After seeing one of the best seasons the Leafs have had in over a decade, there are many reasons to be optimistic in Leafs Nation right now.
With a plateau of young, elite talent, and a stable core of proven veterans, the Leafs seem destined for the playoffs this year. How far they go in to the post season is yet to be determined, but anything lower than making the playoffs would be a huge disappointment.
Next year should prove to be more entertaining than last year. Below are five keys to what the Leafs need to do to ensure a deeper playoff run than last years.
Marlandertthews continues to dominate
Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander each broke records and earned rookie of the month awards. Nylander won the award twice. The best part about these three is that Nylander is the oldest among them at 20 years old. The trio has so much room to grow, and is only going to get better.
Scoring 40 goals in today’s NHL is remarkable, let alone doing it as a rookie. Auston Matthews has the potential to become a franchise player in this league. Matthews’ hockey IQ is through the roof, his hands in close quarters are phenomenal, he’s quick and agile on his feet, and the release on his shot is lethal. Matthews has every kind of attribute you need to really succeed in today’s fast paced NHL. Out of all three of these young dynamos, his play will certainly have the greatest impact on his team.
While still technically a rookie, Nylander posted a very impressive 74 points in 103 games. Also should be noted that 22 of those games were played on the last place 2015-16 Leafs, which make those 13 points he scored in those games more valuable. To say the least, Nylander is stellar offensively. His deadliest is definitely his accurate and powerful shot. He can find any corner of the net from any part of the attacking zone, but where he really shines is his powerplay ability, as he is a player that really thrives off of any room given to him. Many predict Nylander to be an even better player than he was in 2016.
Mitch Marner plays a dynamic and versatile game that can’t be matched by hardly any player in the NHL. His speed, agility, and playmaking skills are a rare skillset that very few possess. He is also arguable the most fun player to watch as he has creativity that has never been seen in the NHL. With Nylander and Matthews usually playing on the same line, it is up to Marner to provide depth scoring and really rally his line. This works great because Marner can play with pretty well any player and turn them into a superstar. Marner does an excellent job in the role he’s given and there’s no reason he shouldn’t improve off of the terrific season he had last year.
Freddy Andersen must have a consistent season
Frederik Andersen has been a fantastic goalie since being traded to Toronto from Anaheim. Although he had a rough start to the year last year, he was playing in a new environment and coming off of a fresh shoulder surgery. He rebounded very nicely after a shaky first month for the Leafs and is looking like he’ll be the true number one goalie the Leafs have been in search of for years. Andersen was a crucial part of Toronto’s regular and post season success as he was their best player for many games. Andersen’s career numbers suggest that he is capable of being a top 10 goalie in this league and I definitely agree with them. There were a few times last year he took a couple dirty headshots and there were concerns of him having concussions, but he proved to be resilient as he was never out for that long with an injury. Andersen will be a goalie with one of the most starts in the league next year and if he can stay calm and poised in between the posts, it will be a great year for the Buds.
Big impact from new faces on the blueline
With the departure of both Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak this offseason, we are bound to see a few new numbers on the blueline. Regardless of who fills out those spots, they need to be better than Hunwick and Polak were. Assuming that the Leafs don’t use Marincin or Marchenko next year, which I’m hoping they don’t, we will see two new defenseman for the Buds. The obvious guaranteed spot goes to newly signed, Ron Hainsey. At 36 years old, Hainsey is still a productive and capable defenseman. He plays a smart, low risk, slow game. He is a left handed defenseman although he has played on the right side in the past and I can envision him doing the same for the Leafs. Coming off of his first Stanley Cup victory with the Penguins, Hainsey will provide solid depth and leadership on the back end.
The conversation about who takes the second spot is a lot more interesting. In my eyes the two best candidates are Calle Rosen and Travis Dermott. Calle Rosen was signed from the Swedish Elite League this off-season and many scouts are very high on him. Rosen is a highly touted prospect who many teams were rumoured to be after. Dermott is a very good prospect and after inspiring play last year, it seems he is ready to make the transition to the big league. More can be seen about Dermott here. I think it would be a tough decision as to who gets that final spot but I believe Dermott will get it. He has been making a statement at every level he’s played at. Rosen could also probably use a little time in the AHL to transition him to the North American ice and play style. Whoever ultimately does earn the spot cannot take it for granted, as the other will be right behind battling for the spot the whole season. This is a very good dilemma to have.
All four lines play their roles
Other than the designated 4th line, the Leafs don’t necessarily rank their lines, they all play a different role instead. Matthew’s line is the offensive juggernaut that teams dread facing. Bozak’s line is the secondary all around offensive force JVR gets all the gritty goals while Marner makes the line dazzle. Kadri’s line is the get in your face and cause a commotion line. That line is extra satisfying because it also has the ability to score. What is now Dominic Moore’s 4th line is the gritty, excuse for Matt Martin to play, and hopefully a little more offensive back bone to the team. If all four line can contribute and efficiently do their parts, it should be a really good year. Babcock has set up a very balanced and fast line up that is very tedious for any opponent to handle.
Forget the D for a sec, check #Leafs forward lines for 17/18.
👌🏽#sick #Shanaplan #Tmltalk #LeafsNation #MapleLeafs #TorontoMapleLeafs pic.twitter.com/isqN0hVDgp
— HockeyNightInBelfast (@HockeyNIBelfast) July 4, 2017
Veterans all have solid years
With a core as young as the Leafs is, the veteran’s presence plays an extra special role. Not only are these kids playing hockey, but they’re growing up as well and need good role models to guide them through the process. The veterans that they have leading the way all need to have strong seasons and keep the kids motivated. Bozak must continue his strong faceoff and playmaking abilities to guide Matthews to dominate the position. JVR needs to be ready to receive a pass from Mitch Marner at any time and tap in the easy set up. Younger veterans Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner but be excellent examples of consistent and smart defensive play for those rookies coming up into the organization. Ron Hainsey wasn’t acquired solely for his skill, he, like all other vets, must have a huge leadership presence. Possibly the veteran with the most pressure is newest Leafs, Patrick Marleau. If he can prove a player can come to the team and make a smooth transition into a successful position it will greatly motivate his teammates as well as help convince other big name free agents that Toronto is a fantastic option to sign a contract. We all know that the youth on this team is exceptional, a big part of the season will be seeing how the veteran’s production is.
This is how they made the playoffs last year and will be a huge factor in if they can make the playoffs again this year. A lot of these points just build off of the production that was made last year, which should boast well for the Leafs.