Should the Toronto Maple Leafs Turn to Their Young Guns?


Young players may assume larger roles on the Toronto Maple Leafs next season

In my last article, I argued how the Toronto Maple Leafs can best use the often-injured Joffrey Lupul moving forward. I simply assumed the Leafs would be tapping on their younger players for larger roles next season and this meant Lupul should be dropped to the third line.

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I didn’t question this assumption; I took it as a given and obvious fact. However, this viewpoint wasn’t universally accepted in the comments section. Here a counter-argument emerged that the Leafs should let their young players develop in the relative quietness of the AHL with the Toronto Marlies before throwing them to the media sharks and the ill effects of overbearing fan pressure at the NHL level.

First, let me (once again) admit that I never even considered this argument. I just assumed the Leafs would turn to their younger players.

Second, I don’t necessarily disagree with this argument. We’ve seen what relying on young players has done for the Edmonton Oilers: nothing but delay their development. I’m not sure if Nail Yakupov will ever realize his full potential at this point.

Jun 27, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; William Nylander puts on a team sweater after being selected as the number eight overall pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Bearing all this in mind, let’s explore the question: should the Leafs run with their young players?

The development argument is a serious and legitimate one, but it’s also important to remember that expectations are extremely low for the Leafs this season. Unlike Edmonton, the media and fans in Toronto appear to understand that this latest “rebuild” effort won’t bear fruit over night. Mike Babcock signed an eight-year contract for a reason: the Leafs require a long-term, not a short-term, exorcism to rid themselves of their current demons.

If this observation doesn’t completely address the development argument, it at least brings the AHL and NHL closer together. The Leafs are probably going to toil away in futility anyway – why not let the likes of William Nylander, Stuart Percy, Mitch Marner, etc., experience that at the NHL level? They have nothing to lose given the low expectations for the team, but they could gain some early and valuable experience against NHL players.

Sep 21, 2013; Buffalo, NY, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Stuart Percy (50) against the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

You can accept this point or leave it, but a more immediate one concerns roster spots. The Leafs didn’t make any major acquisitions this off-season so they’ll need to fill the loss of Phil Kessel‘s offensive and Cody Franson‘s steady presence on the blue line through internal options. My reading of this situation is that youngsters Percy, Martin Marincin, Scott Harrington and possibly even T.J. Brennan will get a legitimate opportunity to make the big team alongside veteran Curtis Glencross, who the Leafs just signed to a professional tryout contract (I give Percy and Glencross the early advantages).

At a minimum, we know Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly will be asked to assume larger roles on the blue line; they represent the true future of the team’s defence.

At the forward positions, Nazem Kadri is likely to get one last chance to really impress the top brass before they get serious about trading him. I expect Kadri to start the season on the top line as a reflection of the team’s limited depth at centre more than anything else. Beyond that, someone like Nylander or Connor Brown could easily be tapped to help fill the loss of Kessel’s magic but soft hands.

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  • Without intending any offence to Shawn Matthias, Devin Setoguchi or P.A. Parenteau, the problem here is that the Leafs were relatively (and rightly) quiet this off-season; they didn’t add any big guns from the outside so the attention will now turn to their internal options for added offence, which mostly rest at the AHL level.

    Based on these two considerations, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Leafs tapped three or four of their AHL-level players for big roles on the team next season, but I’d love to hear what you think. How might the Leafs best use their budding nucleus of young players? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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    We’ll let you know when the Toronto Maple Leafs’ final roster is set!