2015-16 Maple Leafs’ 30 Things to Watch For: #1-10
By: Aaron Greenfield
The 2014-15 Maple Leafs had quite a roller coaster season. Unfortunately, they spent a majority of the time going downhill. Head coach Randy Carlyle was let go in favour of interim Peter Horachek. The Leafs struggled to adapt to a new voice in the room, and abandoned any new systems Horachek tried to enforce. The Leafs lost 34 of their final 43 games, resulting in unrest among fans and media. President Brendan Shanahan did his best to address as many issues as he could in one offseason and has left many fans optimistic for the future. Here are 30 things to watch for in the 2015-16 Toronto Maple Leafs.
- THE SEASON WILL BE FRUSTRATING, BUT NOT LIKE LAST SEASON
Last season was ugly. Bad habits developed regarding work ethic, professionalism and attention to detail. Players angered fans by not saluting them after a win. Fans angered players by tossing their jerseys to the ice in frustration. Media angered players and fans by questioning players’ ability to be coached (and their poor diet choices). That is all about to change. The Leafs hired one of the most respected coaches in the league in Mike Babcock, who has been said in the past that players not willing to play the way he wants them to can play elsewhere.
- COACHING WON’T BE AN ISSUE
For the first time in more than a decade, the Leafs have a coach who has a nearly spotless reputation. Babcock brings structure, stability and professionalism to a club that’s been lacking in that department for more than a decade. Not to mention he brings a Stanley Cup ring, Olympic Gold Medals and a decade of playoff experience to Toronto. Players will no longer skate gingerly to the bench on line changes, and will have a better understanding of playing defence. There will be a lot of losses but they will likely be hard-fought games.
- COMMITMENT TO FITNESS
The Leafs traded Phil Kessel and his controversial eating habits off to Pittsburgh and immediately addressed the issues head on by hiring Dr. Jeremy Bettle from the Brooklyn Nets to be the Director of Sports Science and Performance. He will focus on diet and nutrition as well as the team’s commitment in the gym. While Kessel has enough natural talent to get away with slacking on nutrition and fitness and still succeed, the rest of the team can’t afford to expect the same results. Being more fit should improve overall athletic ability.
- PHIL KESSEL THRIVES IN PITTSBURGH
Unless he gets injured and misses a significant amount of time (which is something Kessel has a reputation for not doing often) the former Leaf sniper should contend for personal-bests in goals and points, whether he ends up being centred by Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby. Kessel has been working hard all summer training with Gary Roberts and it seems to have paid off as Kessel has lost 16 pounds since the 2014-15 season ended; he’s probably also developed some better eating habits. That is a scary proposition for the rest of the league, because Kessel already had lightning-fast speed and a lethal shot before his offseason training.
- NAZEM KADRI’S ATTITUDE IMPROVES
Known for occasionally taking a shift off and needing extra motivation to play hard, Kadri made headlines late last season by arriving late to practice, resulting in suspension from the team. The former 7th overall pick has a lot to prove this season, where it is almost unanimous among fans and media that Kadri will assume the number one centre position; Kadri is looking for a big pay day and would like to exceed those expectations. Under Babcock, he will continue to develop his all-around game and should gel with Babcock who is known for having positive relationships with his players.
- NAZEM KADRI BREAKS OUT
In addition to a change in attitude, Kadri will make fans and media forget about his disastrous 39 points outing. With a full season as the number one centre, he and van Riemsdyk should score a majority of the goals this season. Kessel, in limited playing time with Kadri, managed to have a slightly better Corsi For% than he did with Bozak. The Kessel and Kadri pairing also posted an impressive 3.14 goals per 60 minutes, while only allowing 2.79 goals per 60 minutes. Kadri should hit and surpass 50 points and establish himself enough to earn a nice raise and long-term deal.
- IMPROVED PLAY FROM THE CAPTAIN
Dion Phaneuf has been one of the most criticized players on the team since his arrival. He has the burden of all the team’s flaws falling on him. His contract angers some fans, as he hasn’t played close to the level of other players on similar deals. Without a revolving door of coaches, and less pressure to be the number one guy, with Morgan Rielly emerging from young prospect to future star and taking a larger role on this team, Phaneuf should simplify his game and improve his all-around play.
- MORGAN RIELLY ESTABLISHES HIMSELF AS NUMBER 1 DEFENSEMAN
Since he made the club as an 18 year old, Rielly has exceeded expectations, and is emerging as a franchise cornerstone defenceman who will be a key piece in this rebuild. He will be looked upon to play the most defensive minutes per night and will be relied on to carry the puck out of the zone. He has the potential to become an Erik Karlsson-type, with less offence and the Leafs will want him to be more responsible on the back end than his Senators counterpart. He will even be able to improve Dion Phaneuf’s game.
- NOW OR NEVER FOR JAKE GARDINER
Last season was rough for Gardiner. At many times, he looked lost, unaware of defence assignments and turned the puck over in his own end, leading to a lot of pucks in the back of his team’s net. Gardiner’s advanced stats, however, tell a slightly different story.
With stability behind the bench, and a clear system in place with a focus on defence, Gardiner will have the best chance to prove his worth. If he underperforms again, the Leafs may look to trade him.
- LOU’S CHANGE OF SCENERY
Lou Lamoriello spent nearly 30 years in New Jersey and developed the reputation of being glued to his own opinions on how to run his team, with little effect from outside voices. Watch for a different Lou, one who is more open to other voices and opinions. He’s 72, and does have control over the team, but with Shanahan, Babcock and others, Lou no longer has the only say. Will he embrace this new role, or get impatient and create tension among management?