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The Leafs are banking on internal improvement to carry them to the promised land

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a time of optimism in Toronto now. In my lifetime as a sentient human being, this is probably the most excited the fanbase has been for a season to start, understandably so. How can you not be excited to watch Auston Matthews score, William Nylander pass, Jake Gardiner skate, Mitch Marner be an excitable Energizer bunny but like, super good at hockey too. After a solid season and as encouraging a first round playoff exit as exists, many seem to be pegging the Leafs for a notable improvement in the standings. The implicit expectation is that they go further in the playoffs too.

But when I look back at the offseason the Leafs have had, I’m continually struck by one question. Where is that improvement coming from?

I don’t believe the Leafs front office did much to facilitate it. External reinforcements this offseason were limited to Patrick Marleau, Ron Hainsey, Dominic Moore and three European skaters who may play depth roles (Miro Aaltonen, Calle Rosen, and Andreas Borgman).

Marleau is expected to contribute in a meaningful way, and bolster the forward depth of the team to an astonishing level. And putting the (terrible) contract aside, Marleau is a capable scorer whose skillset seems to mesh well with the Leafs. He can skate, he can finish, and we can figure out the rest later. Of course, it’s hard to ignore that over the past few years, Marleau has had decidedly middle-six caliber results with respect to individual scoring and driving play. He can still produce goals at a high level, but it’s mitigated by his low assist rate. Big picture, he’s not the player he once was.* Describing him as a 508-goal man, as Steve Dangle did in a video bit during the first intermission against Detroit on Friday, is obfuscatory. He’s not the same player who scored most of those goals anymore. He helps the team, but not as much as his name would indicate.

*Ian Tulloch at TLN had a great two-part series on the Marleau deal, which I would highly recommend reading. It has a more nuanced discussion of Marleau than this piece, including possible extenuating factors for his curious goal/assist distribution (playing with Joe Thornton, for example).

It’s also worth noting that in order to accommodate Marleau, the Leafs have moved Connor Brown to the fourth line and sent Kasperi Kapanen to the minors. The Leafs were starting from such a high point with their forward depth that the advantage of signing a player like Marleau is dulled, because Marleau + Brown isn’t necessarily that much better than Brown + Kapanen. So I think we can expect the addition of Marleau to be a source of improvement, but only by the margin by which he’s an improvement over Brown and Brown is over Kapanen. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if we weren’t roster-locked into playing Matt Martin, but we’ve covered that to death.

So Marleau, while notable in name, likely has less value to the team given their roster depth. What about the rest of the additions?

Moore is a competent 4C whose main attribute is that he’s better than Ben Smith. Aaltonen is an unknown quantity, though Babcock and the brass seem to be high on him. Rosen and Borgman are similarly untested in the NHL, but have looked good enough in preseason to justify giving them a shot on the 3rd pair. With Connor Carrick, the Leafs 3rd pair should be better than the Hunlak pairing of last year. These are nice moves on the margin, but they’re nothing earth-shaking.

In fact, notably lacking in anything we’ve discussed so far is the Leafs making a move to solidify the top end of their defence, which was their most pressing need coming into the offseason. To be sure, this is not an easy thing to address. But in an offseason that saw Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jason Demers, Travis Hamonic, and others move, the Leafs upgraded (?) their defence with ... Ron Hainsey.

Hainsey is being asked to play his off side, with a defensively frail partner (Morgan Rielly) in a role that will certainly demand big minutes and above-average competition levels. He’s 36 and probably will be worse this year than he was last year, where he was at best, average. Keep in mind a large portion of his value historically is that he’s a low PIM player despite playing large minutes, which may change this year with the renewed emphasis on slashing calls. To say this was an underwhelming addition is an understatement. I’m also not the only one who thinks so. In his preview at The Athletic, Dom Luszczyszyn has the Leafs’ defence group as 24th in the league. Not exactly what you want to see for a team that has aspirations of contending.

So this again points back at my original question. Where is the improvement coming from? Well, the only option left is the players who were on the roster last year. Fans and pundits are pricing in leaps for players like Matthews, Marner, and Nylander. Why wouldn’t you? Players at 20 or 21 are typically not peaking, we’d expect them to get better. Morgan Rielly is just 23, and can be plausibly expected to improve as well.

But if you’re conceding improvement to the Leafs young, talented stars, you have to acknowledge that the best of their other talent was firmly in their prime last year, and are no locks to get better. In fact, it’s more likely that the opposite happens. This is not to say that the likes of Kadri, Gardiner, Bozak, and James van Riemsdyk will fall off the earth. But there’s a real chance that we’ve already seen the best from each of them. The Leafs’ upside includes the scenarios where all of these players maintain their play from last year, and the Big 3 take steps towards being elite players. Their downside, however, includes the scenarios where the former doesn’t happen, and that’s substantial.

It must be said (and remembered) - the Leafs last year were not actually good*. They were average. They were an 8th seed that lost in the first round. Yes, they played valiantly. Yes, they played a very good team, and lost four close games. They still lost.

* This is not a shot at the hashtag - they were certainly good relative to expectations. But I’m taking a broader view here.

In the regular season, the Leafs were 9th in Score Adjusted CF%, with about 0.8 percentage-points between them and 19th. They were part of the mushy middle where teams are largely interchangeable. Toronto benefited from a strong power play, great health, and a fortunate penalty kill, and was hurt by shootouts, one-goal games, and their schedule.

This is the base from which they are improving. As we covered, the improvements will largely come down to what happens internally, and must be netted out against expected declines from other players on the roster. How much can internal improvement carry a mediocre team that didn’t get too much better externally? That’s what this season is about to tell us. Whatever happens this season, the improvement likely won’t be driven by the new faces. Rather, Toronto will be driven as far as their young stars take them. If we’re judging by the preseason, they look ready to take the team pretty far (Matthews and Nylander in particular). But we won’t know until the games count for real.