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Maple Leafs' Season Preview: Three Questions

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Looking at the three key questions and unknowns heading into the 2015-16 season.

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1. Who will be the next to go during the Maple Leafs' rebuild?

In a lot of ways, it feels like the "next" player to be moved out as the Maple Leafs rebuild will be the first, since outside of one significant move at the beginning of the summer, the Leafs have largely reshaped this team around the margins.

Shipping out David Clarkson last season was definitely a change in vision for the team, but the remainder of the moves the Leafs made at the deadline involved moving unrestricted free agents who didn't figure in the plans for next season. Of those, only Cody Franson was a player with any sort of real standing in the Leafs organization, and one of the players shipped out (Daniel Winnik) returned this summer.

The big move to rebuild this team came on July 1, when Phil Kessel was effectively shoved into a volcano in order to appease the restless masses that had bought into the Nonis/Carlyle con and now demanded a sacrifice.

There's many layers and perspectives to the Phil Kessel trade, and while my personal belief is that when you intend to build a team around young and dynamic talents like Morgan Rielly, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, there's no denying that having a slightly older Phil Kessel around makes that development task a little easier than players like Joffrey Lupul or Tyler Bozak.

Regardless, it's definitely curious to have your team president declare that "we can't bring back the same core next season", and then Kessel is the only member of said core to be moved on.

Early returns on the Shanahan-led management group definitely show promise, but to date I'm left wanting more.

Over the last two years the Maple Leafs have made a lot of little decisions right (handing the draft reins over to Mark Hunter, putting a massive emphasis on drafting and development, exploiting the cheap vet UFA pump-and-dump pipeline) but when it comes to the big decisions so far they've either punted (Carlyle extended), or downright whiffed (Kessel).

Further clouding the issue has been the addition of Lou Lamoriello as the General Manager, a head-scratching move that seems to run counter to the ways the Leafs had been reshaping their front office since Shanahan came aboard.

The Leafs still have quite a few players with a few years remaining on their contracts to move out if they intend to continue to turn the page from the Nonis era - Lupul, Bozak, and Dion Phaneuf probably being the most prominent. If the team's management has decided that the Leafs core wasn't good enough to compete, and these were key members of that core - you'd expect that those are the players they'd be trying hardest to move on from (along with possibly James van Riemsdyk).

In the current salary cap environment, teams aren't really interested in taking on another teams' problems unless there's a significant benefit being obtained.

Clarkson's contract was virtually unmovable, but Columbus found itself in a situation where his declining value still trumped paying Nathan Horton an uninsured contract to likely never play hockey again. Pittsburgh was willing to take on the contract of one of the league's leading scorers over the last five seasons but only after getting a discounted price and relief from some of the salary commitment.

This makes it difficult to see Phaneuf, Bozak or Lupul being moved too quickly, but also creates a concern that their value could plummet further (making it even harder to move them on).

A major trade involving one of those names isn't likely to be forecasted until it's imminent. So for now, look to capable depth players being moved on as part of the Leafs' strategy to move veteran players for draft picks.

Players like Roman Polak (in the last year of his contract), Stephane Robidas (two years), and Leo Komarov (three years) should have value around the league, and moving those types of players to create spaces for younger players to be promoted will be part of the Leafs rebuilding efforts.

2. Is this the year Nazem Kadri becomes the Maple Leafs' #1 centre?

If it doesn't happen this year, you really wonder if it's ever actually going to happen. Nazem Kadri turns 25 years old at the beginning of the season and is on a one-year contract, giving him a chance to prove to management that he can be a key contributor beyond the rebuilding stage.

To suggest that Kadri will become a "1C" gets into the gray area semantics of what constitutes a #1 centre in the NHL. Nobody's suggesting that Kadri's about to become an elite pivot on the level of Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Evgeni Malkin or the like, and suggesting he's about to become one of the 30 best centres in the league may also be a stretch at this time.

But Babcock has built his successful Red Wings teams based on strength down the middle and on defence, and there's enough evidence to suggest that Kadri has developed into the best two-way pivot currently on the Maple Leafs roster, and now free from being Randy Carlyle's whipping boy, Kadri should get a prime opportunity to wrestle the job away from perpetual incumbent Tyler Bozak.

While Kadri's development has come in fits and spurts, he's unquestionably evolved from the sort of player he was five or six years ago when he was first attempting to break into the Maple Leafs lineup.

After he broke out with a near point-per-game campaign during the lockout-shortened season, Kadri's offensive upside made him a fan favourite and a player that we anticipated would anchor the Maple Leafs second line, giving the Leafs a counter-punch to avoid teams keying in on Phil Kessel.

Over the last two years Kadri's offensive contributions have declined slightly, from a combination of seeing his shooting percentages dropping to normal levels and being saddled with linemates that weren't able to match his skill level. Kadri's also rounded out his defensive game to become a player more capable of playing in all three zones (and we all know the priority Babcock places on the "200-foot player").

The Maple Leafs have added a number of depth signings up front but few if any of those players have the skillset to be a 1st line player, and it appears that the Leafs aren't going to rush William Nylander's development.

This would basically lead to a battle between Bozak and Kadri for the top duties, and while "Tyler Bozak is defensively responsible" is a fun drinking game to pass the time this season, barring a major roster overhaul there's no way Kadri isn't the Leafs most relied upon pivot this season.

The other factor to consider is that the next wave of talented Leafs players is coming. William Nylander is going to push hard for a spot on this season's team and down the road push for that 1C role.

Once he joins the Leafs full-time he'll immediately be groomed for that role provided he can handle it, so having Kadri excel in an interim basis would then give the Leafs a dynamic 1-2 punch down the middle.

3. Who will benefit the most from playing under Mike Babcock?

The snarky answer is "everyone" because Randy Carlyle was a pretty bad NHL coach and we were able to find enough data to show that basically everyone who left the Leafs went right back to the player that they had been before Carlyle after they left Toronto.

Seriously. Read this.

Under Randy Carlyle the team was tremendously awful in terms of possession and preventing shots against, and while both of those measures showed improvement under Peter Horachek's brief tenure as head coach, significant improvement will still be required.

The style Carlyle insisted on playing definitely factored into the Leafs woes but there are also players who aren't capable of playing at the level that has been expected of them.

There are others that have the potential to flourish under a new system, and Jake Gardiner might be at the top of that list.

Gardiner's definitely a polarizing player so far in his time with the Maple Leafs. For fans who don't follow the advanced statistics, they see a player with exceptional talent moving the puck forwards and jumping into the rush who occasionally gets lost in his own zone or makes critical mistakes that end up in his own net.

For fans that incorporate those stats into their opinions, they see a player who drives possession as well as many top defence in the league (despite playing on historically bad possession teams) and whose mistakes are a frustrating outcome of a player that is involved in trying to generate offence, but that the positive contributions he makes outweigh the negatives.

Jake plays a game based on instincts. Having waited relatively late in his hockey career to transition to defence, Jake's fundamentals can be both his best and worst asset.

When he lets his superior skating and puckhandling abilities take over, he becomes a dynamic threat as a 4th forward to lead the attack and open up scoring opportunities for his forwards. When he needs to make the right choices on the defensive side, he often makes naive choices that demonstrate that he doesn't have the muscle memory for the position relative to a player who played the point from an early age.

In a lot of ways, Jake Gardiner and former Wisconsin Badger teammate Justin Schultz are mirror images of each other. Some people look at Schultz and see a player that is capable of doing the things that Gardiner has done to date in his career (or even greater).

Others look at Gardiner and see an "all-offence/no-defence" player no different than Schultz has been in Edmonton.

When you have a player like Gardiner who plays on instinct, and who takes chances because he trusts that his skating can cover any mistakes he might make, confidence is crucial.

Under Randy Carlyle, Gardiner's confidence seemed to constantly be in flux, and Gardiner's seemingly random moves up and down and out of the lineup seemed to flow as Carlyle grew increasingly less patient with the mistakes Jake committed.

When Carlyle was replaced by Horachek, the fear of being stapled to the bench for a single mistake seemed to dissipate, and despite the Leafs horrific close to the season, Gardiner was one of the few Leafs who could be classified as playing 'well'.

Mike Babcock appears committed to teaching these Maple Leafs, and has brought over a style of play that relies heavily on its defenceman to make smart plays to move the puck up ice.

The system should seem tailor-made for a player like Gardiner to excel in, as Babcock will likely encourage Gardiner to look to move the puck forward but also make better decisions without the puck through encouragement rather than fear of reprisal.

The key storyline on the Maple Leafs defence is whether Mike Babcock can rehabilitate Dion Phaneuf's career but going forward the development of Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly is going to be a major factor in the Leafs progressing through the stages of this rebuild.