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The 2017-18 campaign saw the Toronto Maple Leafs set a franchise record in wins (49) and points (105). After missing the playoffs for 10 of 11 seasons, the Leafs made it to the dance in back-to-back years for the first time since they got in 6 years in a row between 1999 and 2004. Still without a Stanley Cup Finals berth, since they last won it all in 1967, this young and hungry group of Maple Leafs are looking to at least win a playoff series for the 1st time in 15 years. Question is, is this the year? The oddsmakers seem to think so, as they are favoured the buds to do something that a lot of us have never seen in our lifetimes - a Stanley Cup championship. Expectations will be higher than ever, especially since the big free agent signing of John Tavares on July 1st marking the first time in NHL history that a franchise cornerstone player changed teams as an unrestricted free agent in the prime of his career. This instantly makes the team an annual contender for the next several years if they weren't already with #91 playing in his hometown.
KEY PLAYER ADDITIONS: C John Tavares, C Par Lindholm, F Tyler Ennis, D Igor Ozhiganov.
KEY PLAYER SUBTRACTIONS: LW James Van Riemsdyk, C Tyler Bozak, F Leo Komarov, C Tomas Plekanec, C Dominic Moore, LW Matt Martin, D Connor Carrick, G Curtis Mcelhinney, G Calvin Pickard
*PROJECTED FORWARD LINES
Marleau Matthews Nylander (RFA - unsigned)
Hyman Tavares Marner
Leivo Kadri Brown
Johnsson Lindholm Kapanen
SPARES: Ennis, Gauthier
I for one never saw the Tavares signing happening due to salary cap implications it will have in the future. But they signed him alright and you saw the effect it had for any additional long-term contracts right away on the same day as the team lost James Van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov (among others) who had been on the team for several years. They now have a 1-2 punch with Tavares and Matthews in which we've only seen a handful of times in NHL history, the other in modern times being Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the Pittsburgh Penguins and other comparables in the past being Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov on Detroit, Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg on Colorado, Mario Lemieux and Ron Francis on Pittsburgh and Wayne Gretzky with Mark Messier in Edmonton. This offence will be very explosive, particularly on the power play and will score goals in bunches. Younger players such as Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen, and Josh Leivo will have the opportunity to move up in the lineup with the free agent losses on the wing, which up until last season was the team's deepest position. That distinction now goes to the middle of the ice at centre, where Tavares replaces Bozak, which is a massive upgrade that is unprecedented.
SPARES: Marincin, Holl
Another impact of the Tavares signing will also be the lack of cap room long-term to fix the team's biggest weakness, defence. The left side is solid with 3 very good puck-movers but the right side needs an upgrade with a horse they will have to find from within. Before all Leafs fans start to panic about this area of the team like they do every year, remember that there is the option to do what other contenders with a lack of cap room have done in recent years which is try and figure things out from within as best you can then make a splash at the trade deadline for the area that you need an upgrade in the most. That is only however if management is comfortable with trading high picks in the form of 1st rounders for rentals, something they have not done for several years. If now is the time and they are at the top of the standings looking to go all in, that is a decision that will need to be made at that time. Until then, they will need to make-shift and piece it together for now.
1. Frederik Andersen
2. Garrett Sparks
Andersen has proven over his first 2 years on the Leafs that he is a bonafide #1 goalie. He is the main guy that will play 60+ games again, giving the team a chance to win on a nightly basis and will no doubt get the goal support he needs, so hopefully they can play better defensively in front of him which at times they have failed to do. Garrett Sparks has nothing left to prove in the AHL as he won a Calder Cup last season with sparkling numbers. At 25 years of age he will work his way into perhaps someday becoming a starter in the league.
This team has now been bounced out of the 1st Round of the playoffs 2 years in a row and the pressure will be on. They play in a tough division with both the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning but if they can finish in 1st place that would all but guarantee they would avoid both of those teams in the opening round. This also marks the final year before their young stars get paid the big bucks, and for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner between them they will probably be making about $20M per year more than they are now, finishing up the last year of their entry-level contracts. It says here that before a cap crunch comes in (which we see happen with every good team in the salary cap era) they should strike while the iron is hot and go for it all this year. There is also concern at least to start the season with William Nylander remaining unsigned and will need him at some point for depth up front. From this season onwards they will now be measured on how they do in the postseason and that is something not only because of the Tavares signing, but the pressure cooker playing in the largest hockey market in the world - and while expectations have risen, so has the skill level of the team. They will be fun to watch.