The Toronto Maple Leafs finally did the thing! Congrats to the 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame Class and taking a look at who might join them in 2020.
Wednesday afternoon, the Toronto Maple Leafs fired their now former head coach, Mike Babcock, and promoted Sheldon Keefe as the new head coach of the Leafs from his previous head coaching duties with the Toronto Marlies (AHL).
It’s a move that everyone likely saw coming, but this soon? That’s impressive.
Babcock was adamant in his coaching abilities and in his belief in himself as “the greatest coach who ever lived” (paraphrasing, obviously), but could not salvage his hubris when it mattered most– right now.
Toronto is currently 9-10-4 (22 points) on the season, 5th place in the Atlantic Division and outside of a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
Luckily for the Leafs, the Pittsburgh Penguins (11-7-3, 25 points), Philadelphia Flyers (10-7-4, 24 points) and Buffalo Sabres (10-8-3, 23 points) aren’t that far ahead of them in the standings for now.
It’s the perfect time to be bold and make a move if you’re looking to provide a short-term spark that will hopefully re-ignite some cooling embers and launch the Maple Leafs back into playoff contention at the very least– if not Stanley Cup contention, as many have expected for a few years now before Toronto’s General Manager, Kyle Dubas, was forced to spend about $40.489 million on William Nylander, Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner while somehow forgetting the importance of a defense and a backup goaltender in the process.
For a team that used to employ a coach that notoriously bet on himself and his process for better or worse, well, they’re betting heavily on the salary cap ceiling to make a significant jump by the time a new national TV rights distribution package in the United States is negotiated in 2022.
But that’s a separate discussion entirely.
For now, we’re left in the wake of a post-Babcock Leafs Era and what it means for the Boston Bruins– Toronto’s biggest rival most recently.
The 56-year-old former head coach in Toronto was in his 5th year of an eight-year, $50.000 million contract with the Maple Leafs.
Toronto went 29-42-11 in the 2015-16 season, which led them to drafting Matthews with the 1st overall pick in the 2016 Draft.
The following year, Babcock and the Maple Leafs improved to 40-27-15, qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2013, before losing in six games to the Washington Capitals in the 2017 First Round.
Then history repeated itself as the Leafs went 49-26-7 in the 2017-18 regular season before losing in seven games to Boston in the 2018 First Round.
From there it was a broken record for Toronto– a 46-28-9 effort in 2018-19 led to another First Round matchup with Boston and another Game 7 loss on the road to the Bruins in the 2019 First Round.
This season, through 23 games, the Leafs have six wins in regulation. They have nine total.
Babcock hasn’t won a playoff series since he was still with the Detroit Red Wings in 2013. He hasn’t led a team back to the Stanley Cup Final since losing in 2009 with Detroit in the Red Wings-Penguins rematch from 2008.
He may be “Canada’s Coach”, but he isn’t “Canada’s favorite team’s head coach” anymore.
Enter Keefe, a 39-year-old, from Brampton, Ontario– a short drive from Toronto– emerging as “The Chosen One”.
Hired by Toronto to lead the Marlies on June 8, 2015, Keefe had a respectable first season with Toronto’s AHL affiliate in 2015-16, notching a 54-16-5-1 record (wins-losses-overtime losses-shootout losses, for those of you who aren’t AHL savvy).
Keefe pushed his team all the way to the Eastern Conference Final in the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs (his rookie season as an AHL coach, mind you) before the Marlies succumbed to the Hershey Bears in five games.
In 2016-17, Keefe coached his team to a 42-29-4-1 record and a North Division Final appearance in the 2017 Calder Cup Playoffs that resulted in a Game 7 loss to the Syracuse Crunch.
That loss didn’t set the Marlies back, but instead motivated Keefe and his team as they marched to a 54-18-2-2 record in 2017-18 and a 2018 Calder Cup Final appearance.
They defeated the Texas Stars in seven games and captured Toronto’s first championship in ice hockey since the NHL’s Maple Leafs raised the Stanley Cup in 1967.
Though it was only the AHL, it proved that something was in the works.
Dubas’ masterplan was coming to fruition as the analytics guru rose to power– taking over as GM of the Maple Leafs with Lou Lamoriello’s departure in the 2018 offseason.
Keefe had followed Dubas from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL) to the Maple Leafs organization in 2015, but Babcock stood in the way of his destiny, it seemed.
Babcock was Lamoriello’s choice and fit with Brendan Shanahan’s “Shanaplan”.
Keefe fit with Dubas in the contemporary game, “Shanaplan” be damned.
In 2018-19, Keefe led the Marlies to a 39-24-9-4 record and an Eastern Conference Final appearance for the 2nd year in a row in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Though the Marlies lost to the Charlotte Checkers in six games, one thing was for certain– Keefe had it going in the minor league.
It’s not every day that a coach is able to make it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final in his rookie season, let alone in three of his first four full seasons as an AHL bench boss.
Up until his promotion to the NHL, Keefe amassed a 10-2-2-1 record with the Marlies this season.
They were 1st in the North Division at the time of his departure for the big league.
In 320 career AHL games with the Marlies, Keefe collected a 199-89-22-9 record and a .622 winning percentage in the process– plus one Calder Cup championship in 2018.
So, what does this mean for the Bruins?
A lot when you factor in advantages and disadvantages for each team in the promotion of Keefe from the Marlies to the Leafs.
First, for Toronto, the advantages of having Keefe for a potential playoff matchup with Boston.
The core of Toronto’s current roster (Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Zach Hyman, Morgan Rielly and even Frederik Andersen) has lost in the First Round in at least one of the last three postseasons (Tavares is the only member who hasn’t had to endure three-straight soul crushing First Round departures under Babcock’s reign).
Yes, this may seem bad, but it actually speaks volumes for their playoff experience.
This team is hungry– right from its core– and its fanbase, its front office and its backyard media wants to win sooner rather than later.
Plus, Nylander’s 2nd season in the AHL (although it was only a partial season) overlapped with Keefe’s time behind the bench of the Marlies, so there’s some familiarity between one of the four highest paid players on the Leafs and their head coach.
Additionally, Kapanen, Hyman and others have experience with Keefe and the Marlies’ system.
There’s enough familiarity there for something– potentially something dangerous.
Now for the advantages for Boston.
History is on their side. Boston’s core (Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask) has shown its capable of making another Cup run (even with an aging captain and 1-2 centers).
Bruins head coach, Bruce Cassidy, remains a constant and in control.
Boston missed the playoffs in 2015 and 2016, but Claude Julien was still their head coach then, so the combination of Cassidy, plus Chara, Bergeron and Krejci’s leadership made for an easier transition into getting the team back into a “top of their game” playoff performer (and eventual Cup contender in 2019).
This isn’t a luxury the Leafs have, where the team’s looking to get back into postseason contention, period, let alone win a series.
Toronto missed the playoffs in their first year with Babcock, but made it for the last three years and lost each year in the First Round.
This leads to Toronto’s disadvantages for another potential postseason meeting with the Bruins.
History is not on Toronto’s side and neither are the statistics.
Yes, Dubas’ 2nd favorite thing in the world– analytics– could get in the way of his 1st favorite thing in the world– bringing the Cup back to the Maple Leafs organization.
As things stand, the Leafs have a greater chance of missing the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs than making them currently.
Toronto– the city, the fans, the players, the front office and the media– wants to win right now. There’s no room for excuses (even if they’re legitimate, like taking one’s time to formulate a defense via prospects or trades and supplementing Andersen in the crease with a legitimate backup goaltender).
But, whereas Cassidy inherited broken pieces in Boston that were addressed and revamped as the team went from outside the playoffs two years in a row to making three consecutive postseason appearances under Cassidy in his head coaching tenure with the B’s– addressing the need for depth down the lineup in the process without the likes of a highly touted free agent acquisition– Keefe and the Leafs have the majority of this season to work on that necessary synergy with a better offense (on paper).
Cassidy was named interim head coach of the Bruins in Feb. 2017. Boston was ousted by the Ottawa Senators in six games in the 2017 First Round and lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games in the 2018 Second Round prior to their 2019 Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Keefe has Tavares, Matthews and Marner (when healthy) to unleash on any given night and could very well pull a turnaround in one season a la the St. Louis Blues last season (who beat the Bruins in the Final in Game 7 at TD Garden) or the Penguins in 2009 (when Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien midseason and won the Cup) and 2016 (when Mike Sullivan replaced Bylsma midseason and won the Cup).
In that sense, recent history is actually on Toronto’s side.
Boston had some growing pains to go with their dramatic improvement, but the Leafs are built to counteract that pain if Keefe can find a better way to manage it than Babcock did.
As it is, Cassidy is 130-55-27 in 212 games with Boston from 2017-present (good enough for a .613 winning percentage), but 207-128-21-24 in 380 games with the Providence Bruins (AHL) from 2011-16 (.545 winning%).
Babcock was 173-133-45 in 351 games with the Maple Leafs from 2015-19 (.493 winning%).
Keefe gets the final say and has his .622 winning% in 320 games with the Marlies going for him as he steps into the biggest role behind any bench in the National Hockey League.
Playoffs or not, the rest of this season is about to be a wild ride for the Maple Leafs and their fans.
Bruins fans be worried or not.
Zdeno Chara surpassed 1,500 career games, Claude Julien reached 1,200 games behind the bench, the Toronto Maple Leafs are facing injuries and backup goaltender struggles, Taylor Hall reportedly won’t sign an extension with the New Jersey Devils, the 2019 NHL Global Series happened and the 2020 NHL Global Series was announced.
For the first time this season, the calendar is flipped to a new month– and with a new month comes new expectations.
All 31 National Hockey League teams are starting to find a rhythm– for better or worse– and it’s time to acknowledge the general trends of what to expect based on what’s already happened for the first 1/8th of the season (approximately).
American Thanksgiving is still around the corner, which means that any team in a playoff position by Nov. 28th is more likely to qualify for the playoffs by April 4th.
There’s enough time between now and then for a lot to change.
As always, that means it’s time for a new forecast based on what we’ve seen so far and what we may see in the future.
In other words, here’s an educated guess based on a formulaic approach thanks to the wonderful world of spreadsheets.
This isn’t an exact science. It takes into account everything from the last few seasons, as well as every little detail through the end of Oct. 31, 2019.
Anything can happen. It’s a long road to April.
Projected Standings After One Month
- p-Boston Bruins, 110 points (12 games played entering November 1st)
- x-Tampa Bay Lightning, 106 points (12 GP)
- x-Montreal Canadiens, 92 points (13 GP)
- Florida Panthers, 91 points (13 GP)
- Toronto Maple Leafs, 91 points (14 GP)
- Buffalo Sabres, 82 points (13 GP)
- Detroit Red Wings, 79 points (13 GP)
- Ottawa Senators, 74 points (11 GP)
The Boston Bruins are off to a hot start thanks to Tuukka Rask’s stellar goaltending (6-0-1 record, 1.42 goals against average, .951 save percentage in seven games played) and David Pastrnak’s hot stick (12-12–24 totals in 12 games played).
Bruce Cassidy’s leadership behind the bench has steered the B’s away from a Stanley Cup Final appearance hangover and towards another playoff berth for what would be the fourth year in-a-row.
Meanwhile, after a slow start to their season, Jon Cooper and the Tampa Bay Lightning casually waltz into home ice advantage in at least the First Round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs and Claude Julien re-enters the postseason frame with the Montreal Canadiens as if it’s 2004 again (granted, Julien and the Habs made it in 2017, but only after Julien replaced Michel Therrien as head coach for the second time).
Joel Quenneville’s first season as head coach of the Florida Panthers led to an improvement, but not quite enough to get them back into the postseason, while another Stanely Cup winning coach took his team in a different direction.
That coach is Mike Babcock and that team is the Toronto Maple Leafs, who trudged through the middle of the road all season and ended up just outside of a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference (unless Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan decide to stray from the “Shanaplan”).
Though the Buffalo Sabres are hot right now, it seems history repeats itself. Buffalo’s great October, November and/or December wasn’t enough to sustain themselves through the winer months of January, February and March, but overall the team improved and should be a playoff contender next season.
At least the Sabres aren’t the Detroit Red Wings (still a few years away from being a contender) or the Ottawa Senators (they say they’ll spend money in 2021, but…).
- y-Washington Capitals, 110 points (14 GP)
- x-Pittsburgh Penguins, 102 points (13 GP)
- x-New York Islanders, 95 points (11 GP)
- wc1-Carolina Hurricanes, 92 points (12 GP)
- wc2-Columbus Blue Jackets, 91 points (12 GP)
- Philadelphia Flyers, 89 points (11 GP)
- New York Rangers, 87 points (10 GP)
- New Jersey Devils, 81 points (10 GP)
Alex Ovechkin continues his annual quest for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy and likely succeeds unless Pastrnak has anything to say about it.
In the meantime, the Washington Capitals continue to take home the regular season crown in the Metropolitan Division because somehow they always seem to do that no matter the postseason outcome.
The Pittsburgh Penguins avoid major missteps without Evgeni Malkin in the lineup for most of October due to injury and turned things on for the duration of the second half of the season as they always do, yielding 2nd place in the Metropolitan Division.
Barry Trotz’s leadership with the New York Islanders has keep things tight-knit and playoff bound, but unless every 2020 Stanley Cup Playoff home game for the Isles is played at NYCB Live/Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, then it’s not worth it.
Rod Brind’Amour is the best coach for the Carolina Hurricanes and he continues to climb the ranks of “best head coaches in franchise history” with another wild card appearance, at least, and what should be yet another thrilling playoff run for the Canes.
Meanwhile, somehow the Columbus Blue Jackets pieced together enough wins to snag the last wild card spot in the Eastern Conference before bowing out in the First Round due to a lack of depth.
Finally, the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils are all near the bottom of the division, but only with a few points spread between them– meaning that anything after 1st or 2nd place in the division is realistically up for grabs as long as a team goes on a perfectly timed run.
- z-Nashville Predators, 104 points (13 GP)
- x-St. Louis Blues, 101 points (13 GP)
- x-Winnipeg Jets, 93 points (13 GP)
- wc1-Colorado Avalanche, 92 points (12 GP)
- Chicago Blackhawks, 87 points (11 GP)
- Dallas Stars, 86 points (14 GP)
- Minnesota Wild, 85 points (13 GP)
In the Western Conference, the Nashville Predators are going to pounce on the competition as the leaders of the West in the regular season. The only trouble is, they still might blow it in the last second of overtime or something.
The defending champion St. Louis Blues are content to finish 2nd in the Central Division, but remain hungry in their quest for another Cup.
After a slow start to the season, Paul Maurice and the Winnipeg Jets somehow right the ship and earned themselves the last divisional spot in the Central Division.
But the Colorado Avalanche hold a wild card spot in the latest forecast as the real wild card of the entire Western Conference. Injuries could hold them back in the regular season, but they’ve shown they can make noise in the playoffs last spring.
Otherwise, if the Avs can stay healthy for longer periods of time, then Colorado could climb in the standings.
Finally, the Chicago Blackhawks are still trending in the wrong direction– facing the existential crisis of holding onto the old guard or continuing to dismantle their Cup-winning core– while the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild compete for the worst of the former and/or current Minnesota franchises this season.
Spoiler alert, it’s the Wild.
- y-Vegas Golden Knights, 101 points (14 GP)
- x-Anaheim Ducks, 96 points (14 GP)
- x-San Jose Sharks, 92 points (13 GP)
- wc2-Calgary Flames, 91 points (15 GP)
- Vancouver Canucks, 89 points (12 GP)
- Edmonton Oilers, 84 points (14 GP)
- Arizona Coyotes, 82 points (12 GP)
- Los Angeles Kings, 82 points (13 GP)
Nothing is going how things were expected to go in the Pacific Division and as a result, there’s still no conclusive results.
The Vegas Golden Knights are good and could likely win the Pacific Division regular season title, but the Anaheim Ducks aren’t bowing out of playoff contention just yet.
Meanwhile, the San Jose Sharks are as bad as the Los Angeles Kings, so this forecast will be further fine-tuned next month as the Sharks continue to slip from dominant to dormant in the standings.
The Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers all might take a stab at playoff contention, yet the Arizona Coyotes are on the rise.
At the very least, this is the most unpredictable division in the league that not even our current forecast can make any definitive claims.
Check back next month for further separation in the spread, as well as a more realistic view of where each team should likely land within the range of standings.
Brayden Point re-signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning, a bunch of other RFAs signed extensions, the Boston Pride were sold, Dan Girardi retired and DTFR’s season previews continued with the Atlantic Division.
Toronto Maple Leafs
46-28-8, 100 points, 3rd in the Atlantic Division
Eliminated in the First Round by Boston
Additions: F Pontus Aberg, F Kenny Agostino, F David Clarkson (acquired from VGK), F Tyler Gaudet, F Alexander Kerfoot (acquired from COL), F Kalle Kossila, F Aaron Luchuk (acquired from OTT), F Nick Shore, F Jason Spezza, F Garrett Wilson, D Tyson Barrie (acquired from COL), D Cody Ceci (acquired from OTT), D Kevin Gravel, D Ben Harpur (acquired from OTT), D Jordan Schmaltz (acquired from STL)
Subtractions: F Nick Baptiste (signed with Toronto, AHL), F Connor Brown (traded to OTT), F Michael Carcone (traded to OTT), F Tyler Ennis (signed with OTT), F Gabriel Gagne (signed with Allen, ECHL), F Josh Jooris (NLA), F Dakota Joshua (traded to STL), F Nazem Kadri (traded to COL), F Patrick Marleau (traded to CAR), F Chris Mueller (signed with TBL), D Andreas Borgman (traded to STL), D Jake Gardiner (signed with CAR), D Fedor Gordeev (traded to MIN), D Ron Hainsey (signed with OTT), D Vincent LoVerde (signed with Hartford, AHL), D Igor Ozhiganov (KHL), D Calle Rosen (traded to COL), D Jordan Subban (EBEL), D Nikita Zaitsev (traded to OTT), G Eamon McAdam (signed with Binghamton, AHL), G Garret Sparks (traded to VGK)
Still Unsigned: D Steve Oleksy
Re-signed: F Mitch Marner, D Martin Marincin, G Michael Hutchinson
Offseason Analysis: Kyle Dubas had a busy offseason as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. His main priority was re-signing Mitch Marner, which finally wrapped up on Sept. 13th.
Marner signed a six-year extension worth $10.893 million per season. Whether or not he’s actually worth that much money is a different question, but the fact of the matter is it didn’t help the Maple Leafs.
Together with Auston Matthews, John Tavares and William Nylander, Marner and the other three make up $40,489,366 of Toronto’s salary cap.
This season’s salary cap ceiling is $81.500 million.
Three of the seven highest paid players in the league are on the Leafs and the four highest paid Leafs eat up almost half of Toronto’s salary cap.
At the time of Marner’s signing, the Maple Leafs were $13,365,199 over the salary cap.
Granted, Pontus Aberg and Frederik Gauthier were assigned to the Toronto Marlies (AHL), while Nathan Horton, David Clarkson, Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott are all expected to be placed on the long-term injured reserve to allow the Leafs to remain cap compliant.
Things should get interesting, however, once Hyman and Dermott return from injury, not that their salaries are that expensive, but rather the day-to-day cap operations and paper transactions necessary to make things work should be a lot of fun for Toronto’s front office to balance.
Mike Babcock is still behind the bench in Toronto after three straight seasons of First Round exits– including back-to-back Game 7 losses on the road against the Boston Bruins in 2018 and last season.
Dubas was active in the trade market to 1) free up expendable salary to re-sign Marner and 2) improve his roster from last season to this season.
He may have unintentionally 3) stunted the team’s growth in the process.
Toronto seven trades involving players this offseason, including three pretty big deals for the Maple Leafs.
Patrick Marleau, a conditional 2020 1st round pick and a 2020 7th round pick were shipped to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for a 2020 6th round pick at the 2019 NHL Draft on June 22nd.
Rather than buyout Marleau’s contract and face cap penalty, Toronto was able to convince Carolina to take on his salary and offer him the chance to play for the Hurricanes or buy him out. Marleau refused to play for the Canes, so now Carolina is saddled with his buyout penalty.
In the process, if the Maple Leafs yield a top-10 pick in the 2020 Draft, the conditional 1st rounder in the trade becomes a 2021 1st round pick.
In place of Marleau, the Leafs signed Jason Spezza to a league-minimum, one-year, $700,000 contract. Spezza will likely play on the fourth line in a limited role as Marleau would have begun to see less and less time on ice at this stage of his career.
Dubas knew Toronto wasn’t going to be able to keep Jake Gardiner and maintain a happy relationship with Nikita Zaitsev as Zaitsev had already requested a trade.
As such, Dubas packaged Zaitsev with Connor Brown and Michael Carcone in a trade with the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Cody Ceci, Ben Harpur, Aaron Luchuk and a 2020 3rd round pick on July 1st.
Ceci then signed a one-year extension– worth $4.500 million– as a restricted free agent with the Leafs.
For that same price and eight points less than Ceci had last season, Zaitsev is at least signed through 2023-24 at the fixed rate of $4.500 million.
Zaitsev has broken the 30-point plateau before as a defender, while Ceci never has– though he did record 26 points with Ottawa last season.
The fact of the matter is that if Toronto was trying to save money this season on a defender, they didn’t.
And if they were thinking “maybe we can find a cheaper replacement in Ceci”, the fact that they’re already paying the defender in his prime what Zaitsev was already making doesn’t do them any long-term favors as Ceci’s cap hit is expected to go up– especially if the current ceiling remains about the same until the next collective bargaining agreement is negotiated in 2022.
But for all that the loss of Gardiner did to the special teams in Toronto, at least Dubas was able to find a sweet deal with the Colorado Avalanche.
The Maple Leafs traded Nazem Kadri, Calle Rosen and a 2020 3rd round pick to Colorado for Tyson Barrie, Alexander Kerfoot and a 2020 6th round pick on July 1st.
The Avs retained some salary on Barrie’s contract, which– you guessed it– also expires at the end of this season, but at least Toronto can afford $2.750 million right now as opposed to a more significant cap hit.
To their credit, the Maple Leafs negotiated a four-year extension with Kerfoot worth $3.500 million per season, which is $1.000 million less than Kadri’s cap hit.
Barrie is a versatile defender that excels on the power play and fills the void left behind by Gardiner’s departure.
Clearly, while Dubas has, in fact, made improvements to the team, he’s also made minor tweaks and delayed the inevitable headaches that he or the next general manager of the Maple Leafs is sure to face.
But at least this time around Toronto is convinced they have the team that they’ve been planning for the last five years to “win now”.
The younger players are more experienced, the salary spent is at the ceiling and Babcock– a Stanley Cup winning coach who last won the Cup 11 years ago with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008 (a rather different era and style of the game than what it is today)– are all ready for the challenge of making it out of the First Round to show they’ve at least made some progress.
One definition of insanity is “doing the same thing and expecting a different result” and if something doesn’t change the end result in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs for Toronto, then…
At the very least, last season’s backup, Garret Sparks, was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights for Clarkson’s contract and a 2020 4th round pick and nobody can blame Marner for being a “greedy holdout” anymore.
Offseason Grade: B-
The Marner contract is not great, but the other moves made by the Leafs this offseason mean that they’re actually trying. There is a plan in place that they remain committed to– constantly evaluating and re-evaluating talent for the overall intended improvement of the organization.
Whether or not Toronto is sure to win the Cup this season remains to be seen. Every year there’s always Cup front runners on paper, but the on-ice product and results vary. This team is capable of winning the Cup, but they still have a lot of work to do to earn it.
Mitch Marner finally re-signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Boston Bruins announced a couple key extensions, more RFA deals were signed and the NHLPA decided not to re-open the current collective bargaining agreement as DTFR’s season previews continued with the Metropolitan Division.
As the entire hockey world awaits training camp action next month, let’s make some (un)educated guesses about the upcoming season that will totally pan out because everything always goes as expected. (It doesn’t.)
The projected standings below are only a forecast.
They are based on recent indications– as well as the last few seasons of stats– and cannot account for variations in roster construction (a.k.a. trades and free agency moves).
There’s a lot of variables that will turn the tables upside down, including transactions, injuries and otherwise. Anything can happen.
As always, it’s more important to remember 1) the spread and 2) the positioning.
Just how many points separate the projected division winner from the last wild card spot (the spread) and where a team is supposed to finish in the division standings (the position) can imply that things aren’t always what they seem.
A team that’s projected to win it all still has to play an 82-game regular season, qualify for the playoffs and go on to amass 16 wins in the postseason.
Projected Standings After ZERO Months
- p-Tampa Bay Lightning, 109 points
- x-Boston Bruins, 105 points
- x-Toronto Maple Leafs, 91 points
- Florida Panthers, 89 points
- Montreal Canadiens, 89 points
- Detroit Red Wings, 84 points
- Ottawa Senators, 78 points
- Buffalo Sabres, 71 points
Tampa Bay Lightning: Pros and Cons
The Lightning are annual favorites among the experts to win the Stanley Cup, so it’s no surprise, really, that they haven’t yet. There’s either too many expectations to live up to or there’s too much of a casual atmosphere from season-to-season.
You know what they say when you assume.
Just like the Washington Capitals and their 2018 Stanley Cup championship, it’s better for the Bolts if nobody is talking about them. Prior to the Caps winning in 2018, there was a “Cup or bust” mantra that just didn’t work.
Nothing is willed without hard work and humility.
That’s not to say Tampa doesn’t work hard or isn’t humble, but rather, they must lose on the big stage repetitively until everyone expects them to fail. That’s when they’ll go on a run.
They’ve managed to keep their roster together (granted, RFA center, Brayden Point, is still unsigned) while trimming the fat (gone are the days of Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi on the blue line) and are still Stanley Cup front-runners, but they likely won’t get back to the 60-win plateau in back-to-back seasons.
The Lightning will still get to 50 wins for the third season in-a-row, have Nikita Kucherov set the league on fire in scoring and yield out-of-this-world goaltending from Andrei Vasilevskiy before the real season starts– the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
How would the Lightning fail?
Everyone keeps talking about the Lightning as if they’re some godsend (too much hype, remember?). That, or General Manager Julien BriseBois blows up the roster and/or Jon Cooper is fired as head coach.
Boston Bruins: Pros and Cons
The Bruins core remains strong among their forwards and as long as they’re able to negotiate an extension with RFAs Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo without any bumps in the road, then their defense is pretty sound too.
Jaroslav Halak signed a two-year deal last summer, so the 1A/1B tandem of Tuukka Rask and Halak in the crease seems fine for another run in 2019-20.
Boston exceeded expectations in 2017-18 and went under the radar in 2018-19– though they managed to amass only 10 losses in regulation since Jan. 1st, which means they were actually pretty loud in the points percentage column.
Injuries come and go.
If the Bruins are able to stay healthy instead of dropping like flies to their 12th defenseman on the depth chart, they might actually pick up a few more points than they did last season.
With Bruce Cassidy as head coach, things should remain status quo in the regular season, but Boston still needs to address their top-six forward problem.
David Pastrnak can play on the first or second line, but on any given night that leaves one of their top two lines in need of a scoring winger.
General Manager Don Sweeney managed to patch a hole at the third line center– acquiring Charlie Coyle as last season’s trade deadline loomed– and Coyle was one of their better players in their 2019 Stanley Cup Final postseason run.
But with a couple of depth signings for bottom six roles in the offseason (Par Lindholm and Brett Ritchie), everyone getting another year older and David Backes’ $6.000 million cap hit through 2020-21 still on the books, Boston’s hands are tied.
How would the Bruins fail?
There’s enough bark in the regular season, but not enough bite for a deep postseason run. It’s harder than ever before to make it back to the Stanley Cup Final in back-to-back seasons– and that’s before you consider age, injuries and regression.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Pros and Cons
Toronto has Auston Matthews as their second best center. Yes. Second best. Why? Because John Tavares enters the second year of his long-term seven-year deal that he signed last July.
That alone will continue to keep the Leafs afloat with a strong 1-2 duo down the middle.
Regardless of the Mitch Marner contract negotiations (or lack thereof), the Maple Leafs are just fine with their forwards– having traded Nazem Kadri to the Colorado Avalanche and acquiring Alex Kerfoot in the process (Calle Rosen and Tyson Barrie were also swapped in the deal).
Patrick Marleau is gone and it only cost Toronto a conditional 2020 1st round pick (top-10 lottery protected) and a 2020 7th round pick in the process, but an affordable Jason Spezza at league minimum salary ($700,000) on a one-year deal for fourth line minutes will do just fine.
By puck drop for the 2019-20 season, the Leafs will save $10.550 million in cap space thanks to David Clarkson (yes, his contract’s back after a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights that sent Garret Sparks the other way) and Nathan Horton’s placement on the long-term injured reserve.
The stars are aligning for Toronto to still need to get past the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2004.
With Kadri gone, however, perhaps they will be able to do so with or without Boston in the equation.
How would the Leafs fail?
They don’t sign Marner and they lose in another Game 7 because of it. There’s a lot of turbulence ahead for Toronto General Manager Kyle Dubas considering the Leafs have one defender under contract after 2019-20. If the team doesn’t breakout in the postseason, it’s really just status quo until proven otherwise.
Florida Panthers: Pros and Cons
The Panthers are beginning to ripen with a mix of youth and experience among their forwards, plus a defense that quietly does their job.
They also added Noel Acciari, Brett Connolly, Anton Stralman and (most importantly) Sergei Bobrovsky to the mix.
While Acciari’s $1.667 million cap hit through 2021-22 is a slight overpay for a fourth line center, at least it could be worse. Connolly’s making $3.500 million for the next four years and even Stralman has a cap hit of $5.500 million through 2021-22 when he’ll be turning 36 on August 1, 2022.
Ok, so it was an expensive offseason for Florida– and that’s before you add the $10.000 million price tag for the next seven years of Bobrovsky in the crease.
Yes, despite landing one of the better goaltenders in the league in free agency, General Manager Dale Tallon managed to make matters complicated after, say, the fourth year of Bobrovsky’s contract.
Bobrovsky will be roughly 37-years-old by the time his contract with the Panthers expires and not everyone can be like Dwayne Roloson in the net forever.
At least they drafted Spencer Knight (in the first round– a goaltending prospect curse).
Though they missed the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs by 12 points for an Eastern Conference wild card spot, the Panthers are in a position to gain more than a few wins with new head coach (and three-time Stanley Cup champion) Joel Quenneville behind the bench.
How would the Panthers fail?
Florida’s already landed the biggest prize in head coaching free agency with Quenneville reuniting with Tallon in Sunrise. What could possibly go wrong (besides Tallon being replaced by a clone of Stan Bowman and then the Panthers go on to win three Cups without Tallon in command)?
Montreal Canadiens: Pros and Cons
Montreal didn’t get Matt Duchene or Sebastian Aho in free agency, so they got the next best thing– not overspending on July 1st.
That’s not to say Duchene and Aho aren’t quality players, but rather just an observation of cap concerns for the Habs with Max Domi as a pending-RFA in July 2020 and the rest of Montreal’s future core (Ryan Poehling, Nick Suzuki, Victor Mete, Cayden Primeau and Jesperi Kotkaniemi) to consider going down the road.
Granted, Aho could’ve sped the process up a bit if it weren’t for those pesky RFA rights and compensation in the CBA, right Montreal?
The Canadiens need a legitimate number one center, but General Manager Marc Bergevin has been preoccupied restructuring the defense in the meantime.
That’s not a bad thing.
Shea Weber is 34 and under contract through the 2025-26 season, though after 2021-22, his base salary drops to $3.000 million in 2022-23 and $1.000 million from 2023-26 (meaning he could be traded with ease in a few years, despite his $7.857 million cap hit).
But Karl Alzner and Jeff Petry are both over 30 and have no-trade and/or no-movement clauses in their contracts.
At least free agent addition, Ben Chiarot, is 28-years-old, but he also carries a no-trade clause as part of his three-year deal.
How would the Canadiens fail?
Claude Julien inexplicably reverts back to his old ways and doesn’t play the kids, Carey Price is injured for most of the season and/or Bergevin overcompensates in a trade because of his failure to secure a free agent center.
Detroit Red Wings: Pros and Cons
Steve Yzerman has come home and is rightfully the General Manager for the Red Wings, but as we’ve seen in Tampa, his masterplan takes a little time.
Detroit is four or five years out from being an annual Cup contender, but that doesn’t mean the Red Wings haven’t already sped things up in their rebuild.
Trading for Adam Erne isn’t a grand-slam, but it does make the average age of the roster a tad younger.
It also means that the Red Wings now have seven pending-RFAs on their NHL roster and roughly $37.000 million to work with in July 2020.
How would the Red Wings fail?
Having Yzerman in the front office at Little Caesars Arena is like adding all of the best toppings to a pizza. The only downside is that leftover pineapple is still on the pizza from all of the no-trade clauses delivered by the last guy.
Ottawa Senators: Pros and Cons
The Senators are looking to spend ba-by.
Just kidding, they don’t plan on being good until 2021, so does that mean starting with the 2020-21 season or the following year in 2021-22?
But they do have a ton of draft picks stockpiled including two in the 1st round in 2020, three in the 2nd round, one in the 3rd, 4th and 5th, a pair in the 6th and one in the 7th.
Plus they have roughly $15.600 million in cap space currently and eight players under contract for next season that aren’t on the injured reserve.
For some reason (Eugene Melnyk) current-RFA Colin White is still unsigned and 38-year-old, Ron Hainsey, was signed in free agency, but at least Cody Ceci is a Maple Leaf now.
Oh and former Leafs assistant coach D.J. Smith is Ottawa’s head coach now. That’ll show them!
How would the Senators fail?
More importantly, how would Ottawa succeed?
Buffalo Sabres: Pros and Cons
Pro: The Sabres will probably be better than last season.
Con: Ralph Krueger is Buffalo’s new head coach and nobody knows what to expect (he went 19-22-7 in the lockout shortened 48-game season with the Edmonton Oilers in 2012-13).
Pro: Only eight skaters are under contract next season.
Con: Only eight skaters are under contract next season, including Rasmus Ristolainen and nobody is sure whether or not the club is trying to trade him.
Pro: Marcus Johansson!
Con: Jimmy Vesey! (Only cost Buffalo two third round picks over three years to get him.)
Pro: The average age of the roster is about 26.
Con: Matt Hunwick is the oldest player at 34-years-old, followed by Carter Hutton at 33 and Vladimir Sobotka at 32.
Pro: Royal blue in 2020!
Con: It’s not until 2020.
How would the Sabres fail?
If Buffalo actually finishes last in the division, instead of any improvement whatsoever.