Eastern Edge – Young Buds Blooming

by Russ on June 6, 2017
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The Toronto Maple Leafs appear to be ahead of where most pundits predicted they would be on their rebuild timeline. Their reward for successfully battling for a playoff berth was to face the NHL’s top regular-season team. Toronto gave the Capitals all they could handle in a six-game playoff loss, taking five of the games to overtime.

Will the team take another step forward this season? Much will depend on the fallout from the expansion draft and what they do to add a top-four defenseman. They could re-sign unrestricted free agents Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak, but it would be better if they slotted in lower on the depth chart.

It’s difficult to see the team taking a step backwards, but with so many key players being so young, it wouldn’t be completely out of the question. I have a lot of faith in the management team in Toronto and they are unlikely to stand pat this summer, so I can envision the team taking a small step forward. One thing is for sure, this will be an exciting team to watch grow up.
I don’t see any need to discuss Auston Matthews to this audience, you all know he’s a stud, and he’s only going to get better. Instead, I’ll talk about some of the supporting cast.

 

William Nylander

Nylander got off to a very good start in 2016-17 by recording 11 points in nine October contests. Over the next three months, he struggled to consistently put up points, but during a 26-game stretch from February 4 until March 28, he really found his groove, recording 27 points

After scoring four points in six hard-fought playoff games, Nylander suited up for Sweden at the World Championship. He led the gold medal winning side in scoring with 14 points in 10 games. The 21-year-old winger also led Tre Kroner with seven goals, 28 shots on goal and finished with a sweet plus-11.

What will 2017-18 hold for this young gun? Nylander will need to smooth out the rough patches while playing a responsible defensive game for head coach Mike Babcock. He definitely has the offensive ability to take it to the next level and threaten the point-per-game mark as early as the coming season.

 

Mitch Marner

A baby-faced dynamo, Marner is a relentless offensive force. In his final year in junior hockey, he scored 39 goals and 116 points in 57 games. He followed that by recording 44 points in 18 playoff games, and in the Memorial Cup, he had an insane 14 points in only four games.

Last season was somewhat unexpected. His transition straight from junior to the NHL was not a fait accompli as he was either going to play in the NHL or be sent back to junior for his final year. Over his first 56 NHL games, Marner recorded 48 points, a 70-point pace. Similar to Nylander, Marner had four points in six playoff games and then posted 12 points in 10 World Championship games for the silver medal winning Team Canada, second most only to Nathan MacKinnon.

Marner has the upside to finish in the top ten in NHL scoring, but like all Maple Leafs, under head coach Mike Babcock, he’ll have to take care of his own end before thinking offense. I can easily see 70 points this season.

 

Morgan Rielly

Like most of us heading into our drafts last season, I really thought Rielly would outpoint Jake Gardiner. After three consecutive seasons of rising point totals, from 27 to 30 to 36, last year’s 27 points came as a bit of a disappointment. Both Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev outscored Rielly this past season.

Rielly turned it up a notch in the post season, finishing tied with Matthews for the team lead in playoff scoring. Three of his five points came on the man advantage even though he received the eighth-most power-play time, averaging 2:08 per match.
Only 23 years of age, Rielly’s best years are clearly in front of him. In real life, he is the Leafs best defenseman, but in most fantasy leagues last season, he ranked third behind Gardiner and Zaitsev, and if your league counted hits and blocked shots, even Roman Polak might have been more valuable.

Where Rielly finishes the upcoming season points-wise will depend hugely on how much power-play time he receives. I would lean towards Gardiner retaining his spot on the top power-play unit with Rielly continuing to get mop-up duty. Unless that dynamic changes, you shouldn'y bank on more than 35 points from Rielly this year.

 

Zach Hyman

A little surprise for me was discovering that Hyman averaged the fourth most ice time amongst Leafs forwards and was the team’s top forward on the league's ninth-best penalty kill. More importantly, he spent a whopping 98.7 per cent of his even-strength shifts beside Auston Matthews.

That plum assignment is not exactly written in stone, but the expansion draft could help solidify Hyman’s position on the roster. Depending on who the Leafs ultimately protect, I could see either Connor Brown or Brendan Leipsic playing in Las Vegas next season.

Hyman broke out offensively in his final year of college hockey with 54 points in 37 games at the University of Michigan. He then split his first professional season, playing 59 AHL and 16 NHL games, recording 37 and six points, respectively. Last season’s 28 points could be a nice building block, but pay attention to the pending restricted free agent during training camp to see if he continues to line up beside Matthews.

 

Nazem Kadri

In his first year after signing a big six-year, $27 million contract extension, Kadri recorded career highs in goals (32) and points (61). His 0.74 points-per game was the most since the 0.92 he posted during the lockout shorted 2012-13 season where he scored 44 points in 48 games. He moves up on roto draft lists due to his 95 penalty minutes, 124 hits, 17 power-play points, 236 shots on goal and 544 faceoff wins.

Does Kadri have more upside? Can he continue to produce as a reliable 60-point player with some nice peripherals? The penalty minutes and hits are certainly helpful, but I think he tops out at 60 points, and there is a real possibility of regression as the kids take over more of the offensive responsibilities.