Leafs Need Work to Reach Cup Contention
Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons considers this season’s version of the Maple Leafs a future Stanley Cup champion. Not this season, mind you, but very soon, perhaps within a couple of years.
Led by the “Big Three” of forwards Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, with Mike Babcock as head coach and a front office led by Lou Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan, Simmons believes the current version of the Leafs is the best he’s seen in his first thirty years covering the club.
Better than the late-’70s Leafs coached by the progressive Roger Nielsen and stocked with Hall of Famers Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Borje Salming.
Better than no-nonsense coach Pat Burns’ likeable early-’90s overachievers led by Hall of Famer Doug Gilmour and heart-and-soul captain Wendel Clark
Better than burly Pat Quinn’s bunch at the turn of this century featuring Hall of Fame center Mats Sundin and hardworking goaltender Curtis Joseph.
All on the basis of a single season where the rebuilding Leafs, who warned their fans to keep expectations low, surprised everyone by clinching a playoff berth (the first since 2013 and only the second since 2004) and pushed the heavily-favored Washington Capitals to six games before bowing out of the opening round.
Simmons’ excitement over the Leafs’ future is understandable. It’s been 50 years since the club last won the Cup. The last time they got within sniffing distance of the Final was in the 2002 Eastern Conference Final, falling to the Carolina Hurricanes in six games. The Leafs’ surprising improvement last season, led by its nucleus of young talent, certainly provides reason for optimism.
Matthews, the first-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, became the first Leaf to win the Calder Memorial Trophy since Brit Selby in 1966. He led the Leafs and all NHL rookies in scoring with 40 goals and 69 points, which were also franchise rookie records.
Marner and Nylander (61 points each) finished second and third in Leafs scoring last season. They also placed third and fourth among last season’s rookie scorers.
Babcock is among the NHL’s most-respected head coaches. He guided Canada to Olympic gold in 2010 and 2014, coached an upstart Anaheim (then-Mighty) Ducks to the 2003 Stanley Cup Final and the Detroit Red Wings to a championship in 2008.
Lamoriello build the New Jersey Devils into a powerhouse from 1994 to 2003, winning three Stanley Cups. Shanahan, the Leafs president, is a Hall of Famer who won three Cups skating with the Red Wings.
Simmons points out stars such as Pittsburgh Penguins forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Chicago Blackhawks forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane led their respective teams to championships within their first four NHL seasons. He feels it’s possible the Leafs’ talented young trio could reach the same heights within a similar time frame.
Strong goaltending and an established top defenseman, however, were also crucial to the Penguins’ and Blackhawks’ championship runs. If the current version of the Leafs hope to end their lengthy Stanley Cup drought, they must address those issues.
The Penguins won their championships with Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray between the pipes. The Blackhawks won two of their three Cups with Corey Crawford as their starter.
Looking at other recent Cup champions, the Los Angeles Kings won their titles in 2012 and 2014 with Jonathan Quick in goal while the Boston Bruins had Tim Thomas for their 2011 championship run. Both won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen is a capable starter, but he’s yet to fully establish himself as a top playoff performer.
Andersen’s notable playoff run came in 2015, backstopping the Anaheim Ducks to the 2015 Western Conference Finals. However, he got lit up for 18 goals in the final four games of that series as the Blackhawks eliminated the Ducks in seven games. He must elevate his play if the Leafs are to fulfill Simmons’ championship expectations.
Entering this season, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev are the Leafs top-three defensemen. They’re decent blueliners with varying degrees of skill, but none will be mistaken for Chicago’s Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang, Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty or Boston’s Zdeno Chara.
For the Leafs to be a serious Cup contender, Rielly, Gardiner and Zaitsev must significantly improve or Lamoriello will have to find an established, reliable top-pairing defenseman.
The salary cap could also hamper their pursuit of a championship. Withing the next two years, Matthews, Marner and Nylander will need new contracts. Should they continue to develop as expected, they’ll be in line for substantial raises, eating up considerable salary-cap space.
Over the same period, key players such as Gardiner, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak will be eligible for unrestricted free agency. The cost of re-signing or replacing them, as well as bolstering their depth, could prove difficult when trying to balance the cost of retaining their Big Three.
After years of mediocrity and false hopes, the Maple Leafs finally appear to be building in the right direction. They have a good young team with the potential to one day become a great one. But one season of promise does not make them a future champion. There’s still a lot of work ahead of them to reach that goal.