The Toronto Maple Leafs are on a six game losing streak, although they managed to get a point out of the Buffalo Sabres before losing in the shootout. The Maple Leafs last win was before the trade deadline and the team now looks more like the Toronto Marlies than the Toronto Maple Leafs, but despite that the Maple Leafs are playing the best hockey they’ve played all season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ Roster At A Glance
Looking at Toronto’s lineup since the NHL trade deadline has looked like an attempt to play the worst roster possible. Since the trade deadline the Toronto Maple Leafs have had 8 AHL players in their lineup, and Colin Greening and Ben Smith are part of that count since they’ve spent the season playing in the minors, which makes up almost half of the roster. No disrespect to the Toronto Marlies’ players they’ve called up, but with that many AHL player in the lineup at the same time doesn’t give much confidence in the team.
The reason Toronto’s lineup has looked so bad is because of injuries to the top line and depth players. The players that are injured are: Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, P.A. Parenteau, which makes up Toronto’s top line. Joffrey Lupul, Byron Froese, Stephane Robidas (although he hasn’t even played this season), Milan Michalek who just played his first game on Monday against the Buffalo Sabres after missing a month, and just recently injured Matt Hunwick.
The impact these injuries have had on the team has been slightly negated by the improved play of Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, both of whom have helped stabilize Toronto’s defense since the absence of a veteran presence. Although it may not be Gardiner’s most productive season with 24 points in 62 games, it has been his best season defensibly. His play overall has improved over the course of the season in all aspects to the point that Gardiner is playing a lot like he did when he first came to Toronto.
The Kids Are Alright
Even though the Toronto Maple Leafs look pretty bad on paper they’ve played their best hockey since calling up all of those AHL players. Although neither of them are considered young Colin Greening and Ben Smith, who came to the Maple Leafs in trades, have been great with Brooks Laich on the fourth line. They haven’t put up many points together, but they’ve managed to put a lot of pressure on the opposing team in their end and have all played really well for players that were deemed to not be good enough by their previous teams.
Lamoriello says Leafs consider Connor Carrick an 'A' prospect
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) February 29, 2016
Connor Carrick has been fantastic since coming over to Toronto in the trade with the Washington Capitals. The praise that general manager Lou Lamoriello gave the 21-year-old defenseman seemed a bit exaggerated initially, but after watching him play a few games the label of being a top prospect looks accurate. Despite being on the small side at 5’11, Carrick has looked calm every time he has the puck and is making a breakout play, and he has been solid defensively as well. I would expect him to be part of the defensive core going forward.
The rest of the call-ups have all looked great, but easily the two standouts have been William Nylander and Nikita Soshnikov. In their first five NHL games they’ve both scored their first career NHL goal and coach Mike Babcock has relied heavily on them in important situations, with either killing a penalty or playing the last few minutes trying to tie the game up. They are both highly skilled players that are NHL calibre players already into their young hockey careers.
The major difference between the Toronto Maple Leafs before and after the trade deadline is that after the deadline the team has put effort into every period of every game. The passing has been crisp and quick, and the overall speed of the games have doubled from how they played earlier in the season. Since the kids have been called-up the Maple Leafs have only lost by a single goal in each of their games. Yes they are still losing, but what really matters is that this team is in every game in terms of effort and is playing to win till the buzzer goes.
This has been the most exciting hockey I’ve personally seen the Toronto Maple Leafs play since they battled the Boston Bruins in the playoffs of the 2012-13 season. This shows that the Toronto Maple Leafs have a very bright and exciting future with these young players part of the future of the team.
* Featured image provided by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers