My, my, how things have changed.
Less than two years removed from a 30th place finish and a seemingly endless era mired in failure, the Toronto Maple Leafs have left fans optimistic for the first time in years. Their first playoff berth since 2013, only their second in 13 years, has led fans to believe that they have turned a quick corner, resulting in high expectations and a belief of inevitable success.
The Greatest Expectations: Keeping Your Toronto Maple Leafs’ Expectations in Check
You can bet that Toronto Maple Leafs’ players and management are well aware of the buzz around the city. Leafs President Brendan Shanahan addressed the topic of the bar being raised over the summer, saying, “...you’re going to have to, at some point, deal with higher expectations. And that just comes with the territory.”
Of course, Shanahan and the club know of the growing expectations around Toronto. Shanahan wants his team and himself to stay grounded and focused on the season ahead. “There’s a lot of optimism in the city, certainly, we understand, but we’re staying pretty focused…on the fact that there’s a lot of hard work ahead of [us].” Management will surely be trying to keep expectations reasonable this year and you can expect the same from the players.
A mildly busy offseason saw them make a few notable moves. They inked a pair of rookie forwards to new deals, in Zach Hyman and Connor Brown, and signed notable free agents Patrick Marleau, Ron Hainsey and returnee, Dominic Moore. The acquisition of the three veterans, who total 3,247 games worth of NHL experience, demonstrated a change in the club’s off-season approach. Rather than sign low-risk players with movable contracts, Lou Lamoriello and Co. opted to sign pricey contracts with term. Many fans and analysts have taken this as a sign of the Leafs intentions to “go for it” this season.
A Striking Resemblance?
Comparisons have also been drawn to the 2010 Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks roster. The Hawks had Kane, Toews, and Keith all on their first contracts during the 2009-10 season. They also made the Western Conference Final in 2009 before losing out to the Detroit Red Wings.
Similarly, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup with Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang on entry level deals, as well as Sidney Crosby a year into his second contract. This came after they lost in the 2008 Cup Finals one year prior, with all three on entry level contracts. The pattern laid out by these two cap era “dynasty” teams is to make a deep playoff run with young stars on rookie contracts. So, if Toronto is really going to follow this dynasty model, they are going to have to make big strides this season.
After years of unsuccessfully retooling, the 2016-17 season was very kind to the Toronto Maple Leafs. They introduced six full-time rookies to the NHL and none of them looked out of place. Three of them stood out among the rest of the league and each could have been Calder Trophy nominees most years (of course, Auston Matthews won the Calder). The remaining three, Brown, Hyman, and Nikita Zaitsev were more than capable and settled in nicely. The challenge this year will be replicating or improving on many impressive performances from last season.
The superstitious critic may say that one of Toronto’s big three is bound for a sophomore slump. However, an in-depth look shows that the sophomore slump is nothing more than hockey myth. Most truly elite rookies continue to become truly elite players, a tag bestowed upon each of Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. Fans can rest easy and expectations for these three can remain high this year.
The Injury Bug
The hockey gods didn’t stop at gracing the Leafs’ rookies. Toronto was the fifth-healthiest team in the NHL in terms of man games lost (MGL) last season. Losing only 134 man games to injury all year, they were able to ice a remarkably consistent lineup night in and night out.
Additionally, they had the second lowest cap hit of injured players (CHIP) at $2.16M. This indicates that high impact players missed fewer games than the lower paid role players who missed games. The fortunately healthy lineup meant the Leafs’ depth was mostly untested. Save for a few fourth line call-ups, Josh Leivo rarely got into action, while Kasperi Kapanen was the only notable Marlies call-up. History shows that this season was an anomaly and that injuries will catch up with the Leafs.
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, suffered the most MGL and had the highest CHIP in the NHL last season. As a result, they struggled to maintain any consistency until the end of the season, where they nearly edged out Toronto for the second Eastern Conference Wild Card spot.
Only a year removed from back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances, Tampa will be looking to rebound this season. Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman each took large steps forward in 2016-17 and look to replicate or improve on their career years. A healthy season from Steven Stamkos and the rest of the Bolts could put them right back atop the Atlantic Division.
The Atlantic Division looks like a wide open division this season. Aside from Tampa, playoff spots are contestable with no clear cut locks.
Montreal always holds a wild card in Carey Price, who has had the Leafs’ number for years. The Senators were an overtime goal away from advancing to the Cup Finals last season. Boston remains a pesky bunch who have their own talent brewing in David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy. Buffalo will also be looking to take some steps forward with a healthy Jack Eichel leading the way. The Panthers suffered a similar injury fate as their state rivals and will be looking to find their way back to the playoffs.
Just about every team in the Atlantic has a shot at making the postseason. Expect the Leafs to be right in the middle of an Atlantic dogfight this winter.
An 18-9-3 record within their own division bodes well for 2017-18. A season sweep of both Boston and Detroit helps to inflate this record. However, it also includes another season sweep at the hands of the Habs, who have now won 14 straight contests against the Leafs, dating back to March 1, 2014. Even splitting this year’s series with Montreal, while continuing to play well against the rest of the division, will help them rack up the points necessary to earn a playoff berth.
Should they find their way to the postseason, their divisional success should benefit the Leafs. Landing an Atlantic playoff spot, rather than a wildcard, will be key in their playoff endeavours. Rather than play through the Metropolitan like they did last year, Toronto would have two rounds against familiar foes before squaring off in the Conference Finals. If Toronto can land a favourable Atlantic spot at the end of the season, expectations will rise.
By all accounts, the Maple Leafs should reliably make the postseason again this year. They are a young team on the rise who will be looking to make improvements on last year and establish themselves as a consistent playoff team. Last season was a pleasant surprise in terms of individual and team success. A Calder Trophy and Jack Adams nomination saw Toronto make a long awaited return to the NHL Awards show. Capped off with a surprisingly entertaining playoff series with Washington, the Leafs’ faithful couldn’t have asked for more in their centennial season.
The progress likely won’t be measured in postseason success yet, however. An improved regular season and continued growth from their young stars should be considered a successful year. A new addition on the back end, be it through trade or from the Marlies, would also brighten the long term look of the club.
The playoffs look like a safe bet and the division lead is not out of the question. But let’s remain cautiously optimistic. The Leafs are still a young and inexperienced team compared to the Tampa’s, Boston’s, and Montreal’s they will be fighting with for a spot in the postseason. Progress may mean a strong regular season and eventual playoff disappointment. If it leads to the Maple Leafs becoming a perennial Cup contender in the near future, we should accept it as part of the process.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images