As we near the end of the NHL season it is without question that the Toronto Maple Leafs have far exceeded expectations regardless of what happens the rest of way. Of course it will be fantastic for players and fans a like to make the playoffs as that will provide an excellent opportunity to continue to gain such valuable experience. But even if they don’t make it, each of these past few games and those remaining, are all meaningful and therefore just as valuable. It will be a lot of fun to watch this team mature over the next couple of years and see just how far they can go. There hasn’t been this much hope in Leafland for several decades. Let’s take a closer look at what we have learned from some of those outstanding rookies.
Before the season began (if you remember that far back) we had a taste of what Auston Matthews might bring to the Maple Leafs. His play with Team North America gave us glimpses of his amazing skills but we had questions about how much of an impact he would make over the long NHL season. The same type of questions were surrounding Mitch Marner and William Nylander as no one was sure if they could stay with the parent club for the whole season. Actually for Marner, well, we weren’t sure he would even last the first nine games of the season. Those questions seem so foolish now don’t they? As The Who said, the kids are alright.
Matthews shook the hockey world that first game of the season scoring 4 goals. Leaf fans that have withstood ridicule year in and year out for the dismal performance of this team awoke from their slumber and cheered their new hero. Matthews didn’t just give hope to Toronto, he made it alright to be a Leafs fan again. As with any rookie season, there have been some dry spells, but even during those he was still dangerous with the puck. What we learned this year though is that his work ethic doesn’t diminish even if he is in a drought. He not only maintained his 200 ft game at a high level he even began improving his face-offs towards the end of the year. It will however be his offence what is remembered and that includes breaking the Maple Leafs rookie scoring record of 34 goals that was held by Wendell Clark. Oh… and as a side note, he also leads the entire team in points. One can only imagine how much better he is going to be.
Just a few points behind Matthews in second place is Mitch Marner. He is also on the verge of breaking a single season rookie record but this is for assists as he is currently tied with Gus Budner who had 40 assists back in the 1943-44 season. Marner’s speed, vision and stick-handling skills are a joy to watch and that part of his game has translated from the OHL. What has been a surprise though and what we learned about Marner this year, is that he does great work along the boards to gain possession of the puck before he dances up the ice with it. Marner has proven he not only can handle the physicality of the game, but he can play physically when needed. Give him some time to add a few pounds of muscle and just like Matthews, one can only imagine how much better he is going to be.
After discussing the first two, it’s not hard to follow that up and say that the Maple Leafs third leading scorer this year is yet another rookie, William Nylander. Having played the last couple of years either with the Marlies or overseas, fans and coaches alike wondered if this would be the year that he can stick with the main club. Many thought he might be too small for this league, but it doesn’t matter what size you are when you have a release like he does. We learned he has a knack for the power play as he leads the team with 25 points with the man advantage. He had some difficulty in playing in the defensive end but has worked hard to get back into Babcock’s favour and has solidified himself as a dangerous and consistent winger.
The rest of the season is going to be a fun, rollercoaster of a ride for Leaf fans and they should enjoy every moment. The path may be even harder than expected due to the injury to Fredrik Andersen, but you play the hand you’re dealt as best you can. The one thing that can be a cause for concern is rushing Andersen back too soon. The last thing the Leafs should do, and considering the management team they probably won’t, is sacrifice the future for the present as a healthy Andersen is more important over the next few years than it is for this one. Yes, the rookies are alright today, but they will be even better tomorrow.
» Sports » The Maple Leaf kids are alright