up from the Toronto Marlies helps mitigate the loss of JVR. Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen are both expected to start the season with the big club, while veteran-signing Tyler Ennis could also compete for some time in the Leafs’ top-nine.
Mike Babcock said he expects Tavares to start the year with Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman, which is exactly how they lined up in the Leafs’ first preseason game. That leaves Patrick Marleau and William Nylander to play on the wings of Auston Matthews. Kapanen, Kadri, and Johnsson will feature as perhaps the most offensively-minded shutdown line in the league. The Leafs’ top-nine is as strong as any in the league and they should be near the lead league in goals again this season.
The blueline is this roster’s biggest concern and it isn’t close. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are legitimate top-pair defensemen, but Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev are far from premier options on the right side. Hainsey played almost twice as many minutes at even strength than the Leafs’ next closest defenseman and was noticeably fatigued by the end of the season. Babcock will need to trust his younger defenders more on the penalty kill, especially now that Roman Polak is off the roster.
Fortunately for Babcock and the Leafs, those young defensemen seem to be up to the challenge. Travis Dermott was a beacon of hope on the Leafs’ blueline a year ago, posting a 55.00 CF% (6.4 CF% rel) across 37 regular season games. His ATOI of 16:00 is bound to go up this season given the personnel changes. He is more than capable of being a quality penalty-killer for this team.
Connor Carrick projects to start the season on the Leafs’ third pair, with Andreas Borgman being his biggest competition for the spot. The Leafs’ blueline likes to take risks to help generate scoring chances for their dynamic forwards, and they’ll likely surrender a lot of shots in 2018-19 as a result.
Andersen started 66 games and posted a .918 SV% for the second-straight season in 2017-18. He was a Vezina Trophy candidate for most of the year but struggled to close out the regular season, ultimately finishing fourth in the voting. Andersen has been dynamic at times for the Leafs but needs to be more consistent if he wants to reach the next echelon of goaltenders. He should see another 65 starts or so this season.
Curtis McElhinney is set to return as the Leafs’ backup in 2018-19, but he’ll have to hold off Garret Sparks, the reigning AHL Goalie of the Year winner, in the preseason. Whoever the Leafs’ backup is won’t end up seeing much more than 15 starts this season, save for an Andersen injury, as Babcock opts to use the backup only in the midst of a back-to-back.
|Auston Matthews (41)||Mitch Marner (54)||John Tavares (86)||John Tavares (10)|
|John Tavares (37)||John Tavares (49)||Mitch Marner (76)||Nazem Kadri (9)|
|Patrick Marleau (28)||Morgan Rielly (43)||Auston Matthews (75)||Patrick Marleau (8)|
- 11. John Tavares — C7
- 14. Auston Matthews — C8
- 27. Mitch Marner — RW9
- 65. Frederik Andersen — G9
- 78. William Nylander — RW15
- 98. Morgan Rielly – D21
- 117. Jake Gardiner — D26
- 189. Nazem Kadri — C43
- 195. Patrick Marleau — LW30
Predicted Atlantic Standings
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs are a lock for one of the three divisional playoff spots in the Atlantic. The number one spot will be a tightly-contested race all season long, and the winner gains a huge advantage by dodging the second and third seeds in the first round. Any one of Tampa Bay, Boston, or Toronto can win the Atlantic division this season, but the wealth of talent on Tampa Bay’s blueline gives them the slight edge on paper. The eight regular season games the Leafs are scheduled to play against the Lightning and Bruins in 2018-19 could decide their fate.