With Canada taking the World Cup of Hockey and the NHL regular season fast approaching, there is a lot of optimism in the air surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs, primarily around the play of the young ones that stood out at the tournament at the Air Canada Centre.
Two of the three players were featured on a North American all-star team that was the team that everyone rallied behind as a result of the high-octane offense and skillful youth that was shown in every game. The other youngster was on a rival team in which Canadians are all too familiar with, but was playing as if he was in the NHL for years.
For Morgan Rielly, Auston Matthews and Nikita Zaitsev it was a just a glimpse of what was in store for this season. During the tournament, Leafs fans were full of excitement over their play and the positive signs that stood out in what should be an exciting season to say the least. Yes, they are young. But they are so good that even with a young and inexperienced Leafs squad this year, each game will be more exciting than the last.
And that was essentially the narrative every time Rielly, Matthews and Zaitsev played each game. Since the first game fans were impressed with the play of all three. From that point, they expected more as the tournament progressed. And with each game, all three got better.
Although North America didn’t make it past the round robin and Russia lost to Canada, it’s common sense that all three made their statement to the fans, management and coaching staff that they are coming in with their best. This should especially please Babcock as he got a great look at Zaitsev and most likely his top defenseman and top centreman.
Here is a recap of their play at the tournament and what is to be expected from each player this year.
If there were any doubts from fans about Morgan Rielly taking the reigns of the Leafs top defenseman after the World Hockey Championship, those thoughts can be put to rest after his play during the World Cup of Hockey.
During the exhibition games, Rielly was paired up with Florida Panthers’ defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Until Ekblad left the tournament with what seemed to be whip lash, the duo of Reilly and Ekblad was no doubt the top pairing for North America. Even with the absence of Ekblad, Rielly still managed to hold his own as a 22-year-old going up against teams top forward lines every night. In three games played, Rielly scored a goal and added an assts with 10 shots on net.
Like his responsibility during the World Hockey Championship, Rielly was almost on at every opportunity at even strength, power-play and the penalty kill. He was the team’s go to guy and it paid off as Canada repeated as World Champions.
Last year, I wrote about the emergence of Rielly as a number one defenseman.
This year, before the season has even started, we’re seeing a sense of maturity and a growing responsibility on the shoulders of Rielly. After he let Evgeny Kuznetsov get away from him to score a goal to make it 3-1 in the game against Russia, Rielly didn’t hold back. He immediately responded by scoring to atone for his mistake. Funny how things work out, right?
Throughout the tournament, we saw the speed, vision and skill that will turn Rielly into an elite defenseman. That same game against Russia, Rielly made a great shot from the point that was blocked by Ivan Telegin. Telegin appeared to be in pain and was essentially out of the play leading to a Ryan Nugent- Hopkins goal. While Rielly wasn’t credited with an assist, his point shot played a key part on that goal. More importantly, his shot from point appears to be lethal.
In an article by Michael Traikos, Team North America head coach Todd McLellan had this to say about Rielly:
“‘He’s arguably been one of our best,’ said McLellan. ‘I think he has the ability to play both sides of the puck. Offensively, he’s been tremendous. He’s defended well and been able to take huge minutes on. I had a high appreciation personally for how he played the game, but it’s gone way up now that you’re around him consistently day in and day out.’”
Rielly finished the tournament with a goal and an assist with 10 shots on net, two goals and three points if you count his goal in the preliminary games. What was most impressive was the amount of ice time he was able to handle. Since their first game against Finland, Rielly’s ice time increased each game:
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With the increased ice-time during the tournament, we should expect Rielly to continue to take the next step forward as the Leafs top defenseman. After two impressive professional tournaments under his belt, head coach Mike Babcock would expect the same play from his top defenseman when the season starts.
It also should be mentioned that he isn’t short of emotion. Here is a clip of Rielly’s reaction after Nathan MacKinnon scored the overtime winner against Sweden.
It’s no surprise that when Auston Matthews was selected to Team North America that he was going to be a key piece for them at the tournament. Starting off as the 13th forward, Matthews worked his way up onto a line with 2015 first overall pick and Edmonton Oilers centre, Connor McDavid.
Matthews was as every bit as a stand out as McDavid was. Even though the team was stacked with young talent, aside from McDavid, Matthews wowed the crowd on a team with the likes of Jonathan Drouin and Jack Eichel.
Even though he only played three games, Matthews showed what he was made of. He tallied two goals and added an assist while managing 15 shots on net.
He exuberated great skill and maturity for a kid that’s only 18- years- old. He used his size and body to his advantage fending off opposing players in the offensive zone. Not to mention, he showed a great two-way presence having coming back and helping in the defensive zone. Matthews gave everyone at the Air Canada Centre a glimpse of what he has in store for Leafs fans everywhere.
Here are some highlights from the game verse Sweden. I’m sure we are all too familiar with the skill he displayed on his goal teaming up with McDavid and future teammate Morgan Rielly.
The fact that Matthews was able to make that deke on he knees at that fast a pace is mind-boggling. His ability to stay with the play and not give up is outstanding and is a sign to opposing players that he’s not going to be knocked off the puck that easily.
In my expectations for the season piece, I talked extensively about what to expect from the young stars of this team, including Matthews. There was talk that Matthews might start as the third centre on the team. While I’m all for easing players into the NHL and Babcock has mentioned that he will start as the third centre, I don’t think it would be a problem to start Matthews off as the second centre. He’s already played against men three times this year and he’s shown that he is more than capable of handling a secondary centre role in the NHL. Similar to what the Buffalo Sabres did with Jack Eichel last year.
Expectations for Matthews should be high considering that he’s a number one overall pick. But like everything else for this season, the expectations should be reasonable. He’s not going to put up 80 points in his first year. However, he is a favourite to win the Calder Trophy as top rookie in what will be an exciting class. Considering the type of two-way play and skill that he has with the likes of Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar, further down the line Matthews could tally anywhere between 60-70 points.
In case people missed on Matthews at the World Cup of Hockey, here is video of his highlights at the World Cup. For the first time since Mats Sundin, the Leafs have a number one centreman to rely on every game.
For about a year, the Leafs were always the front-runner to land the talented Russian defender. It became official when he signed with the Leafs to a one-year deal this year.
What intrigued the Leafs to sign him was his strong shot on the right-hand side and his physical presence. In three years with CSKA Moscow, he tallied 24 goals and 70 points.
The undrafted defenseman was a stand out for Russia at the World Hockey Championship. He continued his stellar play with Russia being one of their most reliable defenders. In four games, he tallied 2 assists and managed to have 30 plus shifts each game.
While his play has been great, people are still worried about his transition to the North American ice. In all fairness, Zaitsev hasn’t looked out of place, even with the transition to the smaller ice surface. He still manages to control the game effectively while still being a big-bodied defenseman with the top four potential. He has the ability to close the gap on players and keep them to the outside. This is the type of second pairing defenseman the Leafs have been looking for.
In an article on Sprotsnet.ca, former NHL defenseman Ryan Whitney stated that signing Zaistev was a great move. Whitney said, “‘The way he moves the puck and skates and how defensive you now have to be to play, it just really makes you think he can be really successful for the Leafs.’”
Whitney also added that Zaitsev is, “‘Just smooth as silk out there, great skater, light on his feet. Not a huge guy, but in today’s NHL you don’t really need to be. He really kind of controlled the pace of play out there the way he always had his head up and was great at getting the puck out. Guys couldn’t really get a piece of him, for the ones that did hit over there.’”
He’s the type of defenseman that you can put out in any situation. He has a deadly shot from the point, effective in the defensive zone and can make a big time hit when needed.
Here is a clip of Zaitsev making a clearing attempt in the crease while North America was putting pressure. His awareness and ability to read the situation will be a great asset on the Leafs blueline.
We know that if the game is on the line, Zaitsev could be called upon to make a game saving play.
After witnessing the play of Zaitsev, Rielly and Matthews at the World Cup of Hockey, it’s safe to say that the future of the Leafs is in good hands. All three players showed tremendous speed, skill awareness and vision that’ll make them successful not only this year, but for years to come.
Their performance at the World Cup of Hockey is just the beginning. Their play will take the Leafs a long way to becoming a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
Mike Babcock said it best after his victory at the World Cup, “This is just a sign of what’s going to happen here in Toronto, just so you know.” Babcock knows what he wants. He wants to bring a championship to Canada’s team. And Rielly, Matthews and Zaitsev will look to help lead the team to that title.