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MHH Previews the Lesser 29: Toronto

Welcome to a new installment where we will preview each of the other NHL teams who simply make up the bulk of the league the Avalanche play in. Today, we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Their head coach: Mike Babcock, perhaps the best coach in hockey, who for some reason thinks it’s enjoyable to be with one of the worst teams in hockey. After spending so much time coaching the winged wheel in Detroit, Babcock fled the dirty drinking water of the Motor City when his contract expired a year ago to rebuild the Maple Leafs. Rebuilding the Maple Leafs in this day and age is like saying, "I’m going to go ride a unicorn to find a leprechaun." If anyone can coach that rebuild though, Babcock would be the one. One season into his term though, and it’s clear how difficult the task will be.

Their captain: Currently vacant. As it stands, I have as much of a case to be the Leafs’ captain as anyone on their roster.

Their 15-16 season: Horrid. For what seems like the one-thousandth consecutive season, things were going so badly come trade deadline time, GM Brendan Shanahan practically dealt everyone on the NHL roster to other teams in exchange for a bevy of draft picks. You would think one day, it’s going to work out for them. But so far, it has not.

How did they do against the Avs? Annoyingly well. If you divide the Maple Leafs’ results from last year into two portions, the non-Avs portion (80 games), and the Avs portion (2 games), you would judge the non-Avs portion as a disgrace to the game of hockey, they were that bad. But if you looked only at the Avs portion, you would think Toronto was one of the best teams in hockey! They beat the Avalanche by a combined score of 12-5. 5-1 in the first game at Toronto, 7-4 when they played at The Can. And that game in Denver featured one of the biggest no-shows in Avalanche history when they came out for the 3rd period. Sure, the Avs blew a lot of leads last year, but going into those last 20 minutes it was 3-3. Colorado just flat out said, NOPE, and let Tyler Bozak score a hat trick in 16 minutes to get clobbered.

When do they play the Avs this season? Dec. 11 in Toronto and Dec. 22 in Denver.

Will they be good? Oh god no. They still have a long ways to go before they compete for a playoff spot on a consistent year to year basis, much less a championship. Auston Matthews will be very good and help the cause. Fredrik Anderson, whom they acquired in a trade with the Ducks, will help make the goaltending less bad, but he’s far from my first choice of someone I’d want to build a team in front of if you handed him to me. My guess is that for the second straight season, they’ll finish with the worst record in the league. I just don’t see any other rosters as unproven or inexperienced as I do this one.

3 Questions with their SB Nation blog, Pension Plan Pupptets:

-How excited are Leafs fans about Auston Matthews? Is this the guy that can be the leading face as Toronto tries to rebuild itself towards a championship team? I think it goes without saying that Leafs fans are thrilled with Matthews and the direction the team is heading. By all accounts he's a player whose size and ability as both a shooter and passer should make him the no. 1 centre the team has lacked since Mats Sundin. There is no reason to believe he won't be a star and he certainly hasn't provided any reason to believe he's not a capable, standout player for his age. His early success as a pro and against pros at Worlds should help him transition into the NHL smoothly too. We're the most exciting time in recent history for Leafs Nation.

-How would you grade Mike Babcock’s first year behind the bench in Toronto? What does he have to do this season to bump that grade in the right direction? I think I would comfortably give Babcock a B+ for his first season in Toronto. The team played a sounder style than they have in almost a decade, they finally ran four lines regularly, and his usage was relatively strong. Still, though, I think he relied too heavily on a handful of players. Both Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak played more minutes than they warranted, and players like Byron Froese found a niche when they probably hadn't earned it over more talented options like Mark Arcobello or Brad Boyes. This year, I think it's imperative Babcock trust in some of the Leafs' outstanding youth. That means getting away from attachments to Froese and others, which may be a challenge for a coach who likes what he likes. Names like Connor Brown and Kerby Rychel need to be given legitimate shots to play in the NHL full time, rather than in stints. They've earned it.

-What would you consider to be a "successful" season for the Leafs? And on the other hand, what would make for an "unsuccessful" season? I think, more than anything, a successful season from the Leafs is dictated by growth from their five key pieces moving forward: William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, Frederik Andersen, and Morgan Rielly. The Leafs will live and die with these players and they all need to become top-end players if they're going to be competitive. Beyond that, I think it's important the Leafs other prospects get some significant tests and the team continues to play a system that is structured and fast. An unsuccessful season would likely see Babcock rely too heavily on players like Brooks Laich, Colin Greening, Matt Martin and Milan Michalek at the expense of the organization's talented youth. I think it's also reasonable to expect the team to improve not only through growth but also with some necessary results. That doesn't mean playoffs, but it means being more competitive and taking a step forward in the Eastern Conference.

Thanks to Scott Wheeler for taking the time to answer!