When Mike Babcock was hired as the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach on May 21, 2015, he warned the fan base and media with the infamous “there’s pain coming” quote in regards to the team’s rebuilding plan.
Almost two years later, Toronto is almost pain-free. The Leafs are in the best shape they’ve been in more than a decade. They currently own a 17-12-8 record that has the Leafs three points back of a wild-card spot and two points behind the Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division. A surprise position considering the fact that the Leafs have only made the playoffs in 10 of the past 11 seasons.
The turn around is all thanks to team president, Brendan Shanahan, and general manager Lou Lamoriello. These gentlemen and Babcock have known nothing but success and how to win in their respective careers.
The most impressive piece to the rebuilding puzzle is that it’s being led by an incredible youth core.
Remember Auston Matthews first NHL game? The first game of his young career where scored four goals? You knew this kid has a ton of promise as he’s the type of player the Leafs have desperately needed for so many years. The first overall pick from last summer’s draft has 20 goals for 34-points in 37 games.
Matthews is on pace for 40 goals this season, which would eclipse Wendel Clark’s Leaf rookie record of 34 goals back in the 1985-86 season. The rookie phenom is producing off a 65-point pace, which would come close to Peter Ihnacak’s record off 66-points in a rookie season, despite Ihnacak being 25-years old at the time.
Thankfully, Matthews is not alone in the youth movement. There’s 19-year old Mitch Marner whose perseverance has him second in team scoring with 29-points. William Nylander, who has been up and down the lineup all season, has 26-points which means these three rookies are in the top five for scoring on the Leafs (JVR and Bozak are also in there).
Furthermore, Connor Brown and Zach Hyman deserve recognition for their continuous efforts on the penalty kill along with their speed and skill that come with it. Hyman and Brown are having good seasons for the first time since Hyman last played at Michigan where he was nominated for the Hobey Baker Award (given to the top NCCA men’s ice hockey player) while Brown captained the Erie Otters in his final junior season.
Contributions from their top veterans like James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, and Nazem Kadri have helped this young team establish themselves. Toronto’s rookies have had the most impact for the team. The kids have a combined 130+ points for rookie scoring and second on that list are the Winnipeg Jets, who have a little over 50-points in combined rookie scoring. Compared to last season’s numbers, the top-point players were P.A. Parenteau, Kadri, Bozak, and JVR (up until his foot injury took him out for the season). Matthews, Marner, and Nylander are expected to surpass those players’ numbers from last season.
The biggest downside to their season is the number of leads they’ve blown in the third period. Frustrating, yes, but the Leafs have the held the lead after 40 minutes 20 times in 37 games. That puts them in a tie with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the league lead.
One concern is that they’ve won 13 games in regulation and sit 13-1-6 after last night’s overtime loss to the Washington Capitals. But on the bright side to the dismal defense, the Leafs allowed a power-play goal for the first time in 23 penalty kills last night.
It’s not the rookie’s fault but the veteran core isn’t quite good enough since they’ve played on crappy teams in the past. They aren’t good defensively but this team isn’t quite good enough to beat some of the elite teams in the NHL. The defense has allowed too many shots and domination against opponents in their own zone. The defense has the experience to play in any situation, but cheap giveaways and poor communication have cost this team to close out games in regulation. There’s still time for this defense to improve and it has to come along with the offense if the Leafs are going to improve themselves.
The defense has allowed too many shots and domination against opponents in their own zone. Although the blue line has the experience to play in any situation, but cheap giveaways and poor communication have cost this team to close out games in regulation. There’s still time for this defense to improve and it has to come along with the offense if the Leafs are going to improve themselves.
Toronto maybe in the playoff hunt at the moment but this management team should stick to the slow-but-sure rebuild plan as the rookies who are currently in the lineup should continue to develop at the proper pace.