This time last year, before Auston Matthews made a name for himself in Toronto, before Mitch Marner played his first NHL game, and before the Toronto Maple Leafs even had a starting goaltender, would anyone believe in this Toronto team on making the playoffs? Once the 2016-17 season began, there was still little talk about the possibility that this team full of rookies, backed up by a mediocre defensive core, would make a sudden impact in the league. Fast forward back to present time, the Leafs are fresh out of the playoffs after being knocked out in six games by the Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals. It’s never fun losing a close series, especially as the underdog, but the Maple Leafs proved they’re ready to compete at any time.
Toronto Maple Leafs Playoff Run Proved They’re Ready to Compete
Young and Tough Competition
The series against Washington was tighter than expected as the 1 versus 8 seed match up turned out to be arguably the closest series in the first round, not to mention the longest lasting.
Six one-goals games.
Five decided in overtime.
Goals: Washington 18, Toronto 16.
Shots: Toronto 213, Washington 212.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) April 24, 2017
The numbers don’t lie from a viewer’s experience, as each game had its moments of fast, back-and-forth hockey. As expected, the Capitals did appear to be more polished at times throughout the series, and playoff experience helps with that. However, the offensive talent Toronto possesses gave the Capitals, and Vezina-nominated goalie, Braden Holtby, a run for their money.
Sure, Toronto came close to bringing the series to a seventh game but failed to do so. It is more than understandable to be disappointed with the results considering how close the Maple Leafs came to upsetting the best team in the regular season, but in hindsight this entire season has become a big leap forward in terms of future success.
The leading MNM (Matthews, William Nylander, Marner) core of rookies excelled in their rookie seasons by each hitting the 60-point plateau as well as highlighting the long list of rookie records set by Toronto’s freshmen. Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri both proved that not only do they have a role in the Leafs future, they are also set up under great contracts. Kadri, who costs the leafs $4.5 million a year until 2022, had a bounce back season with 61 points while playing in a shutdown role under Babcock. Meanwhile on the back end, Jake Gardiner continued to improve this season as he had a career year with 43 points while still being one of the team’s main drivers in possession at even strength at 52.51% when he’s on the ice.
Looking ahead towards next season, the Leafs are expected to free up over $15 million in cap space by losing depth players like Matt Hunwick, Roman Polak, and Ben Smith along with buried contracts and players placed on LTIR. With that much cap space freed up to work with along with many players under affordable contracts (not to mention all the rookies on cheap entry-level contracts), it allows for a plethora of opportunities for general manager Lou Lamoriello to build up this Maple Leafs team for contention in the near future. There’s no telling whether or not Toronto pursues on making a cup run within the next couple of years. And when you factor in how much the term “patience” has been emphasized, it’s difficult to imagine them making the move. However, if given the green light, this team has a chance to make substantial strides next season.
The overtime ending to this historic Leafs season is heartbreaking to say the least. Rather than having the Game 6 loss as a symbol of disappointment, let the improbable season be recognized as exceed expectations. After all, the Leafs memorable 2016-17 season is likely to have set up the fan base to expect big things from the club starting next year, and who can blame them when the future is this bright?