I believe the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to make a long postseason run this season. I think this is the best team the organization has put together in many seasons, for as long as I can remember.
First, I think the team has the skill to go a long way. Second, I think the team has the depth to cover injuries. Third, I think the team’s leadership is growing in maturity. Finally, I think they believe they can win the Stanley Cup.
Reason One: This Season’s Team Is Different
This team seems to have matured, especially in its top three young forwards – Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. Nylander, for all of his “ability” to lose defensive focus from time to time, can ramp it up when he needs to. He showed that ability during the postseason last year.
The team has the ability to take over the game to win it. They are an offensive juggernaut. Even when they lose these days, it’s seldom because they fail to show up. For example, they might have lost last night’s game to the Dallas Stars – every overtime is a crapshoot; but, they dominated the Stars offensively by a shot differential of 41-18.
The Maple Leafs are so much more physical this season than in the other four seasons I’ve covered. Even Marner has picked up his physical play. Ilya Lyubushkin adds a physical presence. Jake Muzzin’s back and, if he isn’t injured again during the postseason, his physical play will make a huge difference.
Reason Two: Matthews and Marner Have Grown
Auston Matthews has generated so much metaphorical ink – or cursor movements might be more accurate – recently with his onslaught on the Maple Leafs’ franchise goal-scoring in a single-season record was once held by Rick Vaive. He’s skilled, there’s no mistake about it. However, he’s much more than a skilled scorer.
This season Matthews is a different player. About three seasons ago, Maple Leafs’ President Brandan Shanahan predicted that Matthews would become one of the best defensive players in the NHL. He’s doing just that. Even newcomer defenseman Mark Giordano noted that, since he came to the team, it’s been amazing to see the strength of Matthews’ 200-foot game. Giordano notes that Matthews does many great things on defense.
Mitch Marner has come back from his injury and his bout with COVID-19 with a vengeance and a different attitude. He’s scoring like he’s never scored before. He’s leading like he’s never led before. He’s more determined than he’s ever been before.
Even with only the single assist he had in last night’s Stars’ game, Marner’s put up an amazing total of 27 points over his last 12 games. He’s now up to 89 points, which is tied for sixth in the NHL with Matthew Tkachuk (and Tkachuk has played 71 games to Marner’s 62 games).
However, more key is that both these young players have decided they’ll lead this team into the postseason. Perhaps I’m imagining things, but I thought Matthews entered the season believing this team was THE team and he was THE player to do the leading. I believe Marner’s game has amped up because he’s caught the belief as well.
Last season in early June, just after the team was eliminated from the postseason, Matthews was asked in his exit interview about trading his first-line partner Marner. In that interview, Matthews was civil but gently dismissive. He quickly shut down the entire idea and suggested that the media person “have fun with that” thought.
During the interview, I came to believe Matthews came to link his own hockey interests with his partner’s and with the team’s – even against the Toronto media if need be. Obviously, I could be wrong. But I believe that exchange was a moment of clarity for Matthews’ determination to win the Cup.
Reason Three: The Maple Leafs Have Depth and Experience
Last season’s postseason was notable for the team’s surprising loss to the upstart Montreal Canadiens. What that postseason showed was that the Maple Leafs’ reliance on its top four players couldn’t work if its top four players weren’t their top four players. The Canadiens negated Matthews and Marner; and, of course, the team lost John Tavares to a concussion in Game One. Only William Nylander performed well of the top four. Alex Kerfoot helped, but that twosome wasn’t enough to carry the team.
The Maple Leafs were not deep enough to overcome key injuries. As a result, with Tavares, Zach Hyman, Nick Foligno, and Muzzin all hurt they weren’t able to compete. Matthews and Marner were gassed by the time Game 7 came.
During the postseason, depth and experience can be keys. This season, the team has added depth with Michael Bunting, the addition of a viable third line with David Kampf and Ondrej Kase (when he can play), and the emergence of Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall’s newfound use of their speed. Even newcomer Colin Blackwell plays hard and well.
That’s not even mentioning the key additions to the team’s defense of Ilya Lyubushkin and Giordano. The defense is as good as it’s been in many seasons. Considering the game experience for the Maple Leafs’ defense, it matters that Giordano has played 1,013 regular-season games, now counting the playoffs. It matters that they are all a season older.
Postseason games are usually close affairs. Certainly, they’re about skills and luck; however, these games are often settled by one team taking advantage of the mistakes their opponents make at key points during a game. As talented as young players might be, they often are more prone to mistakes than experienced players. Perhaps that’s one reason that Timothy Liljegren has played so well with Giordano.
How the Play Will Settle Out, No One Knows
The Maple Leafs are more ready than they’ve ever been for the postseason. Even their head coach Sheldon Keefe has grown in his ability to coach at this level. He’s been tinkering with lineup possibilities for the past few weeks, and his team is still winning. He has his team playing well, and the special teams are nothing short of great.
The depth and the experience the team has is vastly improved. There’s no arguing the team’s skill. It’s been a long time since the Maple Leafs have been this solid on defense. The on-ice team leadership has (to my mind) determined this is the season.
The remaining wild card is the play of the team’s goalies. Can they make the stops they need to make to allow their team to win? What gives me the most hope in this area is the love affair this team has with its goalie Jack Campbell. I have a feeling they’d try to win it just for him.
The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act).
If you wonder why he doesn’t use his real name, it’s because his son – who’s also Jim Parsons – wrote for The Hockey Writers first and asked Jim Sr. to use another name so readers wouldn’t confuse their work.
Because Jim Sr. had worked in China, he adopted the Mandarin word for teacher (老師). The first character lǎo (老) means “old,” and the second character shī (師) means “teacher.” The literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” That became his pen name. Today, other than writing for The Hockey Writers, he teaches graduate students research design at several Canadian universities.
He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf