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Could it be a Stanley Cup season for the Maple Leafs?

John Tavares looks to spark a deep playoff run

Could it be a Stanley Cup season for the Maple Leafs?

With the start of the 2018–2019 NHL season only days away, it’s time to make one thing crystal clear: the Toronto Maple Leafs are good — in fact, they are very good.

After the team broke the record for franchise wins and points in the 2017–2018 regular season, the Leafs again lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Boston Bruins in game seven of the first round of playoffs.

The offseason saw the departures of Tyler Bozak, James Van Riemsdyk, Leo Komarov, Roman Polak, and older General Manager (GM) Lou Lamoreillo. It also marked the beginning of a new chapter in Leafs history, with the promotion of 32-year-old Kyle Dubas to the GM chair and the acquisition of homecoming superstar centre John Tavares.

Leafs fans will undoubtedly be hoping for this new chapter to end with the hoisting of the Stanley Cup in June, and a parade down Yonge Street.

Tavares joins a team with high hopes for the upcoming season. Auston Matthews is a budding superstar of the league, who, despite dealing with nagging injuries last year, managed to score 34 goals in 62 games. Nazem Kadri is coming off consecutive 30-goal campaigns, and with the majority of opponents focused on shutting down Tavares and Matthews, we can expect Kadri to dominate any matchups he faces.

While the Maple Leafs forward corps is among the most dangerous in the league, their defense is more of a question mark. Boasting 50-point defensemen Morgan Reilly and Jake Gardiner, who is in the final year of his contract, the Leafs have two players who can put up points from the back end.

In the second year of a seven-year extension, Nikita Zaitsev is looking to bounce back after a disappointing sophomore campaign. Ron Hainsey will presumably play as a dependable defenseman as always. The final two spots on the blue line are less clear.

Travis Dermott, Calle Rosén, Connor Carrick, and Igor Ozhiganov are all vying for the the last two spots in the opening lineup. Dermott played in 37 regular season games last year, as well as all seven of their playoff games. He appears to have a leg up on the competition, but as we know with head coach Mike Babcock, nothing is certain.

That leaves one spot up for grabs, and it will likely go to Ozhiganov. The 25-year-old Russian will be an NHL rookie after spending the last few years in the Kontinental Hockey League. Babcock was heavily involved in his recruitment and was happy with his performance in camp this year.

When it comes to goaltending, every Leafs fan’s favourite Dane will be looking to continue his winning ways. Posting 38 wins in the regular season, Frederik Andersen has had historically shaky starts in October. He will no doubt be aiming to change that narrative this season. The backup position will likely find Curtis McElhinney resuming his role as Andersen’s deputy.

So, what should Leafs fans expect from this team? With a handful of players genuinely talented enough to win the scoring race, one of the best coaches in the league behind the bench, and a young GM determined to think outside of the box, the Maple Leafs should find themselves with one of the most potent power-play units — a terror to match up against in a five-on-five and above average in league goaltending.

Seemingly one of the most talented in the entire league, this team has genuine cup-contending aspirations.

The Leafs have failed to make it out of the first round of playoffs in the past two seasons, losing to Boston in seven games last year, and to Washington in six games the year before that. The team was pardoned, chiefly due to their youth and how unexpected their success was. But a first round exit this year would be considered a failure, and rightly so.

The 2018–2019 Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to compete for the Stanley Cup and bring a level of success and excitement that this city has not seen in years.

The emerging big market north of the border

Toronto’s major sports teams are ready to consolidate the city’s big market identity

The emerging big market north of the border

With the 2015–2016 regular season for the Raptors and Leafs coming to a close, we can look back at how important 2015 and 2016 have been for Toronto in the NHL, NBA, and MLB.

While the Leafs will never relinquish the mantle as the city’s biggest market, the season was an indicator of the potential for the Raptors and Blue Jays to become bigger attractions as well. For years, the city has seen the likes of Vince Carter, Chris Bosh, Carlos Delgado, and Roy Halladay leave for bigger markets to chase titles.

The year 2015–2016 initiated a shift in this mindset. The Raptors and Blue Jays have demonstrated strong regular seasons, playoff runs, and the ability to attract big name players.

This begs the question — does Toronto have the potential to become a serious contender in the NBA, NHL, and MLB? And if so, can the city become a desired destination for sought after free agents?

Both the Raptors and the Blue Jays were recently rebranded to consolidate the teams’ respective successes by bolstering regional pride.

The Raptors utilized the “We The North” campaign to gain fans while remaining relevant by assembling a competitive team able to surpass the Carter and Bosh eras. Two straight division championships and an inevitable third have put Toronto in the same conversation as Eastern Conference elite teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan, the Raptors showed their willingness to spend with free agent DeMarre Carroll joining the team in the 2015 offseason. Ticket purchases have been a key indicator of this expansion. The Raptors sold out season and postseason tickets in 2013–2014 and 2014–2015 and are expected to do the same during this year’s post-season. All Star Weekend was also a media boost to Toronto. Although the city embraces its ‘outside looking in’ approach to the NBA, the team has made an effort — especially this season — to be at the center of it all.

The Blue Jays also experienced a rebranding in 2012, but the team took a retrospective approach, returning to their 1992–1993 championships colours following an era of lackluster years as a fringe team. Their rebrand was met with blockbuster trades for stars like R.A. Dickey and Jose Reyes. Success after the rebrand was not immediate like the Raptors’, but last year’s trades for stars Troy Tulowitzki, David Price, and reigning MVP Josh Donaldson made significant contributions to the Jays’ first postseason appearance since 1993. The Blue Jays are title contenders and the city has taken notice through ticket and merchandise sales. The Jays’ 2015 season illustrated the dedicated fan base baseball can have in a non-American city.

The market value for the Leafs will likely never be a problem. Despite their struggles in recent seasons and a rebuild underway, the future is bright for the franchise.

The Leafs live in a hard salary cap era, but this has not stopped them from stockpiling talent. They accumulated draft picks, including potential star William Nylander, all under the watchful eye of arguably the best management in the league. GM Lou Lamoriello has won three Stanley Cups and coach Mike Babcock has won the Stanley Cup and two Olympic gold medals. The team has  a robust analytics department led by rising management star Kyle Dubas, which has modernized how we view hockey and player evaluations. The road to contention will be long and arduous for the Leafs, but they have the pieces in place to compete again, and the regional market to sustain them. 

The regional market has the ability to sustain the three major teams, similar to other big markets like New York and Los Angeles. While the more profitable and more popular team is rebuilding itself, their future is bright. The Raptors and Blue Jays are the contenders, and now they have the rosters and fan bases to show for it.