Toronto Maple Leafs season preview: First chapter of a new era

If James van Riemsdyk can break through as a team leader, the Leafs suddenly boast a new identity on offense.

John E. Sokolowski/John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Spo

Plus: The Maple Leafs organization is finally ready to make the dramatic changes necessary to turn this team around. After last year’s failure, the Leafs completely revamped their front office, hiring Lou Lamoriello as general manager and landing coveted coach Mike Babcock. The Leafs also got a start on changing the culture of the club by trading Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh. There are a few young players to put faith in as defensemen Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner continue to develop, and prospects William Nylander and Connor Brown could finally see some time with the big club.

Minus: Although the organization made dramatic changes, it could take years for the Babcock-Lamoriello system to make a difference. Dion Phaneuf is back on defense, and while Phaneuf can generate some of the most crushing hits in the league, there have been consistent questions about his leadership and his defensive skill at this stage in his career. Although getting rid of Kessel is good for the team’s culture, it does not bode well for the offense, which will miss his 60-plus points per season.

X-Factor: James van Riemsdyk

The 26-year-old winger has always been a solid forward, and he finished second in scoring for the Leafs last season with 56 points in 82 games. With Kessel gone, van Riemsdyk will be looked to as the premier scorer on the team, and the Leafs will also need him to step up as a leader. If van Riemsdyk can do so, the Leafs do not need to immediately find an elite scorer to replace Kessel and can focus instead on developing the cast around van Riemsdyk. It’s a supporting cast that needs a lot of work, especially where wild cards Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak are considered. A good season from van Riemsdyk can allow the Leafs to be more patient with them.

Prediction: The Leafs made changes, but those changes are geared toward improving the team’s long-term future. With Babcock at the helm, there is a chance that this team could be better than last year’s edition, but that’s not saying much. Fellow Atlantic cellar-dweller Buffalo made tremendous improvements to its roster, so expect the rebuilding Leafs to finish last.