Feasting at the kids’ table: Leafs set to open season

leafs100logoWith about $800,000 or so in salary cap space, the Toronto Maple Leafs finalized their 23-man season opening roster (see below) just ahead of Tuesday’s 5 p.m. league deadline.  It certainly sends a message that this management group believes it’s young core is ready for primetime – whether that is indeed the case will play out starting tomorrow night in Ottawa.

Most of the Leafs’ highly touted young prospects are on it, led by first-round picks Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander – the club has decided not burden Matthews with the “C” for now, going with four alternate captains to start the year.  Also making the squad are former OHL scoring champ Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, and Seth Griffith, picked up on waivers from Boston Tuesday after one of the most productive seasons in recent AHL history – 24 goals and 53 assists in 57 games with Providence last season.  Griffith is a product of the London Knights/Mark Hunter NHL pipeline — coach Mike Babcock indicated this was indeed Hunter’s call.  Promising blueliners Connor Carrick, who exceled in last year’s AHL playoffs, and Frank Corrado also make the team.

Josh Leivo, another young prospect Leafs brass has been waiting for to make an impact, starts the season on the injured list.  Brandon Prust was released from his PTO, not surprising given Matt Martin and Leo Komarov should provide enough grit and protection for the Leafs young stars. Brooks Laich has been sent to the AHL Marlies, and $5-million-a-year men Joffrey Lupul and Nathan Horton remain on Long-Term Injured Reserve, allowing the Leafs to get in under the salary cap.

Babcock should have fun this season putting together line combinations to see which ones get the most out of his talented youngsters.  For now, it appears, Marner will play with JVR and Tyler Bozak; Matthews will centre Nylander and Hyman, the senior citizen on the line at age 24; Nazem Kadri will centre pending UFA Milan Michalek and Komarov, and Martin will play with Brown and Peter Holland on the fourth line.

The blueline pairings will have Morgan Reilly, who shone in the recent World Cup, alongside Martin Marincin.  Jake Gardiner will play with Carrick, and Matt Hunwick will mentor Russian newcomer Nikita Zaitsev.

This seems to be the lineup all Leafs fans want to watch this season.  After a season of watching free agents in the sunset years of their careers en route to the league basement, fans want to see how the young prospects develop, even if the results are ugly at times.  Make no mistake, the organization is now turning the page from “rebuild” to “build”, but this again will mostly be an evaluation year.  With a mittful of 2017 draft picks, Leafs brass needs to determine which of these prospects have NHL impact potential, or conversely, which prospects and picks they need to convert into NHL talent to begin the climb back to competitiveness.  That process starts now.

Even though most pre-season predictions have the Leafs finishing 29th or even 30th again this year, I believe the potential is there for this team to exceed expectations — not make the playoffs — but bend the curve a little more quickly than anticipated.  A lot of that will come down to the goaltending.  Frederik Andersen needs to perform much better than he did in the pre-season, and reward Leafs brass for trading for him and offering him that 5-year, $25 million contract.  Jhonas Enroth is a quality backup who may see more time than expected if Andersen’s struggles continue.

There’s no question that whoever is between the pipes will be called upon to cover up the inevitable mistakes a young team will make.  How many of those mistakes end up in the back of the net will likely be a determining factor in where this Leafs team finishes in its centennial season. The Stanley Cup drought reaches an even 50 years next spring.

2016-17 Leafs Roster