NHL season preview: Toronto Maple Leafs
Top prospect Matthews arrives as Great Rebuild enters next phase
2015-16 record: 29-42-11 (69 points), 8th out of 8 in Atlantic Division, last in NHL.
Key off-season additions: F Auston Matthews, G Frederik Andersen, G Jhonas Enroth, D Roman Polak, F Matt Martin, F Nikita Zaitsev
Key off-season subtractions: G Jonathan Bernier, F P-A Parenteau, F Michael Grabner, D T.J. Brennan
Probability of winning the Cup*: 1.2%
Probability of making the playoffs**: 29.8%
*derived from betting odds posted by Pinnacle
**derived from betting odds posted by Bodog
Last season's story
It's not often you can be the worst at what you do and still be considered a success, but this is an occasional result of the NHL's draft system. No one on the ice or behind the bench for Toronto actually tried to lose games last year, but management stripped the team down to its studs with an eye toward the draft lottery. It worked perfectly: the Leafs finished with the league's worst record, got the best odds of winning and, unlike Buffalo the year before, were lucky enough to win the draw and select the top prospect in Auston Matthews. That's really all that mattered, but some other good things happened in Toronto last season too. Among them, GM Lou Lamoriello managed to pawn off Dion Phaneuf's lumpy contract on Ottawa, and 2014 first-round pick William Nylander performed well in his late-season callup, notching 13 points in 22 games.
With the Stanley Cup, and probably even the playoffs, a distant dream at this point, Lamoriello and president Brendan Shanahan wisely sat out the summer feeding frenzy after presumptive target Steven Stamkos opted to re-up with Tampa. The most noticeable change was largely cosmetic: Jonathan Bernier, a decent goalie, was swapped out for Anaheim's Frederik Andersen, a decent goalie.
Under the steady hand of coach Mike Babcock, Matthews pulls a Connor McDavid and looks like an instant star; last year's top draft pick, Mitch Marner, pulls a Johnny Hockey and erases questions about his size by proving he can play in the big leagues; Nylander and young defenceman Morgan Rielly continue to develop; the shiny young talent distracts the notoriously demanding fans from the price tag on their tickets; the team shows enough improvement to be encouraging but not enough to keep it from winning the draft lottery for the second straight year.
Unrealistic fans who don't realize how high the climb is between full-blown tanking and playoff contention (ask Buffalo) start grumbling early; Matthews, Marner and Nylander wilt under impossible expectations as the word "bust" becomes a fixture on talk radio; the Leafs sour their centennial celebrations by finishing dead last by a wide margin and their lottery luck deserts them.