First off let me make one thing clear – Mitchell Marner is amazing! Marner Magic is real folks and he will be a superstar in the NHL. Let us take that to the bank today and profit from the dividends for the next 15 years.
People say “Oh he’s way too fancy he’ll get killed in the NHL.” To those people I say please watch the games. Watch the OHL final and the Memorial Cup with this in mind: Marner has ELITE hockey sense. He plays with his head up. He knows where his teammates and opponents are on the ice and he knows where they are going. He doesn’t make fancy plays to look cool – he makes fancy plays when the time is right; to open up ice, to burn a D, to open up passing lanes, etc. He will certainly have fewer opportunities for fancy plays in the NHL because he will be facing much quicker, stronger and smarter opposition. He might have a lower % of success on the fancy plays he does attempt as he becomes more selective in his attempts. And of course he will get knocked down many times but he won’t get killed.
All praise aside I think Marner has a huge hill to climb to make the NHL next season and here’s why:
(these points are arranged in an order that flows from one to the next but they are all connected)
Safe Environment For Players/Positive Culture
Leafs brass has consistently said they want to create a safe environment for their players to play in. They want to ensure that the expectations of players and their spots in the line-up match their CURRENT talent levels and not their future potential.(EDM Oilers anybody?)
The Leafs were successful last season creating this safety and a positive culture. Both of our top RFA’s, Rielly and Kadri, signed long-term deals immediately after the season ended and both deals feature significant home-town discounts of at least $0.5mil/yr. In Rielly’s case the discount could be huge. He could’ve easily asked for a 2-3 year deal and by then he would’ve been a $7-$9 million dollar defender.
Leafs Don’t Want to Suck
Part of building a positive culture is not sucking at hockey.(EDM Oilers anybody?) The Leafs don’t want to be a terrible hockey team. I believe next year’s results are tough to predict. They could be like Calgary two seasons ago. If everything goes right for a young team they could squeak into the playoffs and maybe even win a round. They could also be like Calgary this year and finish near the bottom of the league. Either way, they intend to be competitive in each and every game.
The Leafs were successful last season in being competitive – given their roster’s lack of high end talent and legitimate sniper-ability. Yes the team finished 30th but this was not the same type of 30th we’ve seen from other teams.
1) The Leafs finished 13th in Corsi with 51.3%. Corsi is not the holy grail of statistics as some would have you believe but it is still a valuable shooting metric and indicator of team performance.
2) Their 69 point season makes them the least crappy basement dwellers since 2007/2008 when Tampa claimed 30th with 71 points and LA claimed 29th with 71 points. In fact, in many of these seasons their 69 points puts them ahead of 2-4 teams.
2007-2008: 71pts TB
2008-2009: 61pts NYI
2009-2010: 62pts EDM
2010-2011: 62pts EDM(déjà-vu)
2011-2012: 65pts CLB
2012-2013: 36pts FLA in 48GP. 82GP pace = 61.5pts
2013-2014: 52pts BUF
2014-2015: 54pts BUF
2015-2016: 69pts TOR
How Many Rookies is Too Many?
As we have seen from the glorious Edmonton Oilers too many rookies(even highly talented ones) can result in some pitiful results and create a losing culture.
In 2016-2017 the Leafs will ice anywhere between 4 and 8 rookie forwards not counting Mitch Marner. That is a crapload of rookies even if most of them will be 20-23 years old.
Locks on the Roster(4 locks)
C - William Nylander: 3rd line center
RW - Connor Brown: 1st, 2nd to 3rd line winger
RW - Zach Hyman: 2nd to 3rd line winger
RW - Nikita Soshnikov: 2nd to 3rd line winger
Battling for a Spot(1 of 2 to make it)
LW - Josh Leivo: 2nd to 3rd line winger
LW - Brendan Leipsic: 2nd to 3rd line winger
MoFo’s Act Like They Forgot About
RW - Andreas Johnson doing it up in Sweden. I don’t know much about him.
2016 Draft Pick(1 of 4 players drafted, Zero or 1 in the NHL)
C - Auston Matthews: 2nd line center(if we get him out goes Bozak who is one of my favs)
LW - Patrik Laine: 2nd to 3rd line winger OR Finland OR Marlies
RW – Jesse Puljujarvi: 1st, 2nd to 3rd line winger OR Finland OR Marlies
LW – Matthew Tkachuk: Almost definitely back to the OHL
Too Many Forwards Under Contract
All these rookie forwards have to slot into a lineup that MUST include quality veterans and will also likely include some of the over-priced veterans we have under contract who are unlikely to be moved.(buyouts and injuries are not impossible) Here’s a potential line-up of forwards. I think lines 1 and 2 will be a safe mix of vets and rookies while line 3 could be an all-rookie scoring line. Babcock has so many options and I think he’s smarter at the hockey than any of us so we’ll see.
C - Kadri
LW – JVR
RW – Brown
C - Bozak/Matthews
LW - Komarov(especially if Matthews is the C)
RW – Hyman/Soshnikov
C - Nylander
LW - Leivo/Leipsic/Laine
RW - Hyman/Soshnikov
C - Laich(He won’t be bought out, solid leader)
LW - Michalek(because we have to)
RW – Lupul(because we have to)1
Colin Groening(because we have to)
We can bury a vet or two in the minors to open roster spots but each player only save $925k of cap space. A buy-out could occur to Michalek or Groening(1 yr left so buyout would affect the next 2 seasons). Lupul will probably get injured throughout the season opening up a spot.
Quite simply, there isn’t a whole lot of room up front unless the Leafs package a number of young players for an early to mid 20’s high calibre D or G.