The NHL season officially starts on Wednesday October 4th, with the Leafs up against the Winnipeg Jets. There seems to be much more excitement surrounding this team this year than in previous years. One reason for that is because of last year’s performance.
Last season the Leafs surprised the whole league finishing with 95 points, which was just enough to hold on to the last playoff spot. This was a huge jump from the previous 2015-2016 season when they finished with only 69 points. When the Leafs made the playoffs for the first time in 4 years, they had a tough challenge as they took on the top team in the NHL, the Washington Capitals. Most people thought the Leafs would be very lucky to win a game in this series but they continued to shock the hockey world pushing the Capitals to 6 games, 5 of them going to overtime.
One of the biggest reasons for the Maple Leafs success last year was because of all their talented rookies. On average the Leafs dressed 7-8 rookies a night, more than any other team in the NHL. Out of 660 points the Leafs put up last season, 314 of them came from rookies, which was first in NHL. The Leafs had three of the NHL’s 2016-17 four top rookies: Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Auston Matthews who lead all rookies in points.
This year I believe that with the rookies gaining a year of experience, the additions that they have added, and the team continually being coached by one of the best coaches in the league, Mike Babcock, the leafs will continue to get better. I expect the Leafs to finish around 100 points this season, a 5-point improvement from last year. This will be enough for them make it to the playoffs again, but I also expect them to go deep in the playoffs, unlike last year.
Like I said before, the youth of this team is what makes the Leafs so fun to watch and is the key to their success. Auston Matthews finished the season with 40 goals, which was tied for second in the NHL.
It will be hard for him to repeat that again this year but after watching him this preseason I believe that he looks as though his speed as improved and that he looks more confident than ever. The coach Mike Babcock has put him on a line this year with William Nylander and Zack Hyman (both rookies last year as well) and they have looked amazing so far. They’ve looked so good together that I would not be surprised if Matthews finishes the year with 90 points, and their line is one of the most effective lines in the entire NHL.
Mitch Marner is another player that will be exciting to watch this year. Paired on the same line as last year with Tyler Bozak and James Van Reimsdyk, Mitch Marner could easily repeat his 61-point performance.
Another key to the Leafs success last year was their goaltender Frederik Anderson. If the leafs are going to get to 100 points they need Anderson to be just as good as last year and to stay healthy. If Anderson gets hurt and is out for an extended period of time then that could have a huge impact on the leafs season. Last year the Leafs managed to stay extremely healthy, which probably wont happen again this year. Luckily they have some more depth this year, adding some veteran presence and more prospects look as though they could make this team.
One huge add for the Leafs during the off season was signing forward Patrick Marleau. Marleau previously played for the San Jose Sharks and has played 1,493 NHL games and has scored 1,082 points in his entire career. Marleau may be 38, but his speed and playmaking abilities will go well with the young, speedy Leafs. Veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey is another player joining the Leafs after winning the Stanley cup the previous year with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He will be most likely paired up with Morgan Reilly, one of the Leafs best young defenseman and will help to bring some experience to the team.
Defense has always been a question mark around the Toronto Maple Leafs in the past few seasons, but this year I think will be different. Morgan Reilly, Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, and Connor Carrick all played last year and seem to be a lock for the starting lineup this year. However after adding Ron Hainsey, there is one spot open in defense. This spot could go to Andreas Borgman who the Leafs signed over the summer from Europe, Calle Rosen who is another pick up from Europe, or Travis Dermott who player with the Leafs farm team, The Toronto Marlies all last year. Right now after watching preseason games it looks as though Babcock will give the spot to Rosen for start of the season. This doesn’t mean that one of the other two could take his place during the season if he struggles or if there is an injury.
With the new additions and the former players looking as though they will exceed expectations again I believe this will be a very exciting year for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Even though other teams have also improved over the off season and anything can happen in the NHL as there is a very fine line between good and bad, I believe this will be the best year for the leafs since 2002.