For the first time in a decade, the words ‘successful’ and ‘Maple Leafs’ can be used in the same sentence without it being ironic! Sure, the word failure is still there, but that’s welcomed by the Leafs fans, who can see the glimmer of light at the end of this seemingly endless tunnel. Leafs media has changed tone completely from asking what could have been, instead looking forward and asking what will be. So what exactly makes this last place team so great?
The Maple Leafs have the best player in the CHL, best player in the AHL, best pick in the draft, best defensemen in the KHiL, an elite coach, and they are just finishing their first year of a rebuild. That’s a pretty good place to start from. What’s more exciting is they still have excellent NHL players such as James Van Riemsdyk, Jake Gardiner and Leo Komarov in their primes, all signed to very team friendly and tradable contracts. This is the ideal situation for the Leafs considering it was only just over a year ago fans were throwing jerseys on the ice and reporters were making up hotdog stories about Toronto’s best player.
The Maple Leafs top asset right now is likely a toss up between Mitch Marner and presumed first overall pick Auston Matthews. Marner is completing a season in the OHL with the London Knights that saw him win the Memorial Cup, as well as 5 individual awards including CHL player of the year. Marner put up 160 points in 75 games (regular season and playoffs), which is the equivalent of roughly 64 points in the NHL. That point total would have made him the Leafs leading scorer by 18 points.
Auston Matthews projects to be an elite two-way forward. Naturally whenever a highly touted two-way centre comes along, comparisons will be made to Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews. Only time will tell how accurate these comparisons are, but to be mentioned with elite company like them is quite the compliment. Matthews went to Switzerland to play professional hockey when he missed the cutoff for the 2015 draft by 48 hours.
Nikita Zaitsev is a Russian defensemen who signed as a free agent from the KHL this offseason. He is praised for his two-way play, hard shot and physical presence. He put up 26 points in 46 games with CSKA Moskva and served as an alternate captain, speaking to his leadership abilities. Zaitsev figures to be among the Maple Leafs top-4 blueliners.
While the list of top prospects continues to grow for the Maple Leafs, perhaps their most valuable resource is the management team made up of President Brendan Shanahan, GM Lou Lamoriello as well as director of player development Mark Hunter, Assistant GM/Marlies GM/Analytics whiz kid Kyle Dubas and head coach Mike Babcock. Some of the greatest minds in hockey are working with the Leafs to bring the Leafs to a level of respectability unseen in decades. With the Shanaplan in motion, it’s only a matter of time before Lord Stanley returns to Toronto.