As the spectacle of the World Cup winds down, NHL training camp begins. Star players will return to their adopted towns and begin building a new season with their team. And for some teams, “building” is the key word.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have a long and fabled history of hockey greatness. Because of this, it’s still a little bit shocking to think of them dragging along the rear of the NHL standings last season. But with experience, attitude changes, and additions, the Maple Leafs have a chance to build a powerhouse for years to come.
The Maple Leafs will be all about building that future in the upcoming season, and here’s a closer look at what they’ll focus on.
Babcock Gaining Ground
Mike Babcock doesn’t like losing. Last season, his first campaign with the Maple Leafs, was the first time he’s missed the playoffs since 2004. In all of his time with Detroit, he never missed a postseason. That level of coaching prowess is what Toronto’s management is banking on, and in his second season in Toronto, Babcock won’t disappoint.
The roster moves and draft decisions, along with the handling of current players, all point to classic Babcock strategy: build a team around raw talent, and watch the rest fall into place. As Babcock gains influence in his still somewhat new locker room, you’ll see skilled players rise to a level that you wouldn’t have expected.
Kadri Stepping Up
Nazem Kadri will now enter his 7th season with the Maple Leafs, carrying a 6-year, $27 million contract with him. Along with that contract comes the expectation that he will play as he did last year, but with added leadership responsibilities. Mike Babcock and Toronto’s management expect Kadri to step into his role in the locker room as someone the younger guys can look up to, a player the entire team can rally around.
With 45 points on a losing club last season, and 28 of those points from assists, you can bet Kadri will find a way to produce no matter this season’s circumstances. And if he goes all in on Babcock’s system while leading the fresh faces in the locker room, he’ll be able to pull his team from last year’s quagmire.
Matthews Showing Off
And of course, to round it all out, there is the 1st overall pick from the 2016 draft: Auston Matthews. Toronto had the joy of watching him get 2 goals during the World Cup, which was a decent, hopeful start for such a touted young player.
All of the fanfare of a first overall pick comes with Matthews into training camp. Of course no one can predict exactly what will happen with the young star. But barring any injuries, he could set an exciting tone for Toronto’s future. Gossip and predictions around the internet will even tell you that Matthews will make Jack Eichel look tame.
And for Toronto, those predictions sound as sweet as can be.
The culmination of these factors, along with a few others, lead to a season that the Maple Leafs will be proud of. 2016-2017 may not see the Leafs in the playoffs - but who knows, it could happen - but fans will see a renewed vigor, a definite improvement from last year. For Toronto, this season is about laying a strong foundation that creates championships in the future.