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NHL season preview 2016: 3 questions facing the Toronto Maple Leafs

What are the three most pressing questions for the Maple Leafs this season?

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

How will the kids fare?

Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Nikita Zaitsev, Mitchell Marner, Connor Carrick, Zach Hyman, Josh Leivo, and Kerby Rychel could make up “the kids” on this year’s Leafs team. Two lines of rookies and a defensive pairing.

That’s a lot of rookies. Of course I say rookies in the ‘almost eligible for the Calder’ sense, because Carrick and Nylander have plenty of NHL time already from previous seasons and Zaitsev is 24 years old.

As for how they’ll fare, they should be fine; Matthews, Marner, and Nylander have proven that they’re too good for the levels they were playing in before this season. Marner was a four-time MVP in one season, Auston Matthews had 1.28PPG at 18 in a pro league against fully grown and developed adults, and William Nylander had 1.18PPG in 36 AHL games last year and in 22 NHL games had 13 points. Not bad for a kid who was in the SHL a year earlier.

Throughout training camp Babcock and his coaching team put the kids in a position to always be paired with an older more experienced player: Colin Greening/Milan Michalek with Matthews and Marner, Nylander with Bozak. Mike Babcock has repeatedly said that Auston Matthews will be the No. 3 centre behind Bozak and Kadri. Everything out of the Leafs staff has implied that the kids will start the season lower in the lineup and if they work their way up, all the better for them and the team.

As long as no one is put into a situation that is above their head (hello, Luke Schenn), the kids should have the freedom to succeed and grow as they’re able to, not how the fans want them to.

Can the new goalie tandem carry the workload?

Having two new goalies on your opening night roster is always a big question mark for any team, but going into the season with a starter who has played just 125 NHL games over three seasons is an especially risky proposition.

Frederik Andersen played one season as the Ducks AHL starter and then jumped right into platooning with the big club:

To use a sentence that has been beaten to death, this is similar to what the Maple Leafs did with Jonathan Bernier. Entering the ‘13-14 season, Bernier had played only 62 NHL games, and was coming to Toronto as the new starting goalie. Andersen has twice as many games played as Bernier, and had a sv% slightly lower than Andersen's .918 at .912.

Katya has covered Andersen twice already in July (here and here) and the lowest expectations we should have is that the output matches last season, and I wouldn’t peg expectations for Andersen higher than what he’s already shown us, which is to be an average goalie. The defense will play a huge role in his numbers, and the subtractions (Phaneuf, Spaling) made over the season last year have been almost balanced out by the additions (Carrick, Zaitsev).

Jhonas Enroth is a well-experienced backup who again has put up average numbers, aside from ‘14-15 when his .903sv% was too good for the tanking Buffalo Sabres.

Backing up the Kings last year we saw his sv% go up to .922 when he was playing in front of a team built to win games, not draft lotteries. If we see the Maple Leafs do a 50/32 split and we see at the very least average goaltending from this duo, the crease shouldn’t be an area of worry for the Maple Leafs.

As long as everyone stays healthy, because otherwise...

Can these Leafs climb out of the basement?

I suppose it depends on how deep ‘the basement’ is. Is the basement the bottom three teams? Bottom ten? If I assume ‘the basement’ is the bottom three teams, then yes they will. If it’s bottom ten, then I’ll have to give my answer as a solid ‘maybe’.

The hardest part of wanting to say yes, and I so, so want to say “Yes they will, they’ll be in the playoffs,” was thinking of ten teams the Leafs would jump over in the standings. It’s not as easy as it looks. Here’s last year’s bottom 10:

# Team Points
21 Colorado Avalanche 82
22 Montreal Canadiens 82
23 Buffalo Sabres 81
24 Arizona Coyotes 78
25 Winnipeg Jets* 78
26 Calgary Flames 77
27 Columbus Blue Jackets 76
28 Vancouver Canucks 75
29 Edmonton Oilers 70
30 Toronto Maple Leafs 69

A few of these teams made some pretty big changes. Colorado has a new coach, Montreal and Buffalo will hopefully have their starting goalies for a full season, and Buffalo’s younger players will have gained more experience. Edmonton will have a full season of Connor McDavid, and the Flames did a lot of work over the summer to get ready to move out of the basement themselves.

Are there teams that I think the Maple Leafs will finish ahead of? Yes, I’d put down money on them finishing higher than the Canucks, Oilers, and Blue Jackets. After that it gets iffy.

This isn’t to say that the Maple Leafs haven’t made any changes of their own, look at the rosters from opening day then to what we could see on opening day now. Lost players are in blue, new players are in green.

15/16 16/17
James Van Riemsdyk James Van Riemsdyk
Nazem Kadri Nazem Kadri
Brad Boyes Auston Matthews
Shawn Matthias William Nylander
Tyler Bozak Tyler Bozak
Joffrey Lupul Mitch Marner
Daniel Winnik Milan Michalek
Nick Spaling Byron Froese
PA Parenteau Colin Greening
Leo Komarov Leo Komarov
Peter Holland Peter Holland
Mark Arcobello Zach Hyman
Matt Hunwick Matt Hunwick
Dion Phaneuf Nikita Zaitsev
Martin Marincin Martin Marincin
Morgan Rielly Morgan Rielly
Jake Gardiner Jake Gardiner
Scott Harrington Connor Carrick
Jonathan Bernier Federik Andersen
James Reimer Jhonas Enroth
Michael Grabner Josh Leivo
Frank Carrado Frank Carrado
Roman Polak Roman Polak

I filled in some gaps with players that would need waivers, swap out as you see fit, but we’re looking at half the skaters and both goalies being replaced. This is such a wildcard that the Leafs could end up being a wildcard team, or their lack of NHL experience catches up to them and we end up on the edge of our seats in June hoping we beat the Oilers at their own game again.

Looking at pure skill wise, the replacements at forward are a match or an improvement. Some are a definite upgrade; Matthews or Matthias, Nylander or Boyes, Marner or Winnik? They aren’t all upgrades though, It would have been nice to see Parenteau back with Leivo in the AHL for another year, but against the upgrades that’s fine. Do Carrick or Zaitsev make up for the loss of Phaneuf?

The farther we get from the opposing goal the more question marks come up. Is the backend as defensively sound as we need it to be? Will this new tandem do better than our old one?

I like this team on paper enough to say they won’t have great lottery odds again this year, but are they completely out of the basement? No, though their things are packed and they’re just waiting for the moving van to show up.