The 2015-16 NHL season for the Toronto Maple Leafs cannot be defined in a single word. However, I’m going to try and sum it up as succinctly as possible. The season began with pain. It wasn’t a secret that this year would be the beginning of the rebuild.
There were essentially two goals that had to be met. The first was to tear the roster down at the trade deadline to acquire as many picks and prospects as possible. This would also serve to clear out the old guard of players so that the team could usher in the new generation. The second goal was to get the best lottery odds possible for the chance to get that coveted number one draft pick. It’s safe to say that year one of the rebuild has been a success.
The Maple Leafs opening night roster is completely different from the roster they will end the season with. It features names like Dion Phaneuf, Roman Polak, Daniel Winnik, Richard Panik and James Reimer. None of these players currently wear the blue and white and were all traded throughout the season.
There were some surprises, the biggest of which was probably Leo Komarov. He really stepped up his game this year and was able to snipe 19 goals and be one of the Leafs’ best players most nights.
His leadership and willingness to hustle and give his all every shift, put him into Mike Babcock’s good books. He will most likely remain as the veteran presence for the young Leafs as the rebuild goes along.
P.A. Parenteau is another name who had a surprisingly good season. After being a castoff from the Montreal Canadiens, Parenteau was brought in on a one year deal as a reclamation project. The Leafs were able to salvage a solid player who also has 19 goals at this point.
The biggest move was the actual tearing down of the roster. At one point, it featured names like William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov, Kasperi Kapanen, Connor Carrick and more. These kids played their hearts out and the reception from fans and management was overwhelmingly positive.
It gave many people the chance to see the future in action. It was a glimpse into what lay ahead for the franchise and the initial results were very encouraging. The biggest impacts in my mind were made by a trio of forwards including Nylander, Hyman and Soshnikov.
The speedy Swede has shown the high end skill that he was drafted for. In every game, he looks a little more comfortable and has also developed some really solid chemistry with some of the veteran forwards. He possesses a great shot as well.
Soshnikov reminds me of Leo Komarov. The big Russian made an immediate impact in two different aspects of the game. He has a blistering shot and good skating, which stand out immediately. He is also physical and fearless, which is why he finished every check and generally became a nuisance for the opposition all night long.
— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) April 2, 2016
Hyman was also extremely impressive. The young forward was able to generate some offense as well as drive the net with tenacity and intensity. He was responsible in all three zones on the ice and he left a lasting impression on Mike Babcock.
It’s no secret that this was the first real season of the Maple Leafs rebuild. It started last year with the 2015 NHL Entry Draft where the Buds took Mitch Marner with their fourth overall pick. The plan is to make him a cornerstone of the franchise along with Nylander, Morgan Rielly and whoever they draft this year.
There was an ulterior motive this year. The team was destined for a spot in the NHL’s basement, that was no secret. The motive was to get as close as possible to last place, in order to secure the best possible odds for the upcoming draft. Taking the top pick would most likely net them Auston Matthews, the extremely coveted big centre. Second or third would guarantee one of the dynamic Finns, who have been so impressive for their respective clubs this year.
If the club drops to fourth, there are still a bevy of other options that the team could pursue. I covered a few of those in an earlier piece which can be found here.
If I had to give this club a ranking based on their performance for the season, I would say that a B is appropriate. They tore the roster down and turned players into prospects and draft picks. They created space, which in the NHL today, is extremely difficult to do.
They were also able to call up the kids and give them a taste of NHL action. They will now head back down to the American Hockey League, where they are expected to take a legitimate run at the Calder Cup. Finally, finishing in the bottom two of the NHL, earns them points.
The biggest way to build a contender is through smart drafting, and with a top three pick plus 11 others waiting in the wings, this team is primed to have success sooner rather than later. It’s been a wild ride for the Leafs. The next few years should be exciting and filled with promise.