For a combination of reasons, the Toronto Maple Leafs became the flashpoint in a battle for acceptance of advanced statistics in hockey last season.
The Maple Leafs front office was famously not on board, and at the same time Toronto was one of the teams not performing the way those statistics said it should be. After missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons, thanks in large part to a late-season swoon, the Maple Leafs made some major changes this offseason.
New president Brendan Shanahan did not make major personnel changes, but he did hire Kyle Dubas, an Ontario Hockey League general manager well versed in analytics, to join the front office. The new-look management group did try to improve the depth up front and on the back end.
How much better can the Maple Leafs be? It will be fascinating to see if Dubas' hiring impacts any on-ice philosophy or strategy. The top-end talent is there, and some of the puck-possession issues could be helped by the maturation of defensemen Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, and the addition of Stephane Robidas.
Toronto doesn't look like a team capable of soaring up the standings, but more strong work from the goaltenders could keep the Maple Leafs in playoff contention.
Here's a look at the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Maple Leafs:
There is loads of data that suggests Tyler Bozak is not a top-line center, but coach Randy Carlyle has valued his perceived chemistry with Phil Kessel over that evidence. The Maple Leafs need Joffrey Lupul to stay healthy, because though the depth is better, this crew lacks dynamism beyond Kessel, Lupul, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk.
One possibility is William Nylander, one of the most gifted offensive players in the 2014 NHL Draft. If he has a strong camp, there will be plenty of clamoring to keep him to start the season. It would help if David Clarkson can rebound from a disastrous first season in his hometown. There isn't an obvious choice to be the wing opposite Lupul on the second line, but Clarkson could be given another chance.
If Clarkson isn't the guy, and Nylander or another prospect isn't ready, then one of several additions expected to populate the bottom six could move up. The options include Mike Santorelli, Matt Frattin, David Booth and Daniel Winnik, with Petri Kontiola likely to center one of the bottom two lines.
The Maple Leafs have 17 forwards on one-way contracts, but Peter Holland, Troy Bodie, Frazer McLaren and Trevor Smith can all be sent to the American Hockey League without a penalty against the NHL salary cap, provided they clear waivers. If Toronto is worried about losing Holland on waivers, he could make the team even if he doesn't earn a regular spot in the lineup.
Carl Gunarsson was Dion Phaneuf's regular partner last season, but he was traded to the St. Louis Blues for Roman Polak. Stephane Robidas was signed as a free agent, and one of those two will slide in next to Phaneuf.
The other new guy could fit next to second-year man Morgan Rielly, if Jake Gardiner stays with Cody Franson. Carlyle has a reputation for not trusting young players, but Gardiner (24) and Reilly (20) were two of the four players on the team who posted a Corsi-for percentage of 44.5 percent or higher (Kadri was also in that group). If Dubas has any effect on the on-ice decision making, it might be to the benefit of those two defensemen.
There is no proven depth behind those top six players. Good health on the blue line will be critical.
James Reimer was in net for a lot of the late-season collapse, after Jonathan Bernier had the majority of the starts while the Maple Leafs were in playoff position. Some people in Toronto tried to pin the swoon on Reimer, but he actually had a better save percentage than Bernier after the Olympic break.
Bernier was in the midst of a late-season fade, which was understandable considering he hadn't been a No. 1 goaltender at this level at any point. The Maple Leafs reportedly flirted with Martin Brodeur, and he's available. Unless the return on a trade is tremendous, moving Reimer to make room for Brodeur would be a big mistake.
This can be one of the top goaltender tandems in the League. The Maple Leafs might need it to be.
Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter: @cmasisak22
2014-15 FANTASY PREVIEW: LEAFS
Undervalued: Dion Phaneuf -- Take a guess how many defensemen had more than 30 points and 100 penalty minutes last season. Still wondering? The answer is one, Phaneuf. Though his 0.39 points per game (31 total points) were a career worst, he averaged 0.57 per game over his previous eight seasons. And remember, he's still just 29. He's also a shots machine. In his nine-year career, no defenseman has more shots than Phaneuf's 1,862 -- that's more than Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber, Dan Boyle and Duncan Keith, who have all played nine seasons in the League as well. Phaneuf might not rack up a ton of points anymore, but he'll help in every other fantasy category.
Overvalued: Tyler Bozak -- Bozak's fantasy believers will likely rave about last season's point production (which is decent -- he did have 49 points in 58 games), but he's only done that once in his five-year career. Prior to last season, Bozak averaged 0.56 points per game over 238 games. And excluding his mediocre point value, he won't really help in any other category, including goals. His plus-2 rating last season was the first time he had a plus rating, and he's never had more than 19 goals, 12 power-play points, 22 penalty minutes or 120 shots on goal in any single season. At best, you're looking at a player that gives you 60 points (mostly via assists), but just about nothing else. You'd be smart to let someone else draft him.
Sleeper: Jonathan Bernier -- Bernier doesn't quite qualify as a sleeper, but then again, the Maple Leafs don't exactly have a player that fits the normal sleeper description. Sure I could go with David Booth, Mike Santorelli or even David Clarkson, but all three of these players might end up outside of the top-six forward group. The same can be said for 2014 first-round draft choice William Nylander, who might not even make the team out of training camp. But Bernier has plenty of value. And for the first time in his career, he'll be viewed as a No. 1 goalie going into the season. Bernier's 2.68 goals-against average might not be sparkling, but his .923 save percentage ranked eighth in the League. The Leafs were dead last in shots against per game at 35.9 and third-worst in penalty-kill percentage at 78.4, so there are definitely concerns about the team in front of Bernier, but his skills are there. He just needs a little more help this season to move into the top 15-20 fantasy goalies.
Follow Matt Cubeta on Twitter: @NHLQubes
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