Let’s take a moment to revisit the Toronto Maple Leafs’ forward depth chart, via CapGeek:
Just for fun, let’s compare the Leafs’ current forward group with their Atlantic Division contemporaries in terms of career NHL points:
Detroit Red Wings: 3077 points (13 players under contract)
Boston Bruins: 2334 (nine)
Ottawa Senators: 2299 (13)
Florida Panthers: 2147 (12)
Montreal Canadiens: 1973 (13)
Tampa Bay Lightning: 1901 (12)
Buffalo Sabres: 1873 (14)
Toronto Maple Leafs: 1709 (13)
Take what you will from this extremely simple and crude analysis. “Experienced” is often a nice way of saying “old”, but what this exercise shows me is the Leafs’ forward group is riddled with question marks. David Clarkson had five goals and 11 points last season and owns a virtually unmovable contract. Leo Komarov has only 42 NHL regular-season games under his belt, and countryman Petri Kontiola has 12. Matt Frattin spent much of last season as a healthy scratch on two different teams. At least three of these four players are penciled in to the Leafs’ top nine.
The Toronto Maple Leafs won’t be a juggernaut next season. It’s hard to tell if they’ll be any worse than last year, especially if they replace the fourth line with capable players and new assistant coaches Peter Horachek and Steve Spott can make substantial improvements. The issue is the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers have both improved. The Senators are still very much a question mark, as they traded away captain Jason Spezza but replaced him with David Legwand. The top of the Atlantic is clearly Boston’s to lose, but the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning look ready to challenge for that top spot. The Detroit Red Wings are solid, if unspectacular. The Leafs will be hard pressed to overtake any of those four teams.
With all this in mind, I think it’s going to be very difficult for the Leafs to make the playoffs. On the eve of last season, after the team’s monumental collapse, many (including myself) were calling for head coach Randy Carlyle’s head. He wasn’t fired, but was given a two-year extension by general manager Dave Nonis and president Brendan Shanahan. His assistant coaches bit the bullet instead.
You can call that a vote of confidence if you want, but in my limited experience of observing professional sports teams from afar, “votes of confidence” often mean the exact opposite of what they’re supposed to mean. The pressure is squarely on Carlyle’s shoulders, and if he doesn’t figure out this team’s possession issues, the team will likely flame out and miss the postseason again. I have a feeling Nonis will have no problem giving Carlyle the ax and promoting either Horachek or Spott.
Most fans, I believe, look at this upcoming season as a rebuilding year. Nonis opted for short-term contracts for bottom-six players instead of trying to catch the big fish this time around in free agency. As mentioned earlier, this team has tons of question marks, and having Clarkson in the top six doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. But if the team doesn’t make the playoffs, will Carlyle be fired? Or is he truly “Nonis’ guy” and will be around for the foreseeable future, whether or not this ship goes the way of the Titanic again?