NHL 31 in 31 Season Review: Toronto Maple Leafs
The NHL is simply a more exciting league when the Toronto Maple Leafs are a competitive team and the team appears to be built to be competitive for a long time. It is not a secret that the Leafs fully bought into a youth movement and the team is set to reap the benefits for the years to come. The team will have some tough decisions to make this offseason with members of the “old core” but the new core looks set to take over.
The first bright spot worth mentioning here is obviously Nikita Zaitsev. Kidding of course, Auston Matthews is the heartbeat and future captain of the team and it should come as no surprise that he is the first bright spot I will focus on. He scored 34 goals and had 29 assists in only 62 games. There is not much I can say that has not already been said so I will try to focus on some unique stats that other articles of this nature may not have noticed. The focus will always be on his offensive talent, and rightfully so, but he is great without the puck in his own end as well. He blocks passes in the defensive zone and even blocks more than 1 shot per 20 minutes. This should not come as a surprise because a player of Matthews’ skill level just knows where to be at all times when he is on the ice. it is a testament to his hockey sense, which is difficult to measure but when looking at numbers like this it starts to make more sense. Before I move on from Matthews I wanted to point out an offensive statistic that separates Matthews from other high-end skill players. His ability to get to the slot and get pucks on net is comparable to Alex Ovechkin, he gets more than 2 shots on next per 20 minutes from the slot, a rate good enough to be near the top of the league.
Two years ago, William Nylander was the young player who burst onto the scene alongside Matthews. Nylander had another solid campaign in 2017 but if when the history of the Leafs is being written 2017 will be remembered and the year that Mitch Marner came out of his shell. Marner scored 22 goals and set up 47 more, good for 69 points, 8 more than he had in the previous season. Losing to Boston hurt but Marner was fantastic in the series, amassing 9 points in the seven games. He looks like a great complement to the Matthews-Nylander line. He also was a great possession player, his 53.6% Corsi was one of the best on the team. The high volume of assists should mean the following statistics should not come as a surprise. Marner had a pass to the slot success rate of 42% and was able to make 1.62 successful passes to the slot per 20 minutes. In other words, he is great at setting up players in the best positions to score. Marner should continue to develop and get stronger, if he can up his individual goal total the Leafs will have a two headed monster in Marner and Matthews.
It looks like the Leafs may have found half of their top pair moving forward. Twenty-four-year-old Morgan Rielly played top minutes and excelled in his time on ice. he produced 52 points on the year and is great to have on the powerplay to pair up with the skilled forwards. It is no secret that his biggest strength is his offensive upside and the statistics only further that ideology. He makes about 4.5 plays per 20 minutes (5v5) that generate scoring chances for the Leafs. Toronto is at its best off the rush and Rielly is among the best in the league at executing stretch passes. These passes get the pucks up ice to forwards quickly and Toronto has more than enough skill up front to capitalize. Some of his defensive numbers are not as impressive but I think Rielly is a fitting example of the idea that the best defense is a good offense. He is a positive Corsi player and a big focus of the Leafs plan moving forward must be finding a defensive minded partner to play big minutes alongside Rielly.
Perhaps that option may already be on the roster. Travis Dermott was called up in January and was a mainstay on the roster for the remainder of the season. Some of his defensive measurables are among the best in the league from the time he was called up. He denied more than half of the zone entries where he was defined as the primary defender. Dermott is not the biggest player, he is only 6 feet tall and weighs 208 pounds, but he uses his body and stick well. He does well to win contested puck battles and recoveries opponents dump-ins at a high rate. The only issue with a Dermott/Rielly pairing is the fact that they are both lefthanded shots. Teams prefer having a right-handed defenseman to play opposite the lefties. Regardless, Dermott should slot into the top four in Toronto for years to come.
The Leafs must have been sick of being pushed around by the Bruins in the division because the team went out and signed Matt Martin after the 2015-2016 season. This past year he only appeared in 50 games and was a healthy scratch late in the season. His cap hit is $2.5M which is not a complete disaster, but the team would certainly like a player making that much money to be in the lineup night in and night out. For reference, Zach Hyman played with Auston Matthews for most of the year and his cap hit was only $2.25M. Martin plays a heavy game and the numbers back that up but unfortunately there is not much else he brings to the table.
Leo Komarov was another interesting case for the Leafs. In my opinion he was one of the worst forwards on the roster. He did play a defensive role, he only had a 20% offensive zone start rate and he often played against top competition. However, that role can be filled by several players who would not cost as much as Komarov ($2.95M). His Corsi% was 45.2%, which is one of the worst on the team. In the bright spot section, I highlighted how good Matthews and Marner are with the puck on their stick. In this section I will explain how much Komarov struggled. He rarely possessed the puck in the offensive zone, he only had possession for 18 seconds during every 20 minutes of ice time. The real issue is with his defensive metrics, for a forward who is supposed to play a shutdown role his numbers are not very impressive. He is a good shot blocker and does a decent job denying entries but once the puck is in the zone he appears to be a step slow. When Komarov is on the ice opponents register, 3 scoring chances that are considered “off the cycle”. Essentially it means teams can possess the puck and create chances against the Leafs when Komarov is on the ice. Luckily for the Leafs he is a pending UFA, so the team could decide to let him walk and test the market.
Lastly, there are some defenseman that should be written about in this section. To say Roman Polak had a tough year would be putting it gently. The 32-year-old veteran appeared in 54 games this year. He had a sub-50% Corsi (47.4%) and I think this happened because he is not a very good passer. His outlet passes are only successful 60% of the time, the number drops to 50% when the pass is extended to be considered a stretch pass. In other words, he is not very good at moving the puck up ice away from the Leaf net. He was a physical presence, but I would be surprised if the Leafs also opt to let him leave the team this offseason.
The first issue I would tackle if I were Kyle Dubas would be to lock up William Nylander long-term. Nylander is a productive player who will be in his prime during the contract and the team will have a “big 3” of Matthews, Marner and Nylander moving forward. A 5-7-year deal with an AAV of somewhere between 7 and 9 million dollars seems right for Nylander. He is an exciting young talent but does not command 10M and it makes sense for him to be the second or third highest paid player on a team. Auston Matthews will get a megadeal, so locking up Nylander for less would be good for the team and the player. The easy comparison is to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in Edmonton, Toronto will want to have something similar moving forward. We previously wrote why signing Nylander long-term makes the most sense. That article can be found here.
Signing Nylander seems like a no brainer for the Leafs but that is the only easy choice they will make this offseason. The team has 22M in cap space but for arguments sake let’s assume they have 16M after resigning Nylander. Members of the old core are all UFAs and I am curious to see how Dubas will handle the situation. Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov and James van Riemsdyk have all been with the team for an extended period and will be able to test the market. Tomas Plekanec was acquired during the season and he will also be a UFA. I would not be surprised if Dubas lets all the players walk. When a new General Manager is hired it seems like he is always looking to put his stamp on the team. Dubas has worked extensively with the Toronto Marlies and is very familiar with young prospects like Kasperi Kapanen, Jeremy Bracco and Timothy Liljegren. It would not come as a surprise if two, or maybe even three, of these players start the season in the NHL next year.
I mentioned what Dubas could do but now I will mention what I would do. I would let Plekanec, Komarov, van Riemsdyk, Polak and Dominic Moore sign elsewhere. James Van Riemsdyk Is the one player on the list that some would argue the Leafs should keep. To me, it comes down to JVR or Tyler Bozak. I would choose Bozak because I like him as a player, but it is more about value. Van Riemsdyk is going to sign a big money contract on July 1st and I am always wary of giving out big contracts in free agency. JVR is 29 and Bozak is 32, so in theory both players are already past their primes. If van Riemsdyk is not past his prime, he is certainly at the tail end. Regardless, he figures to sign for at least 5 years and should make at least 5-5.5M per season. This means his contract would end at age 34, I would rather sign Bozak until he is 35 at a contract with a cap hit closer to $4M. Bozak plays a solid two-way game at center and would be very difficult to replace in the Leaf lineup. JVR is talented but I think it is reasonable to expect the much younger Kapanen to produce at a similar level at a much more team friendly cost.
Even if the team fills some slots with younger players I would expect the team to be relatively active in the free agent market. However, it might not be in the way fans might expect from the Leafs. Kyle Dubas does not seem like the type to throw big money at the biggest names, instead I would expect hm to try to find value where other teams are not looking. I would not be surprised if Toronto ended up signing a handful of $1.5-3M dollar players who are minimal risk but have a chance to be high reward players. Michael Grabner is a name that comes to mind, while his price may be a bit higher than the $3M his statistics make him seem like a player Dubas and his team might covet.
Regardless of what actions Dubas takes the Leafs have a strong young core that should be competitive for a playoff spot. It will be interesting to see how the team handles the heightened expectations and how potential changes will impact the style of play. Assuming Mike Babcock and Auston Matthews have handled their rumored issues the core of the Leafs should have the team competing with the Boston and Tampa Bay for the top spot in the division again next season.
Please be sure to check in again tomorrow as we take an in-depth look at the Boston Bruins. If you enjoyed this review, please follow us on Twitter, @afpanalytics, and share it with your friends!
Stats have been pulled from NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.hockey. Salary info from Capfriendly.com
JUSTIN WHITE is an intern AFP Analytics. Justin is a graduate of St. John Fisher College where he earned his degree in Sport Management and Statistics. He has worked with the Rochester Americans and members of their coaching staff on various analytics and statistics-based projects.