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Maple Leafs counting on production from young players

Addition of veteran forward Marleau will help Matthews, Marner, Nylander

by Dave McCarthy / NHL.com Correspondent

TORONTO -- The pressure is on for the Toronto Maple Leafs to go on a long run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season.

Throughout training camp, coach Mike Babcock's underlying theme has been to guard against complacency, trying to drive home to his players that nothing is guaranteed in the NHL after Toronto in 2016-17 unexpectedly qualified for the playoffs for the first time in an 82-game season since 2003-04.

"I coached lots of good teams [with the Detroit Red Wings]. We had 124 points (in 2005-06), fifth-best of all time, and we lost in the first round of the playoffs," Babcock said. "There's lots of things that can happen, and there's no guaranteed success. As your talent base grows, your work ethic and preparation has to grow too if you want to have success. If you want to think you can skill your way around the rink, you can't. You have to put your work first."

Forward Patrick Marleau, who signed a three-year, $18.75 million contract July 2 after spending the first 19 seasons of his NHL career with the San Jose Sharks, should help in conveying that message to Toronto's young core.

After scoring 40 goals as a rookie in 2016-17, forward Auston Matthews had six points (four goals, two assists) in his first three preseason games, including a hat trick in a 5-1 win against the Montreal Canadiens on Monday.

"He's a real improved player," Babcock said. "His skating through the neutral zone from a year ago to now is night and day. He's just a much better player. The growth in your young guys goes so fast because confidence is the hardest part to get, but as they get going and understand the League, they get better quick."

Here is a look at the five keys for the Maple Leafs, the inside scoop on their roster questions and projected lines for the 2017-18 season:

 

5 KEYS

1. Tighten up defensively

The Maple Leafs allowed 234 goals last season, 22nd in the League and the most of the 16 teams to qualify for the playoffs.

2. Improve in shootout

The Maple Leafs were 1-8 in the shootout last season. An extra point would have put them in third place in the Atlantic Division, resulting in an Eastern Conference First Round series against the Ottawa Senators instead of the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, who eliminated them in six games. Three more points would have given them home-ice advantage in the first round. Toronto scored on 17.8 percent of its shootout attempts (last in NHL), and it had a .538 save percentage in the tiebreaker (28th).

3. Continued success on special teams

Toronto was very effective on special teams last season, finishing second in the League behind the Buffalo Sabres on the power play (23.8 percent) and tied for ninth with the Columbus Blue Jackets on the penalty kill (82.5 percent).

"It's crazy important that you realize how important special teams are. They really win you games," said forward Connor Brown, who played regularly on the power play (1:13 per game) and penalty kill (1:59). "So many times you can get outplayed 5-on-5, you might get one or two goals, either team 5-on-5, but there are a lot of goals that come on the power play and penalty kill. Winning that special teams battle night in, night out gives you an edge."

Video: TOR@DET: Matthews uses quick hands to bury PPG

4. Kids are all right

Matthews and forwards Mitchell Marner and William Nylander each is entering his second full NHL season. Matthews had 69 points (40 goals, 29 assists) to lead the Maple Leafs in 2016-17, and Nylander and Marner each had 61, tied for third with Nazem Kadri. Toronto, which was fifth in the NHL in goals (250), is counting on their production continuing.

Video: TOR@WSH, Gm1: Marner lays out to open the scoring

5. Rielly raises his game

Defenseman Morgan Rielly elevated his game in the playoffs, when he had five points (one goal, four assists) in six games and was sound defensively. 

"You want to your best every night and try to get better every game. It's not always as easy as that, but when you're able to put it together for periods at a time, it makes you motivated to keep it going," the 23-year-old said.

During the regular season, he was used primarily in a shut-down role against opponents' top lines and was effective, but his offensive production declined to 0.36 points per game, the lowest of his four NHL seasons. The Maple Leafs hoped Rielly would ascend into the role of No. 1 defenseman when they took him with the No. 5 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. If he continues playing like he did in the postseason, it would be a step in the right direction.

Video: TOR@WSH, Gm2: Rielly scores PPG through traffic

 
ROSTER RUNDOWN

Biggest lock

Matthews, 20, won the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the NHL last season. He was tied with Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov for second in the League in goals behind Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (44), playing center primarily with Zach Hyman at left wing and Nylander and Brown splitting time at right wing. He will be the No. 1 center and featured on the top power-play unit.

Biggest battle

Babcock has said throughout training camp that fourth-line center is up for grabs. Dominic Moore, 37, signed to a one-year, $1 million contract July 1 as an unrestricted free agent and was thought to be the front-runner, but Miro Aaltonen, 24, who was signed to a two-year, entry-level contract March 17, has played himself into consideration for the job, earning the opportunity to play on a line with Matt Martin and Brown in an otherwise full NHL lineup in a 5-1 preseason win against the Canadiens on Monday. Babcock has also mentioned Eric Fehr and Ben Smith as candidates.

Most intriguing addition

Marleau, 38, remains among the fastest players in the League, and that should allow him to fit in well with the Maple Leafs' high-speed style. He had 46 points (27 goals, 19 assists) in 82 games for the Sharks last season. Babcock said he feels Marleau can score 20 goals, but he is most excited about his ability to play on any of the top three lines. In the preseason, Marleau has been used on the power play and penalty kill as well.

Video: OTT@TOR: Marleau snipes home a wrister in Leafs debut

Biggest potential surprise

Defenseman Calle Rosen, 23, signed a two-year, entry-level contract May 16 and appears to have the inside track on a spot among the top-six defensemen, ahead of veteran Martin Marincin. Rosen was never drafted and spent the past three seasons playing in the Swedish Hockey League. Though Rosen and Aaltonen -- another potential surprise -- have exceeded the expectations of many in training camp, they haven't surprised the Maple Leafs. "We thought they were good, that's why we signed them," Babcock said.

 
PROJECTED LINEUP

Zach Hyman -- Auston Matthews -- William Nylander

James van Riemsdyk -- Tyler Bozak -- Mitchell Marner

Patrick Marleau -- Nazem Kadri -- Leo Komarov

Matt Martin -- Miro Aaltonen -- Connor Brown

Morgan Rielly -- Ron Hainsey

Jake Gardiner -- Nikita Zaitsev

Calle Rosen -- Connor Carrick

Frederik Andersen

Curtis McElhinney

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