By Pat Cancilla
Toronto Maple Leafs fans are a long-suffering bunch, so we can be forgiven for being overly zealous in our ardour for the talented players on the current roster. After all, we haven’t sipped from Lord Stanley’s Cup since 1967. We’re thirsty!
Leafs Nation has been planning the parade for the last 50 years, so it’s going to be a massive party when the Buds win it all next summer.
Is Leafs Nation delusional? Maybe a little. But is it such a stretch to think Toronto could win the Stanley Cup barely a season into its rebuild?
Not so long ago, such a statement would have had even diehard Leafs fans rolling on the floor laughing, as the Buds finished dead last in the National Hockey League in the 2015-16 season.
But after coming off an incredibly successful 2016-17 campaign that saw Toronto taking the league-leading Washington Capitals to Game 6 in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, a championship seems closer to becoming a reality.
Delusional, maybe. Delirious, definitely!
Toronto did Leafs Nation proud as each game against Washington was decided by just one goal, with five games going into overtime. The Buds often looked more composed than their rivals during the playoffs as well as in the regular season, despite having eight rookies in the lineup.
Three of those rookies led the NHL in points. The No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, Auston Matthews, finished the season at No. 1 with 40 goals and 29 assists for the Leafs, winning the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year. Not far behind him at No. 3 was teammate William Nylander, with 22 goals and 39 assists, followed by Mitch Marner at No. 4 with 19 goals and 42 assists.
What the rookies lacked in experience they made up for in speed and skill, outskating, outfinessing and outscoring their opponents to the delight of Leafs Nation. The youthful exuberance of the newcomers seemed to spark veterans such as Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk — all under 30 except for Bozak — who helped lead the youngsters to the playoffs and had great post-season performances themselves. Despite rumours that either Bozak, van Riemsdyk or both might be traded, they are expected to be back to help the Buds contend for the Cup again this season.
To add more experience to the talented group of young forwards, the Leafs signed 37-year-old veteran Patrick Marleau to a three-year contract this summer. The former San Jose Shark is that team’s all-time leading goal scorer and one of the fastest skaters in the NHL, which should help him keep up with all the kids in Toronto.
But while the Leafs had no problem in the offence department, their defence was somewhat lacking. Sure, it was exciting to watch the Buds play fast and furious hockey in countless overtime games, but it was equally painful to watch huge leads evaporate in the third period. Yes, Auston Matthews got four goals in his first appearance in the NHL — an incredible, record-breaking feat — but it would’ve been even more awesome had the Leafs actually won the game.
With 2.85 goals against per game, Toronto finished 22nd in the NHL. The Buds fared even worse in terms of shots against per game, finishing 28th in the league, with 32.6.
Of the Leafs’ top defensemen — Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev — the latter was a rookie last season as was defenseman Connor Carrick, so some of the Buds’ defensive shortcomings can be put down to inexperience. To add more depth — and experience — to the defence, Toronto signed 36-year-old veteran Ron Hainsey to a two-year contract this summer. The former Pittsburgh Penguin is a solid defenceman who brings valuable Stanley Cup experience to the young team, which should help matters in the post-season.
The Leafs’ defensive future looks bright. Toronto’s first-round draft pick in 2017, 18-year-old Swedish defenseman Timothy Liljegren, is a top prospect, as are signings Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman, also from Sweden. While they may not be quite ready to play in the NHL just yet, they could surprise us. Toronto’s Marlies Travis Dermott and Andrew Nielsen will also be vying for a spot on the Leafs’ defence during the Leafs’ training camp Sept. 15-17 in Niagara Falls.
Leafs No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen was often brilliant last season, keeping the Buds in the game many times when the defence faltered. He started 66 games and was 33-16-14. But Toronto can’t rely on Andersen alone. The Leafs signed goalies Curtis McElhinney and Garret Sparks to two-year deals this summer, although the backups have not proven to be as talented or as clutch as Freddie in the few games they’ve played for the Leafs. Hopefully, they’ll surprise us.
Even with the talented core from last season, the new additions and promising young prospects, the Leafs may not yet be quite ready to take the NHL’s top prize, so the parade may have to wait a few years.
But try telling that to Leafs Nation. They won’t believe you.
Photo Credits: Toronto Star