(Editor's note: As part of our NHL coverage leading up to the start of the 2015-16 season, we are running previews on all seven Canadian teams. You can read previous installments here.)
At the end of the 2013-14 season, after yet another late-season collapse, the Toronto Maple Leafs were continuing their long tradition of being mediocre. The roster was filled with bad contracts, not enough good talent was being developed in the system, and the management team was the laughing stock of the NHL.
Change was necessary, and Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment brought in former NHL player safety head Brendan Shanahan to right the ship and start a much-needed rebuild. Shanahan preached player development and patience at his first press conference.
"When people ask me about the plan in Toronto… I've often said the plan is not some unique plan that you won't hear 29 other teams say they have to do, which is draft, develop, patience," Shanahan told the Toronto Star. "Make good choices. The challenge here in Toronto is not to come up with the plan. The challenge in Toronto is to stick to it."
After having one of the most challenging seasons in Leafs history, where Toronto finished second last in the Eastern Conference, the club continued to undergo dramatic turnover and make those good choices. What a difference a year makes.
Gone are former general manager Dave Nonis, former head coach Randy Carlyle, top scorer Phil Kessel, who was never loved in Toronto, and what was thought to be an unmovable player due to his contract in David Clarkson. The entire management team has been reworked, as Shanahan opted for more analytically-inclined thinkers like Kyle Dubas, Mark Hunter and Brandon Pridham.
Toronto's biggest move this offseason was hiring Mike Babcock as the new head coach. Babcock was the NHL's biggest free agent, and the Leafs landed him by offering a mammoth eight-year, $50 million deal—the largest coaching contract in league history. With almost unlimited wealth, and no cap requirements for coaches, the move made perfect sense. Babcock, who created a winning culture in Detroit, will do wonders for player development and keep players accountable.
The biggest surprise this offseason was naming Lou Lamoriello as general manager. The 72-year-old is an old-school guy, and didn't exactly fit the mold of up-and-comers like previous management hires have. While he had his fair share of success in New Jersey, he ran the team into the ground before giving GM duties to Ray Shero. Shanahan admitted the team valued his experience, which is something they lacked. Lamoriello will likely hold the role until Dubas is ready to takeover, while serving as his mentor.
This upcoming season, regardless of win/loss record, is about reestablishing a winning culture and proper player development. The team has made the playoffs once since 2005-06, and getting back there will be a challenge.
The club's roster on paper is thin, although well constructed. As suggested, the Leafs filled the roster with low-risk, high-reward players on one-year deals. A handful a depth players were brought in, including Mark Arcobello, Shawn Matthias, P.A. Parenteau and Brad Boyes on short deals, and should they rebuild their value, they'll be flipped later in the season for draft picks. These players will fill the bottom-six with scoring options, instead of wasting the spots on enforcers like Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren.
Toronto may be loaded with depth players, but it sorely lacks a game-breaking forward after trading Kessel. There's hope William Nylander—the eighth overall pick of the 2014 draft who made his pro debut last season—can become that player, but that's a lot to ask of a 19-year-old. Nylander, who will begin the season in the AHL, leads the pack of a quickly replenished farm system, which was created by the Leafs being proactive in stockpiling assets.
The Leafs prospect core features some excellent pieces in addition to Nylander, including Connor Brown, Scott Harrington, Frederik Gauthier and Kasperi Kapanen, although there's no rush to get them to Toronto immediately. The club wants its prospects to develop, and promoting them when they're not ready would be contradictory, but these youngsters should still have fans of the team excited.
The top-six forward group is where things get worrisome.
James Van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak logged a majority of their minutes at even strength with Kessel, and their numbers, especially Bozak's, are going to take a hit without him. Leafs brass is hoping Nazem Kadri can put his immaturity behind him, and develop into a No. 1 centre. He doesn't face much competition for the role, so it's up to him to seize the opportunity.
The defence, meanwhile, is in OK shape. Babcock seems excited to work with Dion Phaneuf, a player he tried to acquire in Detroit, which should light a fire under the captain's ass. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are talented puck-moving offensive defencemen who will get better and are the standouts of Toronto's defensive unit. They are due for higher-leverage roles.
Toronto's goaltenders didn't have it easy in 2014-15. Neither Carlyle or interim head coach Peter Horachek had anything resembling a good defensive plan, which led to giving up the second-most shots at even strength (2095). Jonathan Bernier did the best he could, posting a .921 even strength save percentage. Good news for Toronto is, over the last three seasons, Babcock's Red Wings gave up the fifth fewest five-on-five even-strength shots, so it's hard to imagine the Leafs being as bad as they were with a new defensive system.
Despite their shaky roster, the Leafs could still challenge for a playoff spot.
Babcock is too talented of a coach to let them be as bad as they've been. But, make no mistake, this season is all about development. Toronto's rebuild will be long and require patience from its fans. The Leafs are not going to become Stanley Cup champions overnight, but you get the feeling it's not completely farfetched to think one day, even in the far distant future, it's something that's possible.
Under Shanahan, the Leafshave accomplished a tremendous amountin year one of the rebuild and it will be fascinating to see where they're at this time next year.