Trio of Young Guns Driving Leafs Current Success
Thanks to rookie stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, the rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs unexpectedly find themselves in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
As of Jan. 7, the Leafs had 44 points, vaulting ahead of the idle Boston Bruins into third place in the Atlantic Division. Their grip on that playoff spot was short-lived. By the night of Jan. 8, a combination of a 5-3 loss to Montreal, the Bruins 4-0 shutout off the Florida Panthers and the Senators, also holding 44 points, holding a game in hand knocked the Leafs down to fifth in the Atlantic.
However, the Leafs remain very much in contention for a playoff berth. They still hold three games in hand over the Bruins, giving them a golden opportunity to overtake Boston and move into second place in the division.
Leafs fans must be feeling a little giddy with disbelief. Given the team’s heartbreaking implosion two years ago and the pain of last season’s roster rebuild, few Leafs followers could’ve predicted their team would be jockeying for a playoff spot this season.
After all, this is only season two of what was expected to be a long, difficult rebuild. Leafs faithful expected their club to be a little better this season but they also prepared to endure the pain of being an also-ran.
But thanks to a trio of rookie stars, the Leafs’ rebuild has taken a giant leap forward this season.
As of Jan. 8, center Auston Matthews (35 points) and wingers Mitch Marner (32) and William Nylander (26) were first, third and fourth among the Leafs’ top scorers. Among the NHL rookie scoring leaders, they sit second, third and fourth.
Matthews, 19, is showing everyone why he was the top prospect in the 2016 NHL draft. The 6’2”, 210-pounder has dazzling offensive skills. After struggling between Oct. 27 to Nov. 22 (no goals and three points in 13 games), he tallied 22 points in 20 games and was named NHL rookie of the month for December 2016. Approaching the midpoint of his rookie campaign, Matthews looks very much like a franchise player.
Marner, also 19, is disproving the belief that his 5’11”, 160-pound frame would hurt his transition from Junior hockey to the NHL. So far, he’s had little difficulty finding creative ways to generate quality scoring opportunities. As of Jan. 8, Marner led the Leafs and all rookies with 22 assists. He was also second among Leafs scorers in game-winning goals (three).
Nylander, 20, gave a brief taste of his potential in 2015-16, tallying 13 points in 22 games. He’s building upon that promise this season. A versatile forward who can play at center or on the wing, Nylander is a swift-skating playmaker. With 18 assists, Nylander sits second behind Marner. He’s also second among Leafs scorers in power-play goals (five).
Of course, the Leafs are more than just Matthews, Marner and Nylander. After a shaky start to this season, goaltender Frederik Andersen’s been rock-steady of late. Veteran forwards James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak are playing very well, while defenseman Morgan Rielly is on pace to exceed 30 points for the second straight season.
Other rookies, such as defenseman Nikita Zaitsev and forwards Zach Hyman and Connor Brown, show considerable potential. Connor Carrick, 22, has promise as a puck-moving defenseman.
All of them are benefiting from the guidance of head coach Mike Babcock, who made the talent-poor Leafs competitive in 2015-16 and is bringing out the best in his promising youngsters this season.
Granted, there’s still some issues the rebuilding Leafs must work out. They lack experienced depth on the blueline, and they have a tendency to blow leads. There’s still some games when the Leafs look very much like a rebuilding club stocked with inexperienced youth.
Still, without Matthews, Marner and Nylander, the Leafs wouldn’t be within sniffing distance this season of playoff contention. While time will tell how their NHL careers will unfold, their performances thus far suggest they’ll be a strong foundation for a promising Leafs roster.
For the first time in years, the Leafs are a fun team to watch. They’re a largely young and energetic team with a very bright future, one which could arrive much sooner than expected because of their trio of young guns.