The Toronto Maple Leafs experienced a roller coaster ride of emotions throughout 2019. It was a year marked by plenty of success, disappointment, and heartbreak. Many achievements were accomplished, some mistakes were made, and plenty of faces moved on. Overall, despite not achieving the ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup, it ended up being a step in the right direction for the organization.
When the Maple Leafs flipped the calendar to 2019, they were in excellent position. On New Year’s Day, they had the NHL’s second-best record of 26-11-2. Coming off a season where they had a record-setting 105 points, and with John Tavares now in the mix, it was looking promising for the team. While the offense was certainly clicking at a high rate, there still was a need for a steady defenseman to help push the time to the next level.
Maple Leafs Acquire Jake Muzzin
General manager Kyle Dubas made his first big splash of the year by trading a first-round pick for defenseman Jake Muzzin. Being a Maple Leafs fan growing up in Southern Ontario, Muzzin was ecstatic about the trade. Fans of Leafs nation, however? Well, there were mixed reviews. Some people felt Muzzin was not the right-handed defenseman people wanted, and it was a lot to give up for a debatable number two or three d-man. Others argued it was a solid move without giving up the Maple Leafs’ best prospects, and added stability and toughness to the defensive core.
Nylander Becomes New Whipping Boy
After holding out until December 2018 to eventually sign a hefty six-year contract that paid an average of $6.9 million a year, William Nylander was really struggling to produce (from ‘NYLANDER WATCH: Star winger bumped to fourth line in loss,’ Toronto Star, 01/18/2019). At the end of January, Nylander had one goal through 21 games, leaving Leafs nation in an uproar. Fans demanded results after he sat out for big money, and many were quick to call it a terrible signing by Dubas.
Nylander missed the first two months of 2018-19 due to this contract dispute, and his results suffered. Dubas was quick to point out that it was his mistake not to take care of the situation beforehand, and it ended up being one negative storyline in an otherwise successful regular season for the Maple Leafs.
Tavares Makes Return to Long Island
Who can ever forget the performance the fans put on in Tavares’ return to New York to face the Islanders on Feb. 28? Islanders fans felt betrayed after he chose to sign with the Maple Leafs in the offseason, and they made sure he knew. Snakes were thrown on the ice, jerseys were burned outside the arena, and a steady chant of boos were reigned down on Tavares anytime he touched the ice.
While this was an unpleasant experience for Tavares and the Maple Leafs, it showed the anger and resentment a fanbase can have towards a former captain who spent the last nine years wearing their jersey. Tavares was in the midst of an incredible first season with the Maple Leafs, and this incident sure didn’t affect him going forward.
Marner, Hyman, and Tavares Have Career Seasons
The line of Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, and Tavares quickly became the top-scoring threat for this Maple Leafs team. Marner, in his third year with the team, finished with 26 points and 68 assists to lead the team in points with 94 at the end of the year. His linemate, Tavares, also enjoyed a career-season, finishing with a career-high 47 goals and 88 points in his first season wearing blue and white. He also enjoyed his first career four-goal performance against the Florida Panthers on March 25.
Hyman put up a personal-best 21 goals and 41 points in 71 games for the Maple Leafs, and solidified himself as a key contributor for the team. He became a force on the forecheck, and a steady penalty killer on special teams.
Marchand Trolls the Maple Leafs
It was no secret that the Maple Leafs’ salary-cap situation was tight after handing out large contracts to Matthews, Tavares, and Nylander. In the midst of a career season, Marner was nearing the end of his entry-level contract and everyone knew he would be looking to cash in. Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins wasted no time trolling the Maple Leafs in regards to the looming problem.
With a first-round playoff matchup between the Leafs and Bruins becoming increasingly likely, Marchand took to social media to poke some fun at the situation. Luckily, an agreement was made between Marner and the Maple Leafs prior to the beginning of the 2019-20 season. He signed a six-year deal worth $65.3 million and will be a big part of the core going forward.
Maple Leafs Fall to Bruins in Playoffs Again
For the second consecutive year, the Maple Leafs were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs at the hands of the Boston Bruins. The narrative was much different this postseason, as the Maple Leafs held a 3-2 series lead after five games. They had a glorious opportunity to eliminate their rival at home in Game 6, but fell short with a 2-1 defeat. The Bruins had their way with the Maple Leafs at home in Game 7, and took the game convincingly.
There was plenty of discussion surrounding what went wrong for the Maple Leafs. At the center of the scrutiny, was centremen Nazim Kadri. For the second-straight playoffs, Kadri was suspended for multiple games. It really crippled the depth the Maple Leafs had up the middle, and they lost one of their better two-way players.
Dubas and the Maple Leafs’ management team felt enough was enough with Kadri’s antics, and it was time to move on from him. On July 1, Kadri was traded for Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie. There was a case to be made on whether it was the right move, but after 10 seasons wearing the Maple Leaf crest, Kadri was off to Denver, and the Leafs got some much-needed defensive help.
Mike Babcock is Relieved of Duties
After three consecutive first-round exits from the playoffs, Babcock was under fire. His management of the lines during a pivotal Game 7 was questionable, as he didn’t play his high-end talent nearly as much as he should have. Thirty-nine-year-old Patrick Marleau, who looked visibly slow-footed for much of the series, got plenty of ice time late. It was clear, in a do-or-die game, his horses deserved more run.
Dubas decided to bring back Babcock for another year behind the bench in 2019-20. After a mediocre start, the Maple Leafs found themselves in the midst of a six-game losing streak in mid-November. Rumors began to swirl in regards to Babcock being fired and old questions relating to his coaching style re-surfaced.
On Nov. 21, Dubas finally put an end to the Babcock-era in Toronto. In his fifth year behind the Maple Leafs’ bench, Babcock was relieved of his duties. While he achieved three consecutive playoff appearances, and two 100-point seasons, management felt a new voice was needed. The team appeared to be disengaged during the losing streak, and change was the best option.
Keefe Era Begins in Toronto
The Sheldon Keefe era has now begun in Toronto, as Dubas promoted the former Toronto Marlies coach to take over coaching duties for the Maple Leafs. The long-time working relationship between Keefe and Dubas made this an easy fit, and the two share very similar coaching philosophies and styles of play.
It was an eventful year for the players, coaches, and fans of Leafs nation. While another first-round exit is certainly disappointing, they forced a Game 7 with a very solid Bruins team who went on to lose in the Stanley Cup Final. They were able to lock up another superstar player in Marner, and will hope to achieve their ultimate goal in a limited window. It remains to be seen if the new changes coming under Keefe will propel them to that ever so elusive Stanley Cup.
Wilfrid Laurier University Grad. Husband. Covering the Toronto Maple Leafs for THW. FantasyPros/BettingPros Contributor