NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, three questions facing the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Expectations were tempered for the Toronto Maple Leafs prior to last season, but despite having as many as eight rookies in the lineup, they qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in an 82-game season since 2003-04.
After pushing the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals to six games -- each decided by one goal and five going to overtime -- in the Eastern Conference First Round before losing, expectations will be much higher this season.
[MAPLE LEAFS 31 IN 31: Season preview | Top prospects | Fantasy breakdown | Behind the numbers]
1. Can Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander follow up on their successful rookie season?
The Maple Leafs boasted three dynamic rookie forwards last season. Matthews led Toronto in scoring with 69 points (40 goals, 29 assists) in 82 games, Marner had 61 (19 goals, 42 assists) in 77 games, and Nylander had 61 (22 goals, 39 assists) in 81 games.
Each made a huge impact in his first NHL season. The key now will be for them to avoid a slump in their second season.
"I buy into a notion that the League gets harder and harder every year you're in it, so your preparation for your next season is so important," coach Mike Babcock said. "If you think you've made it, you're on your way out. If you live in fear, that's the best. If you keep getting better, you have a chance to be good every year. If you don't get better, I don't care what year it is, it's going to be a jinx, but it's a jinx because you didn't do the work."
Video: 31 in 31: Toronto Maple Leafs 2017-18 season preview
2. Is there enough goaltending depth?
The Maple Leafs relied heavily on Frederik Andersen last season. He started 66 games and was 33-16-14, earning 80 of Toronto's 95 points. Searching for a viable backup option, they claimed Curtis McElhinney off waivers from the Columbus Blue Jackets on Jan. 10. He went 6-7-0 in 14 games for the Maple Leafs and was signed to a two-year, $1.7 million contract ($850,000 average annual value) on July 1. With Garret Sparks, who has played 17 NHL games, likely next in line to be recalled from Toronto of the American Hockey League, would McElhinney and Sparks be able to carry the load should Andersen miss extended time?
3. Is the defense strong enough to compete for the Stanley Cup?
The top two defense pairs are Morgan Rielly with Ron Hainsey and Jake Gardiner with Nikita Zaitsev, according to Babcock. That leaves Martin Marincin, Connor Carrick, Travis Dermott, and free agent signings Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman as potential candidates for the remaining roster spots.
"Our D really improved last year," Babcock said. "We had a lot of guys who hadn't done it before, but I think the experience the guys gained last year and the expectations they have for themselves and knowing what's expected will make them better."
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