The young, fast rising Leafs team has an air of destiny about them. Especially considering the once-in-a-generation crop of rookies took the city and league by storm while breaking a slew of existing franchise rookie records: Wendel Clark’s 32-year-old record for most goals by a Leaf rookie was eclipsed by fellow 1st overall pick and instant icon Auston Matthews; Peter Ihnacak’s record for points by a rookie was broken, again by Matthews; Gus Bodnar’s 74-year-old record for assists in a season fell to the baby-faced whiz-kid Mitch Marner; another 74-year-old Bodnar record – for consecutive games with a point – was broken by super-slick Swedish rookie William Nylander, and so on.You get the picture.
This was an unforgettable season for a team and its fans who were very familiar with disappointment, disrespect, and defeat.
Exorcising the Demons of a Demoralizing Defeat
It is very hard not to get caught up in all the good vibrations and rampant optimism accompanying this young Leafs team and it’s altogether unexpected, almost magical transformation from basement dwellers to an exciting, high-flying, team on the rise.
They defied the odds to earn a spot in the postseason for the first time since the 2012-13 season. For those who have wisely repressed the memory of that infamous playoff series, it ended with the most horrific collapse in franchise history. In its aftermath, a traumatized, shell-shocked legion of Leafs fans were left with a permanent scar that seemed unlikely to ever truly heal. That is until 2016-17 when Leafs Nation and the city of Toronto fell in love with their surprising team full of talented youngsters and not-so-old veterans, led by a future Hall of Fame head coach.
From the first game of the season, in which Matthews introduced himself to the NHL and Leaf Nation by sniping four goals and claiming his first franchise record, it was clear that the 2016-17 season was not going to follow the same dreary script of seasons past. Something was different. There was an infectious air of optimism around the largely unproven lineup. As the players began buying into Coach Babcock’s system, they started to see real results. Seeing is believing, and slowly, as the wins started to come and the chemistry fueled their confidence, the group began to believe.
It didn’t take long for fans to begin believing, either. The interest and excitement surrounding the ongoing rebuild of the Maple Leafs, affectionately nicknamed “The Shanaplan”, had reached a new level following the 2016 NHL Draft Lottery. That was a significant turning point, as team President Brendan Shanahan, in a stroke of good fortune befitting his Irish ancestry, drew the winning combination of numbers that would secure his team the rights to the first pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
That draft class featured talented players, headlined by two dynamic, NHL-ready prospects. Scouts were hyping both Matthews and Patrik Laine as “generational talents”; the rarest type of elite prospect, capable of becoming the face of a franchise, as Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin had before them.
The Leafs Land their Franchise Center
Scouts had been swooning over the big, fast, and absurdly skilled American center for years. The other, and more recent, recipient of the “generational” designation, the impressive power forward, Laine had experienced a meteoric rise in his draft profile following a dominant run to the Gold Medal at the U-20 World Junior Championships with the Finnish National Team.
For President and chief architect of the “Shanaplan” Brendan Shanahan, the decision was already made. He and his hand-picked management team only had eyes for Matthews, whose combination of size, skill and maturity far beyond his 19 years made him the sort of rare, franchise-caliber talent a team could be built around.
But nobody, with the exception of Matthews, could have envisioned how quickly the American teenager would start dominating at the NHL level. After a historic rookie season in which he scored a whopping 40 goals and helped the Leafs return to the playoffs for the first time in 4 years, Matthews somehow took his game to an even higher level in the postseason. He played a relentlessly determined two-way game that nearly inspired the Leafs to a first-round upset over the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, who are favored to win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Dreaming in Blue & White
Admittedly, I have sipped the Blue & White Kool-Aid myself; picturing an ideal scenario whereby the youthful Buds, backed by a Conn Smythe effort by goalie Frederik Andersen, use their speed, skill, and respond to the masterful coaching of Babcock to pull off one upset after another, finally managing to do what even the most beloved and cherished versions of the team have failed to do since 1967, make it to the Stanley Cup Final.
And what better way to close a storybook season than an epic, 7-game war of attrition vs their Western Conference equivalent, the Edmonton Oilers; a young, terrifically talented, exciting team led by their own superstar first-overall franchise center McDavid. In a classic back-and-forth series, the Leafs put the finishing touches on one of the greatest rags-to-riches stories in the history of the NHL with a stunning come-from-behind overtime victory, confirming their arrival as a franchise embarking on a new and long-awaited era of greatness.
After the victory, the diehard Leafs faithful storm the Zamboni gates and pour onto the ice as arena security scrambles to intervene, with little to no success. Leafs players and their worshipers unite in a joyful, impromptu center-ice celebration, as the media descends into the throng at Rogers Place. Order is eventually restored, and the Cup is handed to new Captain and face of the franchise, Auston Matthews.
The city of Toronto, whose Stanley Cup drought predated the leagues’ first wave of expansion, erupts in a wild frenzy of euphoric hysteria, making the “Golden Goal” from the 2010 Olympics look tame by comparison. After a full 7 days of raucous revelry, the Prime Minister is finally forced to call in the military once it becomes apparent that the party simply will not stop in LeafLand.
Okay, so maybe that last part is a little far-fetched. I’m going to blame it on the intoxicating effects of this inconceivable 2016-17 season: seeing the light-speed development and maturation of our record setting, rock-star rookies; watching the Leafs clinch their first legit playoff spot since 2003-04; (I’m throwing out the 2012-13 season’s playoff qualification, not just because it was an abbreviated schedule, but also due to the fact that the overall memory of that debacle is simply too horrendously painful) and, of course, winning our first home playoff game since 2012-13.
Are the Leafs Ready to Take the Next Step?
Back to reality, and the business at hand – a suddenly pivotal offseason that will be under the microscope of super-scrutiny from every armchair GM across Leafs Nation. The decisions made by the Leafs front office this summer — such as who will ultimately be left exposed in the expansion draft, which prospects are selected
There are to decisions to made by the Leafs front office this summer such as: who will be left exposed in the expansion draft; which prospects are selected in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft; which free agents, if any, will be signed; and most importantly to their re-energized legion of fans, what trades will Lou Lamoriello and the Leafs’ front office be able to pull off to fill in the areas of weakness throughout the lineup.
Whatever happens, this offseason will be the first in years where expectations and hopes for the next season will be sky-high. After years of watching the Blue and White bullied by better teams, with little hope of seeing things improve, Leafs Nation can finally feel a sense of growing pride and genuine optimism for where the organization and team are headed. There’s still plenty of work to be done, to be sure, but maybe, just maybe, the team is closer than most of us think…maybe, 2018 will wind up as a year of destiny.