The Toronto Maple Leafs are just two games into the 2016-17 NHL season and already it feels different. Maybe it’s the new retro logo and jerseys. Or maybe it’s the tribute the Leafs paid to players of the past as it retired 11 numbers in honor of 17 players in this its centennial year.
Everything surrounding the Leafs feels different this season. There is a new-found sense of optimism and excitement that hasn’t been a part of the Leafs for years.
The difference became evident from the drop of the puck and the reason for the excitement is entirely the potential of Leafs’ rookies Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner who have re-energized the city and brought excitement back to Toronto.
The Last Two Unwatchable Years
As someone who writes about the Leafs and has been a fan since childhood, believe me when I say the last two years of Leafs hockey have been painfully hard to watch.
Rewind to the dreadful 2014-15 NHL season for the Leafs: A fantastic 18-9-3 start to the season and in position for a wildcard spot gave way to Christmas when the wheels came off as the Leafs fell in seven of its next 10 games.
It resulted in coach Randy Carlyle being fired and replaced by interim coach Peter Horachek. The Leafs went 9-28-5 the rest of the way with Horachek as coach. Never have I seen a team fall apart to the extent as the Leafs did in 2014-15. They didn’t just lose. They were terrible.
Last season was better under Mike Babcock, but again the Leafs finished at the bottom of the NHL standings. It also didn’t help the Leafs had numerous injuries and traded away multiple players at the NHL trading deadline.
The only bright spot last season was when the Leafs called up a number of rookies, specifically William Nylander, after the trade deadline. Over the final 22 games, he became the sole reason for watching the Leafs. Watching those games, it wasn’t about the Leafs — it was about watching Nylander and his fellow rookies on the ice.
Excitement for the Future
Making the playoffs is still a distant hope for the Leafs so another bottom-of-the-league finish is expected. The difference in 2016-17 is the Leafs have made Matthews, Marner and Nylander as permanent fixtures in the lineup.
The trio of rookies make this season more exciting and arguably more watchable than the last three seasons combined. In just the first two games we’ve seen Matthews make history with a record-breaking four-goal game and Marner register his first-career NHL goal while being the most dominant player on the ice at times in each game.
Matthews’ four-goal game ended with a disappointing loss in overtime, yet even with the disappointing finish, it still gives fans hope and excitement — not only this season but future seasons to come. Matthews, Marner and Nylander give fans a reason to watch whether it qualifies for the post-season or not.
Watching a winning team is easy. There is the excitement in the air, the chance at winning the Stanley Cup or at the very least a playoff position to look forward to. But with a team like Toronto, that mentality may not become a reality for a few more years.
The Leafs will most likely find itself on the outside looking in with almost no chance to contend for the Stanley Cup this season but the future is bright behind this core group of freshmen. Where the Leafs end up in the standings is irrelevant. The only thing that is important is how well the rookies gel. It is that reason the Leafs have become watchable again.
Matthews, Marner and Nylander: “How will they play this time?” It’s something I’ve asked myself before each game and that’s all that matters at this point in the season. The Leafs could lose every game, but if the rookies continue to shine the season will be a favorable one.
Toronto Maple Leafs contributor for The Hockey Writers.
I’ve been a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs since I was a kid and have always had an interest in writing. At The Hockey Writers, I get to enjoy both of my passions as well as writing about small convoluted details in player contracts and stats.