With the hiring of new President Brenden Shanahan, Maple Leafs fans knew change would likely come, but to what degree and how fast was still unknown. Shanahan seemed determined to give this team’s core a chance to play some games in front of him before he started making monumental decisions on this team’s future. So, with a big blockbuster trade looking like a long shot, the Leafs decided to make some changes to their team via the free-agent market.
The Maple Leafs let some substantial talent walk in free agency, some because they were outbid, and some just because the team needed some personal change. Mason Raymond was a great bargain for the Leafs last season on a cheap one-year contract but was in for a big pay raise this off-season. The Flames gave him a three-year, 9.45-million-dollar contract as a reward for a 45-point season with the Leafs. Dave Bolland also left as a free agent to sign a big five-year, 27.5-million-dollar contract with the Florida Panthers.
The same goes for Nikolai Kulemin, who left to join the Islanders on a four-year, 16.75-million-dollar contract. Paul Ranger, T.J. Brennan, and penalty kill specialist Jay McClement also all left the Maple Leafs to hit the free agency market.
This gave Nonis some roster spots that he had to fill. He started doing so right away on July 1st, as first he signed defenceman Stephane Robidas to a three year, 9-million-dollar contract. The 37-year-old defenceman was going to be a much-needed veteran presence with 885 games already under his belt in the NHL.
The Maple Leafs also signed Leo Komarov to a four year, 11.8-million-dollar contract. Komarov was with the Maple Leafs during the 2012-2013 season, but then returned to the KHL for a season where he put up 34 points in 52 games for Dynamo Moskva.
Then Nonis went out and struck a deal with the Blue Jackets sending prospect Jerry D’Amigo and a 7th round pick to Columbus to bring Matt Frattin back to Toronto. Frattin, like Komarov, spent 2012-2013 with the Maple Leafs and was being brought back to help out with the depth of the team.
A couple of days later on the 4th, the Leafs went into the European free agent market and signed Petri Kontiola to a 1-year, deal. Kontiola was from Finland but played last season in the KHL and was going to be given a chance to compete for the 4th line centre position for the Leafs in the NHL.
On the same day, the Leafs also signed forward Mike Santorelli to a one-year, 1.5-million-dollar contract. Santorelli put up 28 points in 49 games for the Canucks last season and looked to be a solid bottom-six forward. The next significant signing then came on July 12th as the Leafs gave Peter Holland a two-year contract worth $775k per season.
Then on 22nd of July, Brendan Shanahan made his most significant change as President of the Maple Leafs so far. Since he was hired, he has not only backed GM Dave Nonis but also awarded head coach Randy Carlyle with a contract extension. Yet, fans and media wondered when he would want to start putting his touch on the organization, possibly from a management side. That first big change came on July 22nd, as Shanahan announced that assistant GM Claude Loiselle and Vice president of hockey operations Dave Poulin would be leaving the organization.
The next announcement would be who would be filling that now vacant Assistant GM position, and it came during the very same announcement of the departures. Shanahan talked about how he was asking around the hockey community for some up-and-coming young hockey minds, and one name kept popping up. So, Shanahan reached out to that person, and a couple discussions lead to them meeting up for an in-person conversation that lasted about nine hours. Shanahan knew he had to try to bring this young man into the Maple Leafs organization, and he did just that.
The Maple Leafs had hired 28-year-old Kyle Dubas as the team’s new Assistant General Manager. Dubas had spent the past three seasons as the General Manager of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and was also a former player agent.
Dubas was young compared to many high-ranking executives in the league, but that didn’t faze the Maple Leafs. Shanahan fell for Dubas in part for the way he thinks the game, a big part of which is with advanced analytics.
The Maple Leafs have tended over the past couple years to ignore advanced analytics and it hasn’t worked out well for them. Last season the Maple Leafs were one of the worst puck possession teams in the NHL. With hiring Kyle Dubas, it looks as if Shanahan had decided the team should start paying more attention to corsi, fenwick, and all the other types of advanced analytics making its way into the hockey world.
The hiring of Kyle Dubas didn’t slow down the crucial roster decisions the Maple Leafs needed to make at all. In just one week in late July, the Leafs made a significant number of signings for some of their RFA’s and some UFA’s on the market.
First, the Leafs signed defenceman Cody Franson to a one-year, 3.3-million-dollar contract. Franson had been one of the Leafs best defenceman over the past couple of seasons but seemed to be stuck in an endless cycle of one-year contracts. This contract though would be his last as an RFA, as maybe next year could finally be the season where Franson lands a multi-year extension.
The Maple Leafs also signed goaltender James Reimer to a two-year, 4.6-million-dollar contract extension. Reimer had been the subject some trade rumours over the past month or so but would remain with the Leafs moving forward.
Dubas also signed a pair of UFA’s to one-year deals. The first was forward David Booth, who signed for 1.1 million dollars. The contract looked extremely similar to the one the Leafs gave Mason Raymond last year and Nonis was hoping that Booth could deliver the same type of value on a cheap contract. The other player was Daniel Winnik, who signed for 1.3 million dollars. Winnik was a player who would bring some toughness and grit to the bottom six, while also being able to chip in offensively as he had six goals and 24 assists for the Ducks last season.
Lastly, on July 29 Nonis made a significant signing as he extended the Leafs biggest RFA in Jake Gardiner. Gardiner had just completed his entry-level contract and already had 167 NHL regular-season games and 65 points under his belt (not to mention six playoff games where he registered a goal and four assists). He looked to be the future of the team’s defence core alongside Morgan Rielly. So, Nonis took a gamble on his potential and signed him to a five-year contract worth 4.05 million per season. The contract would be paying Gardiner a little more than market value at the start, with the hope the final 2-3 years might be a massive bargain.
Except for the Maple Leafs signing Nylander to his three-year entry-level deal and Shanahan hiring salary cap genius Brandon Pridham as the assistant to the GM, the Maple Leafs hadn’t made any other transactions when training camp opened in September. Shanahan had allowed Nonis to add some veteran players around their existing core to allow them to prove that this was a core that can win moving forward.
There were a couple of players during training camp that seemed to impress, and they both earned a spot in the opening night roster. The first was defenceman Stuart Percy, who the Leafs drafted 25th overall back in 2011. After playing the previous season with the Marlies, he had earned the right to have a chance to see how he could play with the NHL team. The other player was Brandon Kozun who the Maple Leafs acquired last January from the Kings.
Finally, on October 8th it was time for the Maple Leafs to open up their season at home against the Montreal Canadiens. The Maple Leafs have had a lot of success in previous seasons in home-openers against Montreal, but that meant very little to this current roster. All eyes were on looking forward and forgetting about the past couple of seasons. Both Kozun and Percy had impactful 1st periods, both earning primary assists as the two teams went back and forth in a closely contested game.
With just under a minute left to play in the 3rd period with the score tied 3-3, Tomas Plekanec of the Canadiens banked a harmless-looking shot off the skate of Stuart Percy and in past Bernier to give the Habs the lead. The Leafs came close to tying it in the final seconds, but Price stood tall in net and the Canadiens ended up taking a 4-3 victory.
The very next day the Maple Leafs made an interesting move, claiming forward Richard Panik off of waivers from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Panik was a 23-year-old forward with eight goals and 22 points already in his career (75 games played). Panik was a second-round pick back in 2009 and the Leafs were hoping to help him rejuvenate his career here in Toronto.
Shanahan was also still working hard to find the right personnel for his front office. On the 21st of October, Shanahan announced that the Maple Leafs had hired Mark Hunter as the team’s director of player personnel. Hunter had spent 12 years as part Vice President and GM of the London Knights, one of the most successful teams in OHL history. The Knights always seemed to be pumping out NHL players and Hunter was a big reason behind that. His role with the Maple Leafs would be to oversee amateur and pro scouting, and any type of player evaluation.
The Leafs went on to have a very up and down month of October going 5-4-1. They would play a couple of games where they seem just out of it, like a 4-1 loss to the Boston Bruins where the Leafs got dominated. Then they would come back a couple of nights later and beat the Sabres 4-0 while limiting Buffalo to only 10 shots on net. A game where Bernier said was the easiest shutout he has ever had.
The Leafs went 4-1-1 in their first six games of November, including a decisive 6-1 victory over the Boston Bruins. Still, there were questions about the team’s consistency to play a full 60 minutes even in their wins this season. Regardless, on the morning of November 13th, the Leafs sat in the 1st wildcard spot with a 9-5-2 record.
During that period however, forward Carter Ashton were suspended 20 games by the NHL for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Ashton stated he got caught due to an inhaler he was using for his asthma, but still started serving his suspension immediately.
On November 14th the Leafs played host to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the annual HHOF game which the Maple Leafs host every November. In the end, the Penguins won the game 2-1, but nothing too concerning came from the game.
That wasn’t the case with the next night, as the Leafs travelled to Buffalo to take on the Sabres. The Sabres (who were one of the worst teams in the NHL) humiliated the Maple Leafs by a score of 6-2. The game showcased a lot of the problems that this team has, including defensive lapses and overall work ethic, as there were stretches in the game where the team just looked like they didn’t care too much. It was a real blow for the team and a big bounce-back was needed going into their next game.
It’s safe to say that didn’t happen.
The Maple Leafs next game was three nights later, a home game against the Nashville Predators. Remember a few years ago when we talked about the game fans chanted “FIRE WILSON” as a game Maple Leafs fans would remember as a special game in the journey through the decade of this team? This game would be classified as one of those games.
A nightmare would be an understatement. It’s not even worth talking about all the specific goals, but here is a simple rundown of what happened.
Within the first two minutes of the game, the Predators were already winning 1-0, and by the end of the first period, they were up 3-0. By the end of the 2nd, it was 4-0. The Leafs were able to score two in the 3rd, however pointless when you realize the Predators scored another five in the third to make it a 9-2 final.
It was as incomplete of a performance as it could get. There wasn’t a bright spot to find on the Maple Leafs team. There was no heart, no compete, or effort given by a single Maple Leafs player. The fans let them hear their displeasure as well with enormous boo’s and having a jersey thrown onto the ice (which wasn’t the first time it had happened recently).
The fans had clearly had enough.
And of course, the media being what it is in Toronto had a field day with this one. Captain Dion Phaneuf sat alongside veteran Stephane Robidas on the podium after the game to answer questions. Phaneuf talked about how embarrassing it was to lose like that at home, how the effort was “unacceptable from the whole group.” Then on just the second question, a reporter asked Phaneuf if the group was trying to consciously or not-consciously get head coach Randy Carlyle fired. Phaneuf answered with a quick “No.”
The next couple of days consisted of the media just blasting the question “Is this a team Shanahan and Nonis can build around.” The Leafs had an opportunity to quiet the media a bit a couple of nights later when they took on Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning were off to a strong start to their season sitting 2nd in the Atlantic Division with a 13-5-2 record. It almost felt going into that game that it was a must-win for the Maple Leafs, or serious changes could be coming (even though many fans were already thinking changes need to happen regardless).
To the Leafs credit, they came out to play. Within the first two minutes of the game, David Clarkson scored his sixth goal of the season to give Toronto the early lead. Even better than the early lead, remember that that was Clarkson’s sixth goal of the season and it was only game #20. Remember that Clarkson only had five goals in 60 games last season. So, early signs indicated that last season might have just been a bit of a fluke.
The Leafs, led by two goals from JVR won the game 5-2, despite as per usual being outshot in the game.
That’s not where to story ended though, in fact, the biggest story of the night hadn’t even started when the final buzzer sounded. For years now, after every home win, the Maple Leafs would salute their fans at centre-ice before heading back into the dressing room. The team for some reason this game didn’t salute their fans in a decision that would quickly see “Salute-Gate” dominate headlines in the local media.
Video quickly emerged showing Phil Kessel going over to Phaneuf after the game and saying something to him, leaving many to believe that it was the team’s best player along with the Captain that might have been the instigators in the Maple Leafs pulling a stunt like this. Understandably the Leafs were not happy with the constant boos from the fans and having a couple of jerseys being thrown onto the ice during the first couple months of the season, but there was no doubting it wasn’t a good look for the team for pulling a stunt like that.
The very next game was against the Red Wings, a game at home in which the Leafs won by a score of 4-1. After the game the Maple Leafs did go to centre ice and salute their fans, ending the notion that not saluting their fans was going to be the team’s new approach. Or perhaps someone within the Leafs organization (presumably Shanahan) told the players that not saluting their fans was unacceptable.
Whatever it was from though, either the 9-2 loss to the Predators or the whole not saluting their fans debate, something lit a spark to these Maple Leafs. Starting with their win against Tampa, the Maple Leafs went 10-1-1 in the 12 games after the humiliation against Nashville. Things seemed to be clicking for the Maple Leafs, who on the morning of December 17 sat in the 1st wildcard spot with 41 points, seven points up on 9th place, and only two points back of first in the Atlantic Division.
The last seven games of 2014 didn’t exactly go as plan, going 2-5. When the clock struck midnight to bring in 2015 the Maple Leafs had a record of 21-14-3, good enough to hold the 1st wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. All things considered, even though there had been some pretty low moments for this team already this season, they were in a playoff spot.
Yet very few on the morning of July 1st could have known just how monumental 2015 was going to be for this franchise.
The Maple Leafs started 2015 with back-to-back games on January 2nd and 3rd. The first game was against the Minnesota Wild and the Leafs ended up losing that match by a 3-1 score. The very next night the Leafs travelled to Winnipeg to take on the Jets. The Maple Leafs got dominated on the shot clock 40-21 and lost the game 5-1.
The Maple Leafs getting dominated on the shot clock was not a rare occurrence. Even while they were in the midst of their 10-1-1 streak, there were often nights the Leafs won games they might not have deserved to win. A key example of that was on December 10th, a game where the Leafs won 2-1 in a shootout despite getting outshot 42-19. They weren’t getting outshot every single night, but far too often to maintain a constant level of winning over and 82 game season and hopefully a playoff run.
So, on the morning of January 6th, Shanahan and Nonis announced that the team had fired head coach Randy Carlyle. Assistant coach Peter Horachek would be taking over as interim head coach.
Carlyle ended his tenure with the Maple Leafs with a record of 91-78-19 with one playoff appearance. In a press conference, GM Dave Nonis talked about the Leafs not having a level of consistency so far into the season. The Maple Leafs were allowing an average of 34.4 shots against per game, and whatever tactics Carlyle was trying to use to fix their defensive problems weren’t working. It was time for a change.
It was a quick realization though that interim head coach Peter Horachek wasn’t going to be able to fix the core problems that this team had. As things seemed to get a lot worse very quickly.
The Maple Leafs only won one game all of January, a total record of 1-11-1. The Maple Leafs looked lost, frustrated, and honestly, every other adjective that wasn’t positive applied to this team. The passion and work ethic required in a team to win hockey games just wasn’t there. On the morning of February 1st, the Maple Leafs sat 12th in the Eastern Conference and well behind 8th place. It was going to take a miracle for this team to make the playoffs with only around 30 games left in the season, and there wasn’t even a small glimmer of hope that that was something that could happen with this team.
The Maple Leafs lost the first two games in February before finally defeating the Edmonton Oilers 5-1 on Hockey Night in Canada on February 7th, their first win since January 9th! It was finally a night where Leafs fans could enjoy watching a hockey game, as the past month had been one of the most brutal in recent memory.
The win against the Oilers included goals from Santorelli and Holland, as well as a spectacular coast-to-coast goal from Morgan Rielly.
However, the past month could not be ignored by team President Brendan Shanahan. He was hoping that the coaching change in early January would light a spark to this team to help them play more consistent hockey. Instead, he watched his team crumble under the pressure and fall completely out of the playoff race over a span of one month.
Turns out Shanahan had been able to see and evaluate the state of the core of his team, and it was easy to guess he wasn’t liking it. What that lead to was one of the most decisions of the entire decade for this franchise. The actual date is tough to pinpoint, but in early February of 2015, rumours started to go around from NHL insiders that the Board at MLSE had granted Brendan Shanahan the power to embark on a full-scale rebuild.
The team that Brian Burke and then Dave Nonis built up a bit over half a decade ago was a team Shanahan didn’t believe could one day bring a Stanley Cup to Toronto. It was a tough pill to swallow for a lot of Leafs Nation, knowing that almost certainly this team was going to get much worse before they got better. There’s also a lot of uncertainty with rebuilds. However, the sense was as hard as it was to except, the majority of Leafs fans agreed with the decision. This team had disappointed Leafs Nation too many times in the past couple seasons, and a fresh start might be just what this organization needs.
So, in February of 2015, the rebuild of the Toronto Maple Leafs began.
Now Shanahan didn’t walk up to the podium and say the words “the rebuild begins today” or anything like that, but it didn’t take long for signs of a rebuild start happening. The first minor step was the Leafs trading away prospect David Broll and Carter Ashton (who recently returned from his PED suspension and was playing with the Marlies) to the Lightning in exchange for a 2016 7th round pick.
While February continued to roll forward, the losses continued to pile up for the Maple Leafs. On February 15th Dave Nonis made the first of what would be a slew of future-oriented trades for the Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs traded away Mike Santorelli and offensive defenceman Cody Franson to the Predators in exchange for veteran Olli Jokinen, prospect Brendan Leipsic, and a 2015 1st round pick.
Mike Santorelli was playing on a one-year contract and seemed to be a prime candidate to be traded, but Cody Franson was a little more interesting. Franson was still having a decent season with a struggling Maple Leafs team, leading all defenceman on the team with 32 points in 55 games. The Belief was the Maple Leafs wanted to keep the pending UFA on the team and offered him a multi-year contract extension at around 4.5 million dollars a season.
Years later Franson would confirm that those rumours were accurate, and he considered taking the offer Toronto gave him. It was good money and would keep him in Toronto moving forward, a place he loved to play in. However, his agent told him he would get more money and longer-term in free agency and elected to test the market in the summer. He never got that bigger offer his agent assured him he would get. (per The Athletic)
So, with no extension in place, Franson was traded back to the team that drafted him alongside Santorelli. Coming back was a valuable 1st round pick in the 2015 draft, along with prospect Brendan Leipsic.
Leipsic was a former 3rd round pick of the Nashville predators back in the 2012 NHL entry draft. He was in the of his first year of pro hockey, where he had 35 points in 47 games so far with the Predator’s AHL affiliate the Milwaukee Admirals. The Maple Leafs were certainty getting a prospect who had a high offensive element in his game, as he put up 91 points in his final season in the WHL with the Portland Winterhawks.
Olli Jokinen also came over to the Maple Leafs in this deal as the returning salary was a critical factor in the trade. Jokinen made it no secret he didn’t love the fact he was sent to one of the worst teams in the league as he was near the end of his career and was hoping for one more chance at going for a Stanley Cup. The Maple Leafs told him they would try to move him to a contending team before the trade deadline.
The next week was quiet with actual roster moves for the Maple Leafs, but the rumours were buzzing. With the Leafs now in a rebuild, was is just depth pieces that the Leafs were going to move at the deadline or core players such as Kessel and Phaneuf? All while these rumours were happening, the Maple Leafs continued to lose and lose. They were now right near the bottom of the league, which for a rebuilding team is huge because they would likely have a decent probability of winning the draft lottery and getting the first overall pick. Especially because this year’s #1 overall pick as pretty special, but more on that later.
The Maple Leafs were back on the trade front 10 days later, this time in a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Maple Leafs dealt Daniel Winnik to the Penguins in exchange for a 2015 4th round pick, a 2016 2nd round pick, and forward Zach Sill.
Winnik was quietly having a nice season with 25 points in 58 games, and the Leafs management seemed to love his character and attitude. Although a 2nd round pick is much more valuable to the Maple Leafs right now and getting a fourth-round pick as well as an added bonus. Sill would finish out the season with the Maple Leafs but only registered one point.
It was the very next day though, February 26, that the Maple Leafs really made headline news with a trade. No, it wasn’t a trade involving Phaneuf or Kessel, but instead, it was the departure of David Clarkson. The Maple Leafs dealt Clarkson and his entire contract which still has 5 full seasons left at 5.25 million per to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Nathan Horton.
In 118 games with the Maple Leafs, Clarkson only managed to get 15 goals and 11 assists. His contract was looking to be one of the worst in the NHL, which begs the question as to why would the Blue Jackets trade for him?
Nathan Horton has a similar contract to Clarkson, with five full years remaining after this season with a cap hit of 5.3 million per. The key difference was, Nathan Horton has some serious back problems and is currently on long term injury reserve (LTIR). What that means is he can’t play hockey at the moment, and even though his 5.3 is taken off the team’s cap hit, the organization still has to pay him. Horton’s career was in doubt with this injury, and a team like the Blue Jackets don’t have the funds to easily pay a player over five million dollars for the next half-decade to sit at home and not play for them. The cash happy Maple Leafs did. So, the Blue Jackets get a guy in Clarkson who has a similar contract and can at least put on the skates and play for them, while the rebuilding Maple Leafs clear up a bit over five million dollars in cap space to help with their rebuild.
There was a lot of praise to Dave Nonis in this one. He was the man who signed Clarkson to that monster contract, and he found a way to get rid of the contract without retaining any money or giving up picks and prospects. It was a bit sad to see Clarkson, who had so much hype around him coming into Toronto, just fold under the pressure of his contract and playing for the team he grew up cheering for.
The next couple of days, the Maple Leafs made a couple more moves to tweak their roster before the trade deadline was over. They traded prospect Spencer Abbott to Chicago in exchange for T.J. Brennan (who had sent time with the Marlies previously). They also claimed defenceman Tim Erixon off of waivers from the Blackhawks.
On trade deadline day, the Maple Leafe made two trades with Western Conference teams. The first was with the Blues, as the Maple Leafs kept their promise to Olli Jokinen and sent him to a contender in exchange for a 6th round pick in 2016 and pending UFA forward Joakim Lindstrom. The Maple Leafs also traded defenceman Korbinian Holzer to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for a 5th round pick in 2015 and pending UFA veteran defenceman Eric Brewer.
Finally, the trade deadline came to a close, and the Leafs knew who would be finishing the season with the team. In a span of just a couple weeks, the team had traded away Clarkson, Franson, Santorelli, and Winnik for a slew of draft picks and prospects, as well as some veteran pending UFA’s to help the Leafs fill out their roster until the end of the season. The rebuild had clearly begun.
Although the core of this team was still together. No big trade involving Kessel or Phaneuf happened, although the trade rumours were certainly in the media. And it seemed to annoy Kessel a bit, in particular the rumours surrounding his captain Dion Phaneuf. The perception of the Leafs captain had changed drastically from his first couple of seasons here. The media and fans often criticized him for being too slow, not hitting the net on his shots and things like that. Just one day after the trade deadline had passed, Kessel sounded off on the Toronto media for their treatment of Phaneuf during this tough season.
So, with just about a month left to go in the regular season, the Maple Leafs were now a worse team on paper, and the losses continued. It wasn’t even just on-ice problems the Leafs had; it was off the ice as well.
On Sunday, March 8th the Maple Leafs had a team meeting in the morning. Center Nazem Kadri arrived late to the team meeting, and interim head coach Peter Horachek suspended Kadri for the next three games. Kadri was originally suspended for one game, but after Shanahan met his front office staff, his coaching staff, and Kadri himself, the decision was made to sit him out an extra two games.
Shanahan mentioned that a three-game suspension was not the product of Kadri being late for one team meeting. They there had been a bit of a history with Kadri not being up to the level of professionalism that the Leafs were hoping from him and this decision was made to help Kadri realize that he has to be better. Shanahan also made it clear that the organization likes Kadri and sees him as part of the future, but this is a decision that had to happen.
March also saw the availability of some free agents from Europe and NCAA, and the Leafs made one signing from each on March 22. The first was from the KHL, as the Leafs signed 21-year-old forward Nikita Soshnikov to a three-year entry level contract. In 57 KHL games last season Soshnikov scored 14 goals and added 18 assists along with 22 penalty minutes. The gritty young forward might have a chance to play for the Maple Leafs next season but likely could see some time with the Marlies before reaching the NHL.
Now with the NCAA route, the Maple Leafs signed Penn State forward Casey Bailey to a two-year entry-level deal. Bailey registered 40 points in 37 games with Penn State this season and was expected to join the Maple Leafs for the last little bit of their season. He did end up joining the Leafs and played in six games for them at the end of their season, and even scored his first NHL goal in the final game the season.
On April 11th, the Maple Leafs played host to the Montreal Canadiens for their 82nd game of the regular season. Montreal was preparing for the start of the playoffs while the Leafs were busy looking ahead to the future. It turned out to be a close game with Montreal winning the game 4-3 via a shootout.
Finally, what felt like the longest 82 game season in recent memory for Leafs Nation was over. Their record was 30-44-8, with only eight total wins away from home ice. Phil Kessel (61) and JVR (56) were the only two Maple Leafs to get more than 50 points. Morgan Rielly did have eight goals this season, which was a nice step forward for him, but no defenceman who ended the season with the Leafs had more than 29 points. Richard Panik and Peter Holland both ended the season with 11 goals, but just about every skater for the Maple Leafs had just finished a pretty disappointing season. Neither Bernier (.912) or Reimer (.907) had a strong enough season to make the Maple Leafs fully confident in them being their #1 goalie of the future.
If the season was a viewing period for Shanahan to see if the Maple Leafs could win off of the core they had built here, he seemed to have his answer. Time to restart.
April 12th, one day after the Maple Leafs ended their season, Shanahan hit the reset button on the Maple Leafs franchise. Shanahan announced the firing of GM Dave Nonis and interim head coach Peter Horachek. Along with them, the Maple Leafs fired assistant coaches Steve Spott, Chris Dennis and Rick St. Croix, director of player development Jim Hughes, director of pro scouting Steve Kasper, strength and conditioning coach Anthony Belza and about 20 different scouts.
Shanahan cleaned the house. The Maple Leafs had no coaching staff, and for the time being until they found a new GM, Dubas, and Hunter would be co-intern GM’s.
During Shanahan’s press conference, he stated that this was just the beginning. That changes were coming. He also made though made it clear that he did like some pieces that the team had, and this wasn’t a whole team fire sale. It was a powerful press conference by Shanahan, and it kicked off a very unique off-season.
The first major event of the off-season was just a week later, April 18, as the NHL draft lottery was set to take place. The Maple Leafs finished 4th last in the NHL this season and therefore had the 4th best odds of winning the first overall pick at 9.5%. To say that the Leafs winning the first overall pick would huge would be an understatement when considering the player projected to be going 1st overall was Erie Otters forward Connor McDavid.
McDavid was projected to be the first generational player to enter the league since Sidney Crosby. McDavid registered 44 goals and 120 points in just 47 games in the OHL this season. The explosive centre looks to be already one of the best skaters this game has ever seen and could likely step into the league next year and already be a star. He definitely would help speed up this rebuild in a significant way.
However, as the lottery took place on Saturday, April 18, it was the 3rd worst team in the league, the Edmonton Oilers, who ended up winning the lottery. The Maple Leafs stayed in their original position and would be selecting 4th overall. Still a very high pick for a franchise that needs to start drafting and developing their players better.
Things then slowed down a little bit for the Maple Leafs. The rumours were still going crazy, but the Leafs seemed to be doing quite work while the NHL playoffs carried on. That was until right around the middle of May. The Maple Leafs still were without a coach, and the big coach rumoured to be on the move was Mick Babcock.
Babcock had been the coach of the Detroit Red Wings for 10 seasons now, and he just finished the last season in his contract. He had 3 cup finals appearances under his belt and one Stanley Cup. He was the head coach of Team Canada at the Olympics in 2010 and 2014 and is the only coach to have won a Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal and a World Hockey Championship.
Right around the middle of May was the peak of “Babwatch” as numerous teams interviewed him and tried to out-bid each other in the hopes that Babcock would come to coach their team. Some thought he would just end up going back to the Red Wings, some thought he was looking somewhere else for a new challenge. Even entering the day of his decision, May 20, there was no clear frontrunner in the eyes of the media. The Leafs seemed to be one of the teams still in the mix, along with Detroit, Buffalo, San Jose, and possibly others.
However, in the early afternoon of May 20, news started to leak out that the Toronto Maple Leafs had signed Babcock to an 8-year contract that was worth 50 million dollars. It was the most lucrative contract ever given out to an NHL coach.
One of the big questions about the signing was why a head coach of his stature would choose a team in the position that the Maple Leafs are. The Leafs are just starting a rebuild and will likely be getting worse for a little while before they start getting better and could still be a few years away from even getting close to getting back into the playoffs.
Babcock’s simple answer was he was looking forward to the challenge. He understood that in accepting this job he was embarking on a full-scale rebuild with the organization. With the Red Wings, he inherited a good team and made them great. In Toronto, he would have the opportunity to be a part of building this team from the ground up. Which lead to the famous quote from this press conference.
“If you don’t think there’s pain coming, there’s pain coming”.
Even with a top calibre coach, this team is not going to be fixed overnight.
It wasn’t until later in June that the Maple hired the rest of their coaching staff with the hiring of three assistant coaches. The Maple Leafs hired Jim Hiller, Andrew Brewer and D.J. Smith to be the assistant coaches to Mike Babcock. Hiller and Brewer were both assistant coaches for the Red Wings under Mike Babcock last season, while Smith was the head coach of the Oshawa Generals of the OHL for the past three seasons. He had just led the Generals to a Memorial Cup Championship as the best team in the CHL.
The Maple Leafs continued to search for a new GM in a quiet fashion throughout May and June, and as the NHL draft combined came and went in early June, it started looking very possible that the Leafs might be entering the NHL draft on June 25th draft without a new GM. Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter remained co-intern GM’s along with input and guidance from Shanahan, and the organization remained firm on their promise to take their time with the GM search and not rush it.
However, the first big move made by Dubas and Hunter came with a trade made about one week before the NHL draft was set to take place.
Hyman was a former 5th round pick of the Florida Panthers in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. He continued to play for Michigan the past four seasons, and last season registered 54 points in 37 games. He was even in the voting for the Hobey Baker award, given to the best player in the NCAA, but instead, was won by projected number two overall pick Jack Eichel.
Contract talks didn’t seem to be going anywhere with the Panthers, and it was rumoured that Hyman didn’t want to sign for them but instead come back to Toronto where he grew up and play for the Maple Leafs. So, the Panthers dealt him to Toronto for not a whole lot (better than getting nothing for him) and was now a Maple Leafs. Just five days later, the Maple Leafs signed Hyman to a two-year deal worth 900k per season.
The next day was the NHL draft, and with still no new GM in place. It didn’t seem to bother Shanahan though, as Dubas would deal with talks with the other 29 teams, while Hunter managed the Leafs draft selections.
The first two picks went exactly as projected. McDavid to the Oilers and Eichel to the Sabres. The Coyotes had the third overall picked and picked the third straight centre, as they selected Dylan Strome from the Erie Otters. With that selection, the Maple Leafs were on the clock.
The Maple Leafs had actually considered moving down in the draft a bit earlier, as a video from the draft floor confirmed the Leafs offered the 4th pick in the draft to the Blue Jackets in exchange for picks number 8, 34, 38 and 58. It was essentially the Maple Leafs trying to drop down four spots to gain three 2nd round picks in the process. The Blue Jackets decided to decline, so the fourth pick was still the Leafs.
Mark Hunter had a big choice to make primarily between two very different players, Mitch Marner and Noah Hanifin. Marner was a small, speedy, skilled winger who put up massive points for the London Knights of the OHL last season. In 63 games last season in the OHL, Marner registered 44 goals and 82 assists for 126 points. There was some concern about his size, as at the draft combine Marner was listed as 5’11” and just 160 pounds.
Hanifin was a big, two-way defender who spent last season playing at Boston College. In 37 games last season, Hanifin had five goals and 18 assists and was projected to have the possibility to make the NHL as soon as next season. He was listed as 6’2.75” and 203 pounds, a body almost everyone mentions as much more physically ready to be in the NHL right away.
Rumour had it that new head coach Mike Babcock pushed hard for Hunter to select Noah Hanifin. He, with the Likes of Morgan Reilly and Jake Gardiner, would make an extremely exciting young blueline to build around. Hunter though, had a history with Marner, as it was him who drafted Marner to the London Knights a few seasons ago. He had been able to see firsthand the work ethic and determination Marner showed in his craft.
So, with the 4th overall selection in the 2015 NHL entry draft, Mitch Marner was drafted to the team he grew up cheering for, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Maple Leafs also owned the 24th pick in the draft thanks to Predators in the Franson/Santorelli trade. There were still lots of talent available at 24, but Dubas wanted to give Mark Hunter every option he could in acquiring as many picks as possible. So, with that in mind, the Leafs traded the 24th pick to the Flyers in exchange picks 29 and 61. When the 29th pick came around, the Leafs again trade down, this time sending the 29th pick to Columbus for picks 34 and 68. In the end, the Maple Leafs turned the 24th overall pick into three picks, 34, 61 and 68.
With that 34th overall selection, the Maple Leafs selected Erie Otters defenceman Travis Dermott (the Otters had a great draft class). Dermott was a strong puck-moving defenceman who could skate extremely well. He had 37 assists to go along with six goals in 61 games for the Otters last season.
The rest of the Maple Leafs draft selections went as followed:
The Leafs did make one trade on the draft floor, as they traded a 4th round pick in the 2015 draft and prospect Brad Ross to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for defenceman Martin Marincin. Marincin had bounced between the NHL and AHL the past two seasons, suiting up for 41 games in the NHL last season. Marincin isn’t a defender who is going to put up a ton of points, but at 6’5” and well over 200 pounds, he is a defender that can kill penalties and clear the front of the net. The Leafs must have felt he could come in and fight for more consistent playing time at the NHL level here in Toronto.
The Maple Leafs left the NHL draft feeling they added some serious talent through their selections, but most of the talk was surroundings trade rumours, primarily with their star forward Phil Kessel. The rumours surrounding Kessel seemed to pick up over the draft, with the Penguins being one of the teams showing a lot of interest.
However, no trade had yet to be completed as the Maple Leafs set out ready for their first free agency in the rebuild. It had been a pretty successful off-season so far, with a strong draft that included start prospect Mitch Marner and the recruitment of one of the best coaches in hockey Mike Babcock. With still no GM hired, it sure was set to be an interesting off-season for Kyle Dubas, Mark Hunter, and Brendan Shanahan.
Leafs fans were expecting some significant changes to the on-ice personnel of this team, and the month of July certainly delivered on change.