The Toronto Maple Leafs are going through a much-needed rebuilding process that started a season ago after drafting Auston Matthews. Since that draft day, the Leafs look like a completely different team.
The Good to Come Out of this Season
After finishing last place in the league a season ago, most sports fans believed the team will rise a few spots higher but nowhere near a possible playoff spot. The team traded away some big contracts players, to save a lot of cap space. Dion Phaneuf and his annual $7-million contract was dealt to the Ottawa Senators for prospects and draft picks. The team was entering the season with inexperienced rookies and a few skilled stars. Surprisingly, the inexperienced rookies broke out and shattered some Leafs all-time records.
The Rookies First Season Rise
Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, and William Nylander are all first-year professionals that entered the league last year. At the end of the season, the kids broke eight all-time Leaf rookie records. Matthews scored 40 goals which is one more than Leaf legend Wendel Clark. Skilled winger Mitch Marner holds the record for most Leafs rookie assists in a single season with 42. Nylander has the most power play goals with nine. Lastly, two-way forward Zach Hyman used his penalty kill abilities to hold the rookie record for most short-handed goals with four.
What will the Future Look Like?
All of those records were shattered by first-year players. The Leafs are expected to have the most exciting future with the young talent sprouting. The great side about having an explosive team filled with young talent is that they are all playing under their rookie contracts. This means that all four of those kids listed above cost the Leafs $3.6-million annually for the next three seasons.
The Leafs have the minimum requirement of players on the roster with less than $19-million of available cap space. The Leafs management have signed phenomenal contracts for the current roster, and this leaves them with $19-million of cap space to improve their team.
Mark Moreno, a Leafs fan for more than 15 years, feels like this season was one of the best yet. "Auston Matthews and those kids have taken full control of this franchise," Moreno said. "The Leafs have built such a young core, and after this unexpected amazing season, who knows what's next?"
The quick turnaround got the future rolling for the Leafs."No one expected this team to be this good so quick and with the large sum of cap space left this team is only going to get better," said Moreno.
Areas to Improve
The number one issue for the Leafs right now is their defensive line. They have the weakest blue line that needs immediate improvement. The team holds three one-way D-men that aren't great defenders but add a great offensive contribution. While the other three D-men are never regulars and are always jumping from the minors to the first-team.
The team is expected to bring more youth into the line-up next season, so it'd be wise to add some veteran players free agents to gain some leadership.
The major youth improvements for the Leafs make them now look like a great destination for free agents. These are the likely candidates:
Kevin Shattenkirk - The offensive D-men is one of the best mobile puck moving skater in the league. His pin-point passing would be a huge help to the Leafs depleted backline. The only worry about his addition is that it'd force one of the three regular d-men to be dealt away. If Shattenkirk comes to the organization, the future will look extremely bright for the Leafs.
Andrew Ference - He'd be a perfect fit for this growing Leafs group. He is the "stay at home" defender the team needs. Also due to his age, his asking price shouldn't be too high and he does provide veteran leadership. Ference was a captain of the Edmonton Oilers in the 2014 season when they were rebuilding.
Patrick Sharp - Sharp will bring his playoff leadership to the inexperienced camp. He has three successful Stanley Cup runs. The 35-year-old won't be able to skate like he could before but he still has a wicked wrist shot that could be a huge help to the line-up.
2018 Season Predictions
The Leafs management will likely add a few veteran leadership on the offensive side and most of the cap space will be used for the backline. The team will be in the same situation as last season as they were fighting for the final playoff spot until the very last few games. They'll battle into the second round of playoffs but that's the farthest the young group will go.