It’s that time again at long last…hockey season is nearly upon us! Before we get to the regular season though, there are some pre-season games to get through. We’ll look at the first two games (split-squad) for the Leafs in today’s Leafs Report.
I’ll be the first to admit that split-squad games aren’t the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. It seems to me that one roster is always far better than the other when playing these games and that teams usually put more stars on the home side. With all of that said though, making these split-squad games kick off the pre-season is a great idea to get everyone into the swing of things again and it is fun following both games at once.
The 2014-2015 Toronto Maple Leafs were not a very good team by any stretch of the imagination and the organization as a whole underwent a massive restructuring this past summer largely dismantling a management and coaching group that wasn’t about to turn things around. The club brought in a proven winner as coach in Mike Babcok on a $50 million dollar 8 year contract. The Leafs also brought in the architect of the great New Jersey Devils teams of the 90s and 2000s in Lou Lamoriello as General Manager. Outstanding OHL coaches DJ Smith and Sheldon Keefe also joined the fold as Assistant Coach and Coach of the Toronto Marlies respectively. The changes didn’t stop in the front office though as the team also shipped out sniper Phil Kessel for a debatable return, drafted Mitch Marner of the London Knights, and signed 4 players to Professional Try-outs. It was a long summer with a lot of anticipation to see what would happen when the Leafs returned to the ice with a new lineup and new gameplan and we finally got to see our first glimpse last night.
The Leafs kicked off the 2015-2016 pre-season with a pair of games last night in Kanata and Toronto against the Ottawa Senators and had a pair of fairly good showings for it. The Leafs won 4-1 at the Air Canada Centre on goals from PA Parenteau (2), Nick Spaling, and Stuart Percy. Mike Hoffman had the lone goal for Ottawa on a bullet off the post. Jonathan Bernier made 28 saves in the win and played the entire 60 minutes. The Leafs also defeated the Sens 4-3 in overtime at the Canadian Tire Centre on goals from Joffrey Lupul (2), Dion Phaneuf, and TJ Brennan. Erik Karlsson, Shane Prince, and Bobby Ryan scored for the Sens. James Reimer stopped 21 of 24 and played 2 periods. Garret Sparks (who played for the ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears last year) stopped all 8 shots in the third period and OT for the win.
It was a good start to the pre-season for the Leafs and although most of it will be meaningless come October, there were some positives to be happy about.
William Nylander – This kid has not looked out of place and fed Parenteau on the Powerplay for a beautiful goal. Nylander still has some physical maturing to do, but the skill is definitely there as is the poise. Another year with the Marlies and Nylander should be ready to join the big club in 2016-2017.
Jake Gardiner – He’s still coming into his own, but it’s looking like a savvy investment to have locked him up to an affordable long-term deal. The swift skating and offensive instincts are enough to overlook the ever-present defensive gaffes. We can’t forget that Jake is still young and has a lot of time to mature into a go-to guy for this team. He’s getting there though.
PA Parenteau – A few years ago when Parenteau was an Unrestricted Free Agent, I thought he would be a great pick up. He’s a somewhat underrated player in a lot of ways and could be a big piece of the puzzle for this year and the future if he’s used properly. The guy has an incredibly hard and accurate shot. I can’t wait to see what he can do with more minutes. If nothing else though, Parenteau is a great Powerplay option after his 2 goals Monday night.
Jonathan Bernier – A lot of people have hated on Bernie for his entire tenure in Toronto, but this goalie is a pretty solid option and I’m never uneasy when seeing him in goal. Bernier reminds me a lot of Felix Potvin back in the 90s except more technically sound. Bernier doesn’t give a lot of rebounds, is square to the puck, and has great reflexes. He looked good in a few tense situations against the Sens, and while this is the pre-season, it’s important for your goaltender to be motivated all the time. I expect him to have a big bounce back year.
James Reimer – I believe this is the make or break year for “Optimus Reim”. Reimer’s contract is up at the end of the season and I could really see him being moved at the deadline to shore up another team’s goaltending for the playoffs Reimer had a rough outing against the Sens last night and while it’s the first game, it’s still a concern. He let in two goals right along the ice that most goalies would have. I like James as a goalie and a person, but he needs to regain the form he displayed when he got the team into the playoffs in 2012-2013.
Joffrey Lupul – I really like Lupul as a player. When he’s on, he’s a dominant forward who can create plays out of nothing. When he’s not though, he’s invisible. Joffrey needs to play with purpose this year if he hopes to remain a Leaf and going to the front of the net will go a long way to making him an effective forward. It got him two goals last night just by going into the dirty areas around the net.
Mitch Marner – He didn’t even get to suit up last night. Obviously, he’ll be a Knight again in a few short weeks, but why not give him a look against some of the pros? I for one hope he can get into at least 4 games to give a small sample of what he can do.
Mike Babcock – He was very vocal in his first game as coach of the Leafs always talking and directing the players on what he wanted to see. Too many times in past years have we seen the coach just standing there looking on, Those days are over, Babcock is here to work and is being paid handsomely for it. I believe he’s the best coach they’ve had since Pat Burns. This is the guy that is going to protect his players and go to bat for them. He’s not someone who’s going to throw anyone under the bus. This is the right man for this job and you can see it in how engaged he is at all times.
Overall, this team is quite clearly still a work in progress, but there are lots of things to look forward to and this season may not be as painful as many expected. The future is looking bright for the Leafs for the first time in many years. While they still need to acquire some more can’t miss prospects, the organization is in a better position than it has been since the first NHL lockout of the decade in 2004-2005.
That’s about all for this Leafs Report check back next time for more Leafs news and analysis.
The Leafs take on the Montréal Canadiens tonight at 7:30pm EST from the Bell Center in Montreal, Québec in their third pre-season game.