The Toronto Maple Leafs start the 2017/1018 with something their fanbase hasn’t had in quite some time – high expectations. You have to go back to the Doug Gilmour era last time there was this much anticipation about the possibilities of a Leaf team. It isn’t unwarranted either.
So as the season opens on Wednesday night in Winnipeg versus the Jets, here are 3 things to keep your eyes on this year.
So much was written about the Big 3 rookies last year in William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews that all eyes will be focused on them once again. I don’t mean just the fans eyes but opponents as well. No more surprises and coaches will have their team prepped on how to stop them.
The second year is always a tougher year for this reason and that is why the “sophomore jinx” is a thing. Well, that is if you believe in that sort of “thing.” Gone is the newness of playing in the NHL or playing in cities you have never been to before. That “newness” usually brought with it an extra bit of energy for these young players. There are no more external stimuli to give them that edge, which means now they need to create it on their own, every night.
— ⚠️Guy On The Couch⚠️ (@6SportsGod1) April 14, 2017
No one is saying they aren’t capable, but for these three in particular to have the same success as last year, they will need to work a lot harder than they did last year. This is where Coach Babcock will earn his money because if anyone can get these kids to that next level, it will be the six million dollar man himself. I know, I know, I just dated myself.
Matthews was incredible last season even with the fact that he was in a couple of slumps (8 game stretch at one time) without any goals. Although he doesn’t wear the C, everyone expects him to lead the team this year and the most pressure will be on him. Any assistance that Marner and Nylander can provide will not only lessen Matthews workload, it will be a sign of great things to come in Leafland.
Last year it was diagnosed as the weak part of the lineup and although their was some tinkering done in the offseason, no major addition has been made. Let’s maybe clarify that… no big name addition has been made. Is it a strong enough blue line to compete for the Stanley Cup? Most will not think so but last year’s champs the Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t have a stellar defensive corp either. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it you naysayers!
Joining regular stalwarts Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are second year man Nikita Zaitsev and new comer Ron Hainsey. Although in reality, there is nothing new about the 36 year old journeyman who spent the end of last year as a stop fill for those same champion Penguins. In fact, he played 25 playoff games for them compared to only 16 regular season ones. To finish off the top 6 are Connor Carrick and most likely 22 year old Andreas Borgman who will be playing in his first NHL season.
This may be the six that starts the year but there are no guarantees these same six will end the year. There is first round pick Timothy Liljegren to think about. Not expected much from him this year maybe, but the 6’0 offensive defenceman was once pegged to be a top 3 pick. He had a bout with mononucleosis last year and that caused his stock to fall which is alright for the Leafs as they may have picked the steal of the draft.
The Leafs also have a plethora of forwards and hopefully can package a few of them from the Toronto Marlies (Josh Leivo, Kasperi Kapanen for example) into a top 4 defenceman. So as important as it is to see how this group moves the puck on the ice, it will be just as interesting to see what kind of moves may be happening off of it. Which leads us to the last group to keep an eye on.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs decided to do a complete overhaul and rebuild the franchise from scratch, they warned it would be a long slow process. President Brendan Shannon said it. Coach Babcock repeated it. General Manager Lou Lamoriello echoed it. The story now is that this long stretch of pain and agony as not only turned into a window of opportunity, but one that may be closing. Matthews, Marner and Nylander are all on cap-friendly salaries and there is a good chance when those expire (in 2 years) that the Leafs may not be able to sign all three. In essence, the time to win… is now. It will be interesting to see throughout the year and more importantly at trade deadline, what the Leafs brass will do. Do they risk some of the future for the present? Do they overpay to get a player that can get them over the top? Or do they stand pat and continue on the original course they set out for themselves?
— Janine (@janinenatt) April 24, 2017
How the Maple Leafs start the season could factor into which way management decides to go from here on out. But before wondering about that, Shannon, Lamoriello, Babcock and all of the management team deserve so much credit for how they have made it to this point. They have given the former players of this historical franchise the respect they rightfully deserved. They treated those recent players who received harsh criticisms with the dignity and respect they deserves and they have also given proper respect to the process of growing a Championship team.
Getting a player of Auston Matthews calibre certainly was lucky and I am sure they would be the first to admit that. All in all though, they have literally done everything right in the last two to three years to get them in this favourable position. But these next 2 steps, a deep playoff run and winning the Stanley Cup, are the most difficult steps to take. It will be most interesting to see how they proceed. Should be another exciting season.
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