A quick poll question if you will…
Given the choice, would you rather have:
- A personal invitation to spend a week on a super exclusive resort with your biggest Hollywood crush.
- A three- day rail & JD fuelled bender in Vegas with (surviving) members of your all-time favourite band.
- A lifetime supply of Ben & Jerry’s including a custom recipe created just for you.
- A totally fucking historic Leafs year like the one we all just witnessed.
I’ll give you a moment… Actually, don’t bother answering.
Like you, my choice is obvious here. With all due respect to the enchanting Blair Warner from the hit series ‘The Facts of Life’, rock icons Hall & Oats and my fantasy of cheddar flavoured ice cream, there’s no way I’d ever trade away the unbelievable 16/17 Leafs season.
NO WAY IN HELL I SAY!
Last off-season, I wrote a piece (From Heartache to Happy Balls) gushing about our long-overdue good fortune, competent management and – most of all – cause for true optimism. Little did I know at the time that EVERY lofty expectation I had coming into the year was going to be completely dwarfed by the unimaginable reality that would soon follow.
For the record, here was basically my Leafs “wish-list” entering the season…
What I hoped for:
“Leafs continue to patiently develop skilled, young talent”
What we got:
Under the careful tutelage of a coach with a widely reputed aversion to youth, this team threw a slew of very green NHLers into key roles and said “sink or swim fuckers…show us what’cha got”. Turns out the importance of the whole “patient development” strategy is evidently mitigated when the team actually stockpiles a lot of young players who… you know… don’t fukn suck. Babcock quickly identified strengths in each of his rookies and wasted no time in affording them a legitimate opportunity to claim a roster spot. How did the kids respond? The Leafs were the fifth highest scoring team in the league and rookies accounted for nearly 50 PERCENT of their offence. They amassed an incredible 123 Goals (the entire Avalanche team scored 165), 181 Assists and 301 Points. The average age of our team’s forwards this year was “need fake ID to buy beer”.
What I hoped for:
“Holdover vets, especially occasionally polarizing ones like Naz & Gards, can adjust and find comfortable roles within a rigid Babcock system without a drastic drop in production”
What we got:
So about that production…
While solidifying his status as a league-wide haemorrhoid and one of the greasiest and aggressive match-up centres in the game, there were only 16 (SIXTEEN!) NHL players with more goals than Kadri this year. As if that weren’t enough, our third line “checking” centreman was also our most lethal scorer on the powerplay. Not bad for a six year hit of just over $4M eh?
As far as our boy Jake, he eclipsed his career season high point record, finished in the top 20 among defensemen in pretty much every offensive category and continued to be among the very best puck-carrying rearguards in the league. Although having his expected share of “What the fuck was that!?” moments (affectionately acknowledged by the coach), Gardiner showed significant improvement and increased confidence from the start of the year. Leading into and during the playoffs, I think we all witnessed a new level of consistent play in his game even when regularly facing tougher comp and bigger minutes than ever before.
Also notable is that BOTH Bozak and JvR hit career highs in points this year – an incredible accomplishment given the absence of their long-time linemate and current Cup winner now plying his trade as an elite 2/3L winger behind not one but TWO of the very best centremen to ever play hockey anywhere on the fukn planet. Fun fact…During the last 2 Kessel years, JvR and Bozak produced at a clip of 2.16 and 2.11 points per 60 minutes respectively. This year? 2.86 and 2.58. Weird.
What I hoped for:
“This rebuilding team can grow as a group throughout the year and gain the confidence to hopefully work themselves out of a bottom 10 finish.”
What we got:
By the end of our final Leafs game – that of the playoff (!) variety – I was legitimately pissed off that our rookie laden team, amidst five hard-fought overtime tilts, squandered a few opportunities to bury the President’s Trophy winners and widely regarded Cup favourites. How’s THAT for growth? How’s THAT for a fukn confidence builder kids!? Though many of us quietly hoped for a fairly quick upward swing, I’m guessing that very few would have bet on the jump from a league-worst 69 (tee-hee) points to having the ninth fewest regulation losses in the NHL. Just as incredible IMO, is if we had managed to win just HALF of our (entirely luck based) overtime/shootout losses, your Maple Leafs would be walking among the Habs, Oilers & Rangers for a TOP 10 finish in points. Yes, a largely injury-free season backstopped by a solid number one goalie deserves a share of credit for the dramatic resurgence but even aside from Wins/Losses, Leafs’ brass themselves clearly admitted that they didn’t expect this level of improvement.
So about those kids….
Other than my general team aspirations, I obviously held some specific hopes for the crop of blue-chip talent potentially making their mark on the team this past year…
What I hoped for:
“William Nylander, blessed with offensive skill, would shed any perceptions – especially those of his coach – of being a player who cherry-picks his spots on the ice and can flourish in a system which relies on strong effort in all three zones.”
What we got:
HOLY FUCK – REALLY?
- Most powerplay points by a rookie over the last decade
- Higher points per 60 MINS than Eichel, Panarin & Ovechkin
- Five more points than Eichel in first full rookie year
- Since his NHL debut on Feb 29/16 he is 14th among all NHL forwards in PP pts with more than Scheifele, Marchand, Tarasenko & Tavares.
What I hoped for:
“Mitch Marner, despite his diminutive frame and age, would be able to transition some of the skill from a brilliant junior career into an albeit limited and sheltered role on the pro roster since he may possibly have outgrown the OHL.”
What we got:
WAIT, WHAT IN THE ACTUAL FUCK?
- Scored more 5v5 goals than Ovechkin, Kessel & Seguin
- Since ‘08/09 Panarin (who was about 30 fukn years old) is the only rookie to collect more assists than Marner.
- Led NHL in Points per 60 minutes in close 5v5 game situations (100+MINS)
- Tied for second in rookie powerplay points with Calder finalists Matthews & Werenski
What I hoped for:
“Auston Matthews can be eased into a Centre role, get his feet wet learning what it takes to be an NHL pivot, and block out not only the inherent noise of being a first overall pick, but do so in one of the most pressure-filled markets in North American pro sports”
What we got:
THIS ISN’T REAL.
SOMEBODY SLIPPED SOME REALLY BAD SHIT IN MY DRINK AND NOW I’M FUKN TRIPPING OUT AND HAVING HALUCINATIONS OF A LEAFS ROOKIE SCORING LIKE 4 FUKN GOALS ON OPENING NIGHT OR WINNING A CALDER OR BREAKING A BAJILLION FRESHMAN RECORDS OR LEADING THE LEAFS IN FUKN “PLAYOFF” GOALS OR SOME STUPID SHIT LIKE THAT AND I’M NOW GONNA PROBABLY DIE IN MY FUKN SLEEP FROM AN OVERDOSE OF WHATEVER I’M ON…THANKS A LOT.
- Led all Leafs forwards in blocked shots
- He is the only player with the first name “Auston” or last name “Matthews” in NHL history
- Among the best flow in his rookie class
- If you mix the letters in his name you can spell “Tautest showman”
Seriously though – exactly how much more statistical fluffing do you need to reaffirm your love of this kid? He’s easily on his way to being the best Leafs player of the modern era and one of the best in the game… Full stop.
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE DELICIOUS ROOKIE GOODNESS!
Zach Hyman – The guy who sparked the vast majority of rookie debates – established himself as the poster-child for the kind of effort Babcock wants to see from every player on every shift. As a result, the coach planted his ass alongside Auston and didn’t budge him for the entire season. Although no sane fan would debate his exemplary work ethic and (in Babcock voice) compete level, there were many fans (present company included) who often questioned why the stubborn boss would continue to “drag down” our star player with a guy who produced so little. With the benefit of hindsight and seeing the big picture, I’ve come to accept that his role on that line – though hard to justify with the underlying numbers – may just be one of those things we don’t beat ourselves up about. Whatever Hyman did, he sure as shit didn’t prevent Auston from producing at unprecedented levels at 5v5. If you read any truth into any of Matthews’ interviews this year, he was always quick to acknowledge Zach’s contribution to that line. He was absolutely relentless on the forecheck and didn’t hesitate to take himself and one or two opponents out of the play to fish the puck out to his linemates. Also noteworthy is that during a tough Caps playoff series, Hyman was second in even strength points while enabling Papi to collect a team-high five, including four goals. As a PK specialist, Hyman led all NHL forwards in short-handed TOI and was tied for second with four short-handed goals…so an integral piece of a top 10 PK% team…as a fukn rookie.
Connor Brown – From the start of the year I felt Brownie could be one of the most underrated rookies in the organization even before the big three did what they did. It’s totally understandable that he’d kind of get lost in the shuffle given some of his teammates, but his contribution is in no way taken for granted by the team. Like Hyman, Brown’s work ethic landed him very much in Babcock’s good books and was effective in almost any situation, adding something to any line he played with. Unlike Zach though, Brown’s offensive prowess did become evident and IMO is still under-appreciated. He had four more even strength goals than Nylander and two more game winning goals. In fact, Brown had more even strength goals than Ovechkin, Simmonds, Foligno, Seguin, Backstrom and Kessel. It’s been said a million times but in any other year, a 20- goal season from a versatile rookie would definitely receive more accolades.
Nikita Zaitsev – By the time he showed up for camp, we’d seen enough scouting reports and read enough hype pieces to comfortably presume he was a sold dman and these reports were supported by a fantastic World Cup showing where he was placed on Russia’s top pairing. Like Rielly, Z was fed a shitload of the team’s ugliest minutes early on and considering it was his first year on an NHL ice surface, handled them admirably. He became one of Babs’ most trusted dmen and showed why so many teams were high on the KHL star. Physical but not reckless, Zaitsev was another whose stats are often overlooked IMO. He finished sixth among all rookies in assists (tied with Doughty and Ghostbear) and was only three even strength points behind Calder nominee Zack Werenski. Sadly, a late season bell-ringing effectively cut short a great rookie year but management clearly saw enough to reward him with a seven- year $4.5M deal. Though some are concerned with the term of the deal (which at the time of this writing appears to have a very affordable final two years), I have little doubt that banking on a young defenseman who can give you big minutes in any game situation is a worthwhile gamble…especially for a team that can ill-afford to let a 25 year old skilled top- four guy walk. Add in the fact that he has clearly developed a mutual trust with a tough coach who plans on sticking around for the better part of a decade…the signing was a slam dunk in my opinion.
In addition to these rookies, there is plenty of youth on this team to keep this thing headed in the right direction over the long term. By year’s end, Morgan Rielly removed any doubt that he can be a top end workhorse after battling through nagging injuries throughout the season. Like Jake, his play on a shorthanded dcore during the playoffs reminded us why he was a top five pick only four drafts ago. Many forget that Rielly is younger than four of the seven Leafs rookie regulars this year. Soshnikov was another who was forging a nice role on the team until injury ended his season. Given his skillset, he’ll surely force Babcock to find a spot for him when ready. Kapanen, our late season hero, finally got the chance to play and hardly surprised anyone who’s followed him that he very much belongs in the League..and holy shit he can flat-out fukn fly. It’s very safe for us to assume that he won’t be a fixture on the fourth line for much longer. Connor Carrick still has some warts in his game to work out but should claim a role on this defense. The kid gives zero fucks about the size advantage of his opponent and will smash anything that moves. Aside from his positive effect on possession, he provides some much needed sandpaper on a group that can certainly use it.
So what now?
This past year has most certainly put the league on notice that we’re here to compete. Having said that, there is obviously plenty of work to do to fill holes in this lineup – especially as we face the prospect of losing players to free agency as well as the looming expansion draft.
Defense is obviously our primary area of need. Hunlak (as they were mockingly anointed by those who maybe don’t own televisions) were two major pieces of this core whose potential departure via free agency will leave an already thin group desperate for depth. Brass definitely recognizes the need for a serious influx of back-end help and my guess is they have a short list of targets in their back pocket. During year-end interviews, the normally hush-hush Lamoriello made a point of stating that players who we wouldn’t assume are available will become available. Babcock then went on to acknowledge the need for dmen and sounded like a coach who had no doubt that the needed help was coming in the off- season. The conspiracy theorist in me almost believes that deals/trades are pretty much in reach and are simply waiting for the season to end in order to materialize…but that’s just crazy talk right? Far be it from me to suggest our GM would EVER have anything sneaky up his sleeve….
Up front, it’s very possible that we could lose some soon-to-be free- agent forwards, both by virtue of trades to fill holes and by getting our house in order for expansion. As mentioned earlier, we are certainly fortunate to have in our arsenal some young, NHL-ready talent to fill key top nine roles but, with that, come the risk of some growing pains, which we largely managed to avoid this year. It’s easy enough to throw out the suggestion to trade Bozak, JvR and Leo for example, but it’s important to remember that even though they likely don’t fit in with our long-term blueprint, they were instrumental in any success we had this year. If management goes the route of moving them to maximize their return on assets, there is always the chance of a short-term offensive drop off even with the continued growth of our current young stars. Remember the “pain” Babs talked about? If that’s the worst of it… bring it on. The former iterations of this franchise have been feeding us turds for the better part of two decades so we’d be MORE than emotionally equipped to deal with a blip.
Despite any volatility the next year or 2 may bring, I’m more confident now than ever that our future is as bright as hell and that we’re witnessing the birth of a perennial contender and – dare I say – a modern dynasty in the making. I’m not sure how one could not arrive at that same conclusion given our young talent, well rounded management team and coaching stability.
This season gave us just a taste of what incredible things lay ahead for this organization. We all know that our journey will include bumps and frustration but the long term forecast should never be in doubt.
Bottom line is… we’re gonna be fukn awesome.
Looking forward to the off-season, the draft and all the craziness the next few months will bring as we gear up for what should be a wild 17/18.
And as always…all the best to you and yours this summer.