A shortened NHL season didn’t stop the Toronto Maple Leafs from creating a number of storylines as a team in 2019-20. From the firing of their coach, to the debut of their new bench boss, to nearly career bests for Auston Matthews and William Nylander, the Maple Leafs have a lot to look back on from the COVID-19 shortened season.
Some of the storylines – like the numerous injuries suffered by their players and the canning of Mike Babcock – weren’t exactly positive takes from the season. But, along with my colleague Peter Baracchini, we’ll look back on a couple of the Maple Leafs more impressive stories from the past season.
Baracchini: Matthews’ Falls Short in Quest for Rocket Richard Trophy
It only took one game for Maple Leafs’ sniper Auston Matthews to make his mark on the league and potentially become one of the league’s premier goal scorers. Since then, he hasn’t looked back. He’s a dominant and consistent goal-scoring machine and this season alone solidified that statement.
From early on this season, Matthews’ goal scoring seemed to be on another level. In his first three games this season, Matthews scored five goals and eight in his first 10. The goals didn’t stop there; he was just getting warmed up. After dealing with some injuries the last tow seasons, which put a dent in him achieving any chance at a Rocket Richard Trophy, this seemed to be his time to add more hardware along with his Calder Trophy back in 2016-17.
Matthews was on an excellent pace throughout the season, on pace for 55 goals, and was inching closer to the 50-goal mark as the end of the season drew near. He was constantly in a dogfight with Boston Bruins’ forward David Pastrnak and Washington Capitals’ sniper Alex Ovechkin (no surprise there).
With 10 multi-goal games this year and only one goal separating Matthews (47) from Pastrnak and Ovechkin (both with 48), it’s quite possible that there could’ve been a three-way tie. The only time that happened was back in 2003-04 when Jarome Iginla, Rick Nash and Ilya Kovalchuk shared the award with 41 goals.
Then the sports world came to a halt when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, suspending the seasons of every major sports league in North America. In a time where everyone looked forward to sports every day, it became an afterthought as the health and safety of the athletes, staff and fans, became a priority. Obviously this is more important, but deep down, it’s sad to see an elite goal scorer come this close and not achieve another milestone in his career.
Related: Maple Leafs’ 50-Goal Scorers
Matthews was aiming for another club record. He would’ve been the first Maple Leafs player to score 50 goals since Dave Andreychuk notched 53 back in 1993-94. He would’ve joined Andreychuk (two-time 50-goal scorer), Gary Leeman and Rick Vaive (three times) as the only other Maple Leafs to hit the 50-goal mark. Since then, players have come close. Mats Sundin recorded 41 in 1996-97 and again in 2001-02 (three way tie for second in goals in the NHL) and John Tavares nearly hit the mark with 47 last season (third in goals).
If there was no pandemic, with 12 games left and already sitting at 47, it’s very possible that Matthews could tie Vaive’s record of 54 or even beat and hold the Maple Leafs record. The fact that the season was cut short just seemed bad timing in a time where things seemed to be going right for the Maple Leafs.
While Matthews came up short this time around, this won’t be his one and only time to get to 50 goals. He’s 22 and he’s definitely going to hit that mark multiple times.
Forbes: Nylander On Pace for Career Year
Matthews wasn’t the only Maple Leafs player set to have a career year when it came to an offensive category. While in past seasons William Nylander took a lot of heat for his play – from me included – the young Swede was on pace for his best season in the NHL.
Prior to the 2019-20 season, Nylander’s career best in points was 61 – a mark he reached in 2016-17 and again in 2017-18. He followed that up with a 27-point campaign in 2018-19 in just 54 games due to injury and a contract dispute to start the season and it started looking more and more like he was never going to reach the ceiling that was advertised when the Maple Leafs drafted him eighth overall in 2014.
But, something clicked in 2019-20. His fifth season in the league, fourth full campaign, and at 23 years old Nylander’s play seemed to be maturing ever so slightly to benefit his overall production.
Prior to this past season, Nylander was averaging 0.68 points per game over his first four seasons. With 59 points in the first 68 games of the 2019-20 campaign, he not only was on pace for and 86-point campaign, but he raised his overall career average to 0.72 points per game.
Better yet, a player who had only scored a career-high 22 goals back in 2016-17, Nylander already had 31 goals through 68 games. That put him on pace for 37 goals and offensive numbers that would justify his contract a lot more to skeptics around the hockey world.
Like it did with Matthews, the pandemic and overall suspension of the league came at a bad time for the 23-year-old Nylander as he seemed to finally be silencing the doubters out there. He was fourth on the team in scoring and more pressure was taken of his shoulders it seemed, which allowed him to play the relatively contactless game that he’s so used to playing.
While it would’ve been nice to see Nylander reach a new high in points and earn back the confidence that was lost in him by Leafs nation, the fact that he was able to do what he did through 68 games needs to be highlighted when talking about the team’s 2019-20 regular season campaign.
After all, Nylander will likely be wearing blue and white for quite some time going forward. Even if he remains a 75-point guy from hear on out, the jump in his overall development seems promising for a team that waited five years to see the top end of his game.
Both highlights of the Maple Leafs’ season, there were a number of other storylines that are worth talking about in relation to the shortened season, but from our standpoint, Matthews’ and Nylander’s offensive seasons have to be two of the top headlines for the team looking back.
What was your top storyline from the Maple Leafs’ 2019-20 shortened season? Let us know what you think in the comment section.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.