This week's edition of the Eastern Edge looks at the 2016 offseason outlooks for the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets …
With the draft lottery now complete we can begin to look at the offseason outlook for all teams in the Eastern Conference. We will start at the bottom with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets, two teams with a lot on the line Saturday when the order of the first few picks was finalized. The focus will be put primarily on the short-term rather than the long-term future, although the developments of the next few months will certainly have a great impact on keeper leagues as well.
Obviously, being awarded the first overall pick in the entry draft in June is a major victory for the Maple Leafs. The team has been totally gutted and has major needs at all positions, so adding the top prospect from this year’s crop is obviously going to help with their plan. Even with all of the changes, they managed to exceed last year’s point total by one. The Leafs were less potent offensively this year as expected but they managed to allow fewer goals, no doubt due to the influence of new coach Mike Babcock.
As it stands, the current Leafs’ roster is a combination of youth that will be part of the future, veterans with unappealing contracts acquired in trades and a few remaining pieces from the team’s previous era. The end result is a roster lacking quality players able to produce now, which not only keeps the team at the bottom of the standings, but also limits the upside of their fantasy-relevant players.
In all likelihood, the Leafs will be selecting Auston Matthews at the draft. As a center, his presence in the Leafs’ lineup will hurt Tyler Bozak the most, as Bozak has been an underrated fantasy center for years. Meanwhile, Matthews’ addition will help the Leafs’ wingers a lot, most notably James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul and Leo Komarov.
Although unlikely, it is worth considering other scenarios with the first overall pick as Finnish winger Patrik Laine is getting some consideration as the top prospect at the draft. The fantasy impact would be significant as it would add more depth on the wing and potentially push Komarov out of the top-six depending on how things unfold. On the flip side, Laine would help with the values of his centerman which would likely be Bozak or Nazem Kadri.
A trade is also a long-shot but still possible, as the Arizona Coyotes are clearly interested in Matthews, a native of Scottsdale, Ariz. However, unless the Coyotes are actually willing to part with Oliver Ekman-Larsson talks will go nowhere. It goes without saying Ekman-Larsson would give a huge boost to the Leafs’ blueline, and he would get top minutes in all situations while Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and the newly-signed Nikita Zaitsev would slide down the depth chart.
Sticking on defense, assuming all goes to plan and the Leafs choose Matthews then Rielly, Gardiner and Zaitsev are the appealing guys from a fantasy perspective. Rielly is the golden boy and will lead the way offensively, but as mentioned in the Zaitsev signing analysis article, look for the latter two to trade spots throughout the year as the next guy in the pecking order. Gardiner has two 30-point campaigns in the NHL under his belt while Zaitsev has been a very good point-producer in the KHL, and at 24, he has plenty of experience to give Gardiner some solid competition. However, due to the lack of overall scoring on this squad, it will be very difficult for any of the defenders to achieve big numbers next year.
Beyond these three, the Leafs are very thin on defense. Martin Marincin emerged as a good defensive defenseman, but the depth is simply not very good, unless the team adds a free agent or two in July. With that said, Connor Carrick could earn a spot next year and has potential in multi-category leagues after putting up solid point and PIM totals at lower levels.
In goal, Bernier is coming off of a rough year but remains the top option for the Leafs in goal heading into the final year of his contract. Rookie Garrett Sparks had some moments of brilliance, but it would not be a surprise if the Leafs brought in a more experienced backup to push Bernier. There are always talented goalies available in July, and Toronto would offer a solid opportunity to get some starts next year.
With so much available cap space the Leafs have a chance to hit the free agent market hard this summer. It remains to be seen how they will fare, but they will certainly be in the mix for Steven Stamkos and a number of other free agents. They might be turned away due to the Leafs still being several key pieces away from being a playoff contender, but the team will have plenty of ice time and spotlight to offer their prized acquisitions.
Unless the Leafs go crazy adding free-agent depth, look for William Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Hyman and maybe even Mitch Marner to make the jump to the NHL full-time. The talent is certainly there, but with a lack of quality veterans in the mix to help the young players along, keep fantasy expectations in check for next year. The environment, as it stands currently, is not good enough to aid the youngster putting up big numbers out of the gate.
With high expectations coming into the year, the Blue Jackets were one of the league’s biggest disappointments in 2015-16, and as a result, the team made some major changes during the year. First, was the hiring of coach John Tortorella after a horrible start. When the woes continued, Ryan Johansen, the team’s top offensive player, was shown the door and dealt to Nashville for Seth Jones.
The fantasy ramifications of the trade were massive, as it impacted so many Blue Jackets’ players. Obviously, the team took a big hit offensively, as the team now lacks a true first-line center, which also hurts the value of the team’s top wingers. Meanwhile, Jones received top minutes immediately and responded well with 20 points in 41 games in Columbus. His arrival hurt both Jack Johnson and David Savard, as the two finished with offensive numbers well below expectations. Johnson should be able to bounce back with over 30 points next year, but both defensemen are unlikely to get back to their past levels with Jones in town.
Following the trade, Jones produced at a 40-point clip. He will be just 22 when next year begins, so there is clearly lots of room to grow. With that said, be careful not to project him too high. Simply maintaining the same pace over a full 82-game schedule while the opposition focuses on him every night would be a big accomplishment. Plus, without Johansen in town, the team’s ability to produce goals drops significantly. After finishing 10th in goals in 2014-15, the Blue Jackets fell to 17th this year. The lack of support will make it more difficult for Jones to produce big numbers.
Back up front, the team appears to be set for another year of points by committee. Brandon Saad and Cam Atkinson tied for the team lead with 53 points, and overall seven of their forwards averaged 0.5 points per game or better. Without any standout top-line talent in place, it will be very difficult for any of them to breakout beyond their current levels of production.
Another forward of interest is Scott Hartnell who had a strong year both in points-only, and especially in multi-category leagues. He faded down the stretch as his ice time diminished, though. He was in and out of Tortorella’s doghouse during the year, which raises a red flag moving forward. Without prime minutes, it will be very difficult to replicate this year’s 49 points and it might limit his fantasy appeal in leagues including penalty minutes and hits.
One player that benefited from the Johansen trade was former 14th-overall pick Alex Wennberg who finished the year strong and is the team’s best playmaking center. Look for him to get plenty of opportunities next year to create offense, especially on the power play. He'll push towards the 50-point mark.
In the prospect pool, the Blue Jackets have two big prospects ready to make the jump to the NHL in Kerby Rychel and Oliver Bjorkstrand. Also, look for blueliner Zach Werenski to see a lot of time in Columbus but may have some stints down in the AHL if he gets overwhelmed.
In goal, the Blue Jackets have a lot of question marks. Sergei Bobrovsky, the team’s starter, is injury-prone and has never appeared in more than 58 games in a season. Not to mention, when he played this year, his numbers were subpar. The team’s top goalie this year was 22-year-old Joonas Korpisalo who posted 16 wins and a .920 save percentage in 31 games. He should be the backup in 2016-17, but if Bobrovsky has injury problems again it may be too much to ask the young goalie to carry this team by himself with greater expectations surrounding Columbus heading into next year.
With the third pick in June’s draft, the Blue Jackets are expected to pick Finnish winger Jesse Puljujarvi. He could be in the NHL as early as this fall and even challenge for the Calder trophy, but with the team having more established forwards in place and prospects ready to make the jump, Puljujarvi is less of a lock to play immediately. If he does stick in Columbus, his presence and golden-boy status would certainly make it easier to keep Hartnell’s minutes down.
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