The Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2015–2016 season ended with a 5–1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. The Leafs finished with a record of 29–42–11, which meant they were last in the league. The season left fans despondent.
In their disappointment, Leafs fans turned to the Toronto Marlies, the future of the team, for hope.
Last season did, however, have a silver lining. Finishing with the worst record in the league gave the team a 20 per cent chance of winning the NHL draft lottery for the first overall pick.
The Maple Leafs won the lottery and drafted Auston Matthews. He was already drawing comparisons to All-Star centres Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews when he came to the team.
Between the two of them, Kopitar and Toews have won a handful of Stanley Cups in the last few years. The prospect of Matthews playing in Toronto invigorated Leafs fans — they became eager and expectant.
Despite these lofty expectations for the newly minted Maple Leaf, the consensus among the media, the NHL community, and within the Leafs organization itself was that Matthews would not lead the Leafs to the playoffs for another few seasons.
There are now less than 10 games left in the Leafs’ 2016–2017 season, and Head Coach Mike Babcock’s team is battling with the Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division, which would guarantee them a playoff spot. The extensive media coverage of the new and improved Leafs squad is hard to miss. As this rags-to-riches story unfolds, it may, at first, be difficult to tell how this all came about.
It’s well known that the Leafs were a sleeping giant, accumulating an abundance of high draft picks in the last few years. But the amount of offensive power produced this year couldn’t have been predicted.
The Leafs brought in reinforcements in the form of young playmaker and former OHL scoring leader Mitch Marner, and William Nylander, the hyped-up Canadian-born Swedish prospect who the fanbase begged to be released from AHL purgatory during the infamously dismal 2015–2016 campaign. Lastly, of course, there is Matthews.
Not only have these three young stars joined and transformed the team, but other rookies like Connor Brown and Zach Hyman have stepped up, taking advantage of playing under Matthews’ wing. Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev have formed a strong top pairing on defense, and Nazem Kadri has spent his season shutting down the likes of Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid, remoulding his game to be the shutdown centre the Leafs so desperately needed.
Newly acquired Frederik Andersen brings some much needed stability in the crease, and Mike Babcock’s influence can not be overlooked.
Even Leafs General Manager Lou Lamoriello and President Brendan Shanahan admit that they could not have predicted this season would go as well as it has. That the team has outperformed expectations makes this season a win, regardless of whether the Leafs make the playoffs.
With a contentious first round matchup with rivals Ottawa Senators, or perhaps the Montreal Canadiens, possibly looming, Leafs Nation is chomping at the bit to see some playoff hockey at the Air Canada Centre.
The Leafs may still be too young and inexperienced to battle past the powerhouse teams of the Eastern Conference, but don’t count them out.
No matter what, the young team should be proud of what they have accomplished this season. Matthews and Marner are both deeply rooted in the Calder Trophy race, while Kadri has snuck into the Selke Trophy conversation. The Leafs have six players with at least 50 points on the year, leading the league.
Last Thursday night featured a rematch of the Leafs and Devils, and the situation was considerably different than the matchup that ended the Leafs’ 2015–2016 campaign — the Leafs won, 4–2.