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31 in 31

Inside look at Toronto Maple Leafs

Marleau expected to add steady veteran hand to talented young core

by Dave McCarthy / NHL.com Correspondent

NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Toronto Maple Leafs will look to take another step forward this season after taking a huge one in 2016-17.

They've rejuvenated the passion of their fan base, thanks to an unexpected berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs powered by an exciting core of young players. Their 40-27-15 record gave them their winningest season since 2006-07 and their first playoff appearance in four seasons, all after finishing with the worst record in the NHL in 2015-16. 

"Part of the excitement for our fans is they see something growing," coach Mike Babcock said, "and to me, their positive support has been fantastic because they see something to believe in now. We're no different as a team, we're just going to keep grinding and getting better, and as we do, we'll get our turn."

 

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Not only are fans believing in the Maple Leafs again, so too are other players around the League. Toronto signed forward Patrick Marleau, who spent the first 19 seasons of his NHL career with the San Jose Sharks, to a three-year, $18.75 million contract ($6.25 million average annual value) on July 2.

"It was the team, the excitement that's around it, the youth, the coaching staff, the coach, the management, the way they see the game going, and the players they have on their roster," Marleau, 37, said when asked what attracted him to the Maple Leafs. "It's extremely exciting to be a part of that."

Babcock, who developed a relationship with Marleau coaching him on Canada's gold-medal winning teams at the 2010 Vancouver and 2014 Sochi Olympics, said he has given much thought to who will play with Marleau but has not made a final decision.

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"I still believe he can score 20 goals in the League, for sure, and he can play on any one of our top nine spots," Babcock said. "He can play against the best players, he can play with the best players. He can do whatever you ask him to do and he's comfortable doing it."

The Maple Leafs were low on playoff experience last season; five players in their lineup for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Washington Capitals had skated in more than seven NHL postseason games. 

Of that group, forward James van Riemsdyk, who had 62 points (29 goals, 33 assists) in 82 games last season, and forward Matt Martin remain, but center Brian Boyle signed with the New Jersey Devils and defenseman Matt Hunwick signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins, each as an unrestricted free agent. Defenseman Roman Polak, an unrestricted free agent who had surgery after breaking his fibula in Game 2 against Washington, remains unsigned. 

Marleau, who had 46 points (27 goals, 19 assists) in 82 games last season, brings 177 games of NHL playoff experience. Center Dominic Moore signed a one-year, $1 million contract July 1; he has played in 99 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

Video: EDM@SJS, Gm4: Marleau wires in PPG to extend lead

"Their experience is obviously a bonus, but experience without the ability to play doesn't do you much good," Babcock said. "We wanted more speed, more size and more depth up front. We feel that will give us a better chance to score."

Much of the offensive responsibility will fall on a durable forward group that includes Auston Matthews, who won the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the NHL after scoring 69 points (40 goals, 29 assists) in 82 games, van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri (32-29-61 in 82 games), William Nylander (22-39-61 in 81 games) and Mitchell Marner (19-42-61 in 77 games).

Defenseman Ron Hainsey, who signed a two-year, $6 million contract ($3 million average annual value) on July 1, made the NHL playoffs for the first time in his 15-season career in 2016-17 and played a key role in helping the Penguins to their second consecutive Stanley Cup championship. Babcock said his intention is to pair Hainsey with Morgan Rielly to start this season.

Video: NSH@PIT, Gm5: Hainsey finishes smooth passing play

Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, who partnered with Rielly to begin his rookie season but finished it alongside Jake Gardiner, had 36 points (four goals, 32 assists) in 82 games. The Maple Leafs showed their commitment to Zaitsev by signing him to a seven-year, $31.5 million contract ($4.5 million average annual value) on May 2.

Babcock's challenge this season will be to keep expectations realistic, given that several of Toronto's core players, including Matthews, Marner and Zaitsev, are entering their second NHL season.

"We're real reasonable with our group; we expect to get better than we were last year," Babcock said. "You can't control injuries and some other things, but you expect to get better, and we think we've done a good job improving our roster."

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