Toronto Maple Leaf fans knew that this year was going to be filled with some pain. Head coach Mike Babcock said as much when he first arrived to begin his new coaching job. That meant a year of losing, with the focus being decidedly on the future and how it could be improved.
More than 60 games into the NHL’s 2015-16 season, and it is fair to say that Maple Leafs fans have seen some pain. The roster was comprised mainly of players who would be traded at the deadline in order to stockpile picks and prospects. People lost interest when the roster was filled with more minor leaguers than NHL players.
The trade deadline came and went and the Maple Leafs stood pat and didn’t make any moves. People were disappointed, but in all fairness, the Buds did most of their wheeling and dealing prior to the day. General manager Lou Lamoriello was able to ship out the likes of Dion Phaneuf, James Reimer, Roman Polak, Shawn Matthias and Daniel Winnik. In return, he was sent solid prospects and a boatload of draft picks. This is the proper way to begin a franchise rebuild.
While many were upset that no trades were made on deadline day, there was some immediate and exciting news that cheered those people up. The Leafs made the call to the AHL and brought up a handful of their best prospects, including William Nylander and Kaperi Kapanen.
The Kids Are Alright
It was a night for debuts as the Maple Leafs brought up multiple prospects from the Marlies to makes their NHL debuts. The Leafs ended up losing 2-1 to a very good Tampa Bay Lightning squad, but the impressions that the kids made were well worth the loss.
William Nylander easily had the most hype coming into this game. The former eighth overall pick is projected to be one of the future stars and leaders on the team. While he failed to record a point in his debut, he didn’t look out of place on the ice. He made some nifty plays and was able to control the puck and the speed of his moves.
Did You Know? William Nylander led all #Leafs forwards in time on ice last night at 18:41.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) March 1, 2016
Kasperi Kapanen was another story. Coming over as the main prospect in the Phil Kessel deal, Kapanen was under tremendous pressure to perform. In the third period, Babcock shifted him over to a line with Nylander and Zach Hyman, another Marlie. The impact was immediate as they produced a bevy of good scoring chances including a slick dangle that had goalie Andrei Vasilevsky sprawling out to make the save.
Zach Hyman and Nikita Soshnikov also made their Leafs debuts against the Lightning. Neither looked out of place in their first bit of NHL action. Hyman, who was acquired from the Florida Panthers, showed flashes of skill as well as grit. He’s known as the player who can do everything for the Marlies, and despite being pushed around a little, he showed flashes of good potential.
Impressed with all the young Leafs tonight but especially impressed by the fight in Zach Hyman.
— steve simmons (@simmonssteve) March 1, 2016
Soshnikov was no different. The young Russian displayed speed and shiftiness as well as smart decisions when he had the puck. He’s a great skater and kept up with the demanding pace of the NHL. Keep an eye out for him in the future as he has the potential to be a top player.
The Maple Leafs’ future is certainly very bright. Think about all the Marlies’ debuts we’ve seen this year. The four players already mentioned, plus Brendan Leipsic, Josh Leivo, Garret Sparks and more. The youth movement is in full swing as the Leafs build for the coming years.
What makes it even more exciting is who might be coming next. Mitch Marner is ripping up the OHL in London and will more likely than not, be with the Maple Leafs next year. If the Blue and White get one of the top three picks in the 2016 draft, I’m sure there’s a better than average chance that one of Auston Matthews, Patrick Laine or Jesse Puljujärvi suits up as well next calendar year.
The future is coming a lot faster than many thought it would. If management and coaching stay the course, being competitive and beginning to win are not that far off.