It wasn’t that long ago when the Toronto Maple Leafs were consistently one of the worst teams in hockey. With only one playoff appearance in 11 seasons and none in the past three, the future didn’t look promising. Yes, the Leafs had a strong prospect pool, but this team was considered to be a middle-of-the-pack-type team for the next several years. The Leafs were confident that their talented youth were ready to play at the NHL level, so on opening night, six different rookies were in the starting lineup.
Leafs’ Youth Lead the Way
Fast-forward to today, and the Maple Leafs are playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, leading their series against the best team in the NHL, the Washington Capitals. The Leafs showed a lot of confidence in their prospects by starting six rookies on opening night, as well as other rookies throughout the season. It didn’t take but one game, and the talented youth of the Maple Leafs showed the world what they are capable of. Auston Matthews stole the show, scoring four goals in his NHL debut. William Nylander had two assists in that game and Connor Brown had one as well.
It has been a season to remember for the Leafs and their young rookies. Three of the Leafs’ top five leaders in points were rookies. Matthews led the way 69 points, also leading the team in goals with 40. Matthews was the anchor of this offense and was one of their better defensive forwards as well.
Nylander and Mitch Marner had 61 points apiece, with Nylander scoring 22 goals and Marner scoring 19. Brown was sensational in his rookie campaign as well, scoring 20 goals and tallying 36 points. He played a big role as a top-nine forward and was a key penalty killer. Nikita Zaitsev also tallied 36 points from the blue line and has quickly become one of the Leafs’ top defensemen.
The Numbers Don’t lie
If you look at the numbers compared to last year, the Leafs did a complete 180. In the 2015-16 season, the Leafs ranked 29th on the power play. They weren’t too bad on the penalty kill, finishing 13th in the league. They were one of the worst offensive teams in the NHL last year, averaging just 2.34 goals per game.
Flip the page to this year, and it’s a whole different story. Their penalty improved to 10th in the league. They had the second-best power play at 23.8 percent, and were fifth in scoring, averaging 3.05 goals per game.
Head coach Mike Babcock also deserves a lot of credit. He knew the young kids could score, but defending and being responsible with the puck was a whole new ball game. It took some time, but by the end of this regular season, Babcock took this team’s youth and taught them to defend, play smart and make good decisions with and without the puck. He’s taken a team that most thought would need some time to develop and made them a playoff-caliber beast, and it’s shown in the first round of the playoffs.
The Best is Yet to Come
No matter how far the Maple Leafs get in the postseason, fans have to be thrilled and excited about what the future holds for this team. For most teams, it takes time in the NHL before their youth blossoms. Of course, there are exceptions, but to have six rookies flourish and perform well in their rookie campaigns almost ensures that the best is yet to come for this team.