The Toronto Maple Leafs have had a season to forget. Although this is the plan that was sold to fans in the offseason, the constant losses are not any easier to take. However, there is hope behind the the pain.
After a front office overhaul, the Leafs have a new plan (a Shanaplan, if you prefer) going into this offseason. The best has yet to come in Leafs Nation.
Here are five reasons Leafs fans should look forward to the 2016-2017 season.
1) The kids are alright
The worst part of a rebuild is constantly losing. Fans can find solace in the bevy of prospects that will don blue and white in the coming seasons. William Nylander is rated as the NHL’s best prospect. However, last season’s first rounder Mitch Marner might be even better than Nylander. Kasperi Kapanen, Josh Leivo and Brendan Leipsic complement them nicely.
While Kapanen, Leivo and Leipsic have been sent back to the Marlies, Nylander has stuck with the Leafs. When Nylander plays his 10th game, he will burn the first year of his entry-level contract. According to Mike Babcock, Nylander won’t be going back down until the end of the NHL season.
“Willie could have easily been on the team out of training camp,” he said. “To me the idea was to bring him up and keep him up.”
2) Mike Babcock
Babcock has been everything Leafs fans had hoped and more. Although he’s been given a group of mainly role players, Babcock has implemented a system that puts the Leafs in a position to win every night. Babcock also has seven more years left on his massive contract. Forward Nazem Kadri is just one of the many players that has seen a full culture change under Babcock. “It’s a little bit different than what we’re used to,” Kadri said. “We’ve changed for the better. Everyone has bought in, No one is trying to take shortcuts and it’s all about not being selfish.”
This culture and atmosphere is something that can truly benefit young players that will be coming through the organization over the next few seasons. Just imagine what Babcock will be able to do with the team once it has the necessary scoring punch.
3) The dominance of the Marlies
The Toronto Marlies have become the epitome of the AHL. A string of losses is abnormal for the baby Buds now. With prospects like Nylander, Connor Brown, Kapanen and T.J. Brennan leading the way, the Marlies are poised for a deep playoff push. First-year coach Sheldon Keefe has come out of the OHL and excelled at teaching the skill-filled team to play with a system. Keefe wasn’t sure what to expect in the AHL but he heard nothing but positives.
“The team on paper looked really good. I had limited knowledge of the league and the players, but people with experience told me we were going to be good and competitive,” Keefe said.
The Marlies have also seen higher attendance numbers this season compared to last. This cannot be directly correlated to the Leafs struggles; however, it’s safe to say that there will be lots of eyes on the Marlies as the playoff stretch continues.
4) Lesser-known prospects making names for themselves
The Leafs later round picks and free agent rookie signings have been suprising to say the least. Connor Brown has been one of the biggest surprises for the Leafs. Drafted in the sixth round in 2012, Brown was the AHL rookie-scoring leader last season. He has put up good numbers despite being out for most of this season with a broken ankle. A seventh rounder in 2013, Andreas Johnson has also proved himself valuable to Leafs rebuild. He won the Rookie of the Year award in the Swedish League last season. Johnson could make the jump to the Marlies next year while Brown could be on the Maple Leafs before the end of this season.
Nikita Soshnikov and Zach Hyman have been a few of the more exciting Marlies to watch this season. Both have made an instant impact on the Leafs, Hyman with four points and Soshnikov with three in nine games. Both have made a big impression on Babcock in their short stint with the big club.
“Hyman and Soshnikov are here to stay,” Babcock said. “They’re real players. They’re going to play. They’re just too good, too hard and too fast with too much work ethic.”
5) Reported free agent signings
There has been no shortage of rumours in Leafland this season, the biggest one being Steven Stamkos possibly signing with Toronto. A pending free agent this summer, Stamkos has been linked to several teams including the Leafs. Stamkos’ resume speaks for itself. He is a goal scorer and a true number one center.
Another signing that is more likely to happen is Nikita Zaitsev. The defender has played in the KHL for the past seven seasons. He intends to come to North America next season. Zaitsev has informed teams that he intends to sign with the Leafs when free agency starts on July 1. He has a big frame and seven of his eight goals this season came on the power play.
There have also been rumours of Jimmy Vesey coming over to the Leafs this offseason. Vesey, a Nashville draft pick from 2012, hasn’t signed an entry-level deal as of now. He will become a free agent if he does not reach an agreement with the Predators. Vesey’s father Jim is a scout for the Leafs and his brother Nolan was drafted by Toronto in 2014. There is a possibility that Vesey comes to Toronto, but there is also a strong possibility that he signs with Nashville. The Predators have shown serious interest in signing Vesey in time for the playoffs.
This offseason will be one of the most intriguing in recent memory for the Maple Leafs. The plan kicks into motion on June 24 at the 2016 NHL Draft. Seven days later, free agency opens. It is one of the most exciting weeks of the hockey season, especially for the Leafs and their fan base.