As the National Hockey League season began on October 12th, there was much optimism to accompany quite a few nerves in Leaf Land. Toronto would have their last two first round picks making NHL debuts, as Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews had both made the opening night roster, along with 2014 first rounder William Nylander who made his debut last February. These kids were going to be great, although they couldn’t be as great as we thought they were, could they?
Surely we were overvaluing them and they’d prove to be over their heads? I mean, they’re Leafs after all, they can’t be as good as we think, right? As it turns out, they’re even better.
On opening night Mitch Marner danced through the ice like he owned it from the drop of the puck and had several chances throughout. Auston Matthews scored 10 minutes in and added three more goals on the night, two of which were assisted by William Nylander. The future was now! Although shoddy defence and terrible goaltending doomed the Leafs to a 5-4 overtime loss, it was obvious that the kids were alright.
Fast forward a couple of nights later, after the centennial celebration, and it was Mitch Marner and fellow rookie Connor Brown stealing the show, getting their first goals of the season, and Marner’s first of his career, which proved to be the game winner in a 4-1 win over Boston. This team was going places.
An unsettling trend developed shortly thereafter however, as the Leafs blew third period leads to Winnipeg, Minnesota, and Chicago in consecutive games, losing in overtime to Winnipeg, regulation to Minnesota, and a shootout to Chicago. Real questions started to creep in about goaltender Frederik Andersen’s ability. Did we sell the cow for magic beans? Were previous Leafs goalies James Riemer and Jonathan Bernier actually better than Andersen? Was Mike Babcock asking Freddie to change his game too much? All of these questions swirled around, and Don Cherry didn’t help matters on Coaches Corner during the Chicago game, basically proclaiming that the Leafs struggles were Andersen’s fault and he should just stop the puck. It also didn’t help that Andersen proceeded to give up seven goals the next game vs Tampa. It looked like the Leafs were stuck with a subpar goalie, but a funny thing happened on the way to the inevitable downward spiral. Andersen started stopping the puck.
Since that game against Tampa, Andersen has given up three goals or less in all but two games, one of those being a 41 save performance on the second game of back to backs against Pittsburgh. It seems the Leafs have found their goaltender of the future in Andersen, which is probably good considering he’s signed to a five- year $25 million contract. Backup goalie Jhonas Enroth hasn’t been very good to this point, but given his history, it’s reasonable to expect he’ll bounce back and be an adequate backup option to Andersen.
Another bright spot in this season has been the performance of Nazem Kadri in the role of shutdown center. Kadri has faced off against the other team’s top line night after night, and more often than not gotten the better of them. He struggled against Patrick Kane’s line in Chicago, and the Kopitar line against LA, but was fantastic against the McDavid line against Edmonton, in what was maybe the finest performance of his career. Not only did he, Leo Komarov, and Connor Brown completely stifle the McDavid line, but Kadri scored the opening goal and then stripped McDavid for the game winner just seconds into overtime to give the Leafs a 3-2 win over the Oilers.
It would be a disservice to you to claim that the season has been all roses and sunshine. The defence has been average to terrible most nights, with Martin Marincin, Roman Polak, Matt Hunwick being the worst of the worst. Hunwick seems to be trying to show the world his best Mannequin challenge poses night after night, leading to at least three goals against since the November 12th game vs Pittsburgh. Marincin shows flashes of being a talented NHL defender, which is then easily cancelled out by his lapses in coverage and general unwillingness to play physically at all. Polak plays a basic stay at home game, but he really doesn’t contribute anything useful beyond potentially teaching the kids what it takes to be a pro off the ice, which is why he’s still here. It’d be nice to see Frank Corrado find his way into the lineup over one of these guys, probably Hunwick. A bottom pairing of Corrado and Polak or Corrado and Marincin is certainly better than the current Hunwick/Polak pairing that Leafs reporter Kristen Shilton has aptly dubbed Hunlak. They aren’t quite as bad is 2014’s Robidolzer pairing, but they aren’t good. The Leafs other four defenders Rielly, Zaitsev, Carrick, and Gardiner have all been fairly decent, so if they can add one better depth piece, and potentially add a number 1 defender, this problem should be able to be rectified. They also have a few talented up and comers in the farm system with Andrew Nielsen, Travis Dermott, Rinat Valiev, and Victor Loov all project as NHL Dmen, so the defense might not be as far off as many think.
James van Riemsdyk leads the team in points with 17, and JVR, Auston Matthews, and Nazem Kadri are tied for the team lead with eight goals a piece. Morgan Rielly leads the Leafs with 10 assists on the year.
The Leafs are most definitely still a team on the rise, it’s almost scary to think Matthews and Marner are only 19, and Nylander is only 20. These kids are amazing, and they’re only getting better. Eventually adding players like Brendan Leipsic, Kasperi Kapanen, and Andrew Nielsen who are tearing up the AHL, Yegor Korshkov from the KHL, Carl Grundstrom from the SHL, and Jeremy Bracco, who is destroying the OHL will make this team a contender for many years to come. They’ve been better than expected so far, and we haven’t even scratched the surface of what this Leafs team is capable of. There’s still room on the bandwagon, so if you aren’t on it yet, you’d better get your seat, before it turns into a parade float some June day in the not so distant future.