The Toronto Maple Leafs would miss the playoffs this season, but by a small margin. This was the thought during last summer. Despite receiving the first overall pick, Auston Matthews, they would be due for significant growth, but not quite playoff worthy. As the new year began, the thought process towards this has changed drastically. Not only will they make the playoffs, but they could even win a series or two. Despite being so young, this youth provides the forward depth that makes them a great team right now.
Their top six forward group is not one that is easily beaten by other teams. As of right now, this consists of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, James Van-Riemsdyk, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri, and Tyler Bozak. This is an intense amount of skill that is often overwhelming for opposing teams, especially when it comes to trying to find the right matchup to play against them. Beyond the top six however, is where they show their forward depth. This will ultimately be the decider if they can remain competitive and maintain a playoff spot.
Any time teams draft what turns out to be an effective NHL player in the fourth round or beyond, many would consider it a steal. This is exactly what the seventh, eighth, and ninth best forwards are for the Leafs. These forwards consist of Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, and Leo Komarov, and they provide the forward depth needed in today’s NHL.
Hyman is a great pickup as the Leafs never actually drafted him. He was a 5th round draft pick of the Florida Panthers back in 2010. In June of 2015, the Leafs traded Greg McKegg and a conditional 7th round pick in exchange for the negotiating rights to Hyman, who did not want to sign with the Florida Panthers. Hyman spent four years at the University of Michigan where he was a Hobey Baker finalist after finishing his final year with 54 points, centering a line with Dylan Larkin. Flash forward to today, and he is a key part of this team and will be for years to come. His drive is incredible; this is especially evident in forechecking. This quality makes for a great penalty killer who can chip in offensively. This allows him to create space for Matthews by not being afraid to get into the dirty areas. Hyman grew up as huge Leafs fan from Ontario, always dreaming of wearing the jersey. He shares this trait with another Ontario boy for the Leafs; Connor Brown.
Brown, a born and raised Toronto boy, was often seen as an underdog due to his small size and how late he was picked in both the OHL and NHL draft. Being selected 251st overall in the 2010 OHL draft was a result of being passed due to his small frame. In his OHL rookie season, he was the leading scorer of a last place Erie team, but amassed a brutal +/- of -72 which led to him falling to the sixth round of the 2012 NHL entry draft, 156th overall. Brown played three seasons for Erie in the OHL, amassing 128 points in 68 games in his third season. Not bad for a sixth round pick right? Most people credited this to playing with superstar Connor McDavid, but he has a unique skill set on his own.
The following year saw him graduate from the OHL to the AHL, gain an entry level contract and start his rookie season with the Marlies. In his first AHL season, he proved he does not need to be playing with McDavid to put up points. He went on to lead the Marlies in scoring with 61 points in 76 games, and win AHL rookie of the year in the process. Flash forward to today: he is a key player on the Leafs. He hustles hard on defense and has a history of putting up big numbers. These qualities make a great shutdown player who can play on the second or third line.
Last, but certainly not least, we have Komarov. Needless to say he has turned into an effective NHL player. Since he is 30 years old, it is difficult to say how long he will be with the team considering how young their core is. However, right now he is another key piece of the team that provides necessary grit to compete in the playoffs. He was drafted in the sixth round of 2006 NHL Entry Draft, 180th overall. Komarov stuck around the KHL a few seasons before making his NHL debut in the 2012-2013 season. He always finishes his checks and can chip in offensively as well. He has formed a great shutdown line with Nazem Kadri, which is consistently matched up against the opponent’s top unit.
These forwards are not seen as top six forwards, but are crutial to the Maple Leafs success. Contending teams need a deep top six forward group plus competitive depth forwards, which is exactly what is listed above. This allows them to have three lines that are all a major threat offensively. Are the Toronto Maple Leafs a serious cup contender? Probably not, but do not count them out, considering how talented and hard working their team is. They tend to score their way out of trouble, or have their goaltender, Frederick Andersen, steal them points. The weak point is defense, which could make games more difficult come playoff time. If they manage to secure a playoff spot, they have the forward depth to contend with any team.