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Season Preview: Toronto Maple Leafs

Additions of rookie center Auston Matthews, goalie Frederik Andersen should speed rebuild

by David Alter / NHL.com Correspondent
At a glance

2015-16 record: 29-42-11, 69 points, 8th in Atlantic Division, 16th in Eastern Conference

2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify

Additions: F: Auston Matthews, Matt Martin; D: Roman Polak, Nikita Zaitsev; G: Frederik Andersen, Jhonas Enroth

Subtractions: F: Brad Boyes, Sam Carrick, Michael Grabner, PA Parenteau; D: TJ Brennan; G: Jonathan Bernier

 

Projected opening night lineup

Forwards

James van Riemsdyk -- Nazem Kadri -- Leo Komarov

Nikita Soshnikov -- Tyler Bozak -- William Nylander

Milan Michalek -- Auston Matthews -- Mitchell Marner

Matt Martin -- Brooks Laich -- Zach Hyman

Peter Holland

Defensemen

Matt Hunwick -- Morgan Rielly

Jake Gardiner -- Nikita Zaitsev

Martin Marincin -- Connor Carrick

Frank Corrado

Goalies

Frederik Andersen

Jhonas Enroth

Garret Sparks

 

Video: Auston Matthews shatters glass in 1st day of practice

The Toronto Maple Leafs finished 30th in the NHL last season, but the positive aspects of 2015-16 couldn't be measured by standings points. Management was public about being in a rebuild and learning to play the puck-possession style favored by coach Mike Babcock. The Maple Leafs hope to build on those gains this season.

Toronto made some long-term moves to keep players they feel will be part of the next phase of the rebuild. Two restricted free agents, defenseman Morgan Rielly and center Nazem Kadri, were each signed to a six-year contract. The Maple Leafs had the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and used it to take center Auston Matthews.

Matthews, 19, represents the future of the youth movement. He's regarded by many scouts as a generational talent. The Maple Leafs hope he can develop into the No. 1 center they haven't had since Mats Sundin departed after the 2007-08 season.

They also addressed a need for better goaltending, acquiring Frederik Andersen in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks on June 20 and that day signing him to a five-year contract reportedly worth $25 million. Andersen was 22-9-7 with a 2.30 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in 43 games last season and shared the William Jennings Trophy (fewest goals allowed by a team) with John Gibson.

In addition, the Maple Leafs signed 24-year-old defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, who spent the past seven seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League. Zaitsev played for Russia at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 and had two assists in four games.

The Maple Leafs feel they've addressed their needs without making a big splash in free agency. Their biggest signing was a four-year contract for unrestricted free agent forward Matt Martin, who led the NHL in hits five straight seasons playing for the New York Islanders. Martin should fill the need for more grit up front. Goalie Jhonas Enroth, 28, signed a one-year contract Aug. 22 to provide a veteran backup to Andersen.

 

Why they should make the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Steady improvement in all areas should mean an increase in goals and a reduction in goals allowed. Matthews is expected to be a game-breaker, and forward Mitchell Marner, the No. 4 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, also could make the jump to the NHL. Andersen can provide the kind of goaltending a young team needs to make the playoffs.

 

Why they could miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs

The Maple Leafs are learning to play Babcock's systems. There will be mistakes, and it's not easy to learn on the fly at the NHL level. There's not a lot of veteran leadership, and general manager Lou Lamoriello has said there's no timetable for naming a captain, something Toronto hasn't had since defenseman Dion Phaneuf was traded to the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 9. The Maple Leafs are preaching patience. 

 

Breakout candidate

Connor Brown. The 22-year-old right wing has been underestimated at every level he's played but has proved his doubters wrong with consistency and a steady work ethic. Brown got his first taste of the NHL late last season and had one goal and five assists in seven games.

 

On the hot seat

Peter Holland. He spent the past season bouncing between a bottom-six role and being a healthy scratch. Holland was a restricted free agent and signed a one-year contract July 25 to avoid arbitration. He'll find the competition for forward spots to be tough.

 

Trophy candidates

Matthews (Calder); Andersen (Vezina, Jennings)

 

Quotable

"This is just a sign of what's going to happen here in Toronto, just so you know. But this is a special thing to do for Canada, and now we've got to do it in Toronto." -- coach Mike Babcock after helping Team Canada win the World Cup of Hockey 2016

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