Toronto Maple Leafs: NHL’s Best Top-6?

The Toronto Maple Leafs boast an impressive amount of players with a knack for finding the score sheet. With Patrick Marleau signing as a free agent this summer, the Leafs added a player fresh off of a 27-goal season to an already incredible top-6 forward group. One thing’s for sure in today’s NHL, a deep offense can make a major difference.

At the end of 2016-17 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins proved that elite scoring spread throughout the lineup can win you a Stanley Cup, and even back-to-back Cups. It helps that the team boasts probably the two best centres in the NHL.

Phil Kessel, Olli Maatta, Sidney Crosby and Scott Wilson (Mandatory Credit Don Wright-USA TODAY Sports)

The Leafs, however, are on their way to becoming one of the best offensive teams. They aren’t blessed with the 1-2 centre combo that the Penguins have, but there are reasons to be optimistic. Led by Auston Matthews, the forward group is a good combination of youth and older dynamic players with a top-6 that includes Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, James van-Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri and either of Marleau or Tyler Bozak.

Toronto Maple Leafs, Tyler Bozak, NHL
(Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

As of right now, it’s unclear if Marleau will play in the top-6. It will depend on how Mike Babcock would like to use him. The Leafs’ top-6 combined for a total of 368 points last season (not including Marleau). If you count Marleau’s stats and subtract Bozak’s, the combined total is 360 points, a decent number if you compare it to the Penguins.

Pens vs. Leafs Comparison

The Penguins have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Connor Sheary, Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist rounding out their top-6 forwards. Combined, they scored a total of 361 points last season. Only Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Sheary cracked the 50-point plateau, whereas Toronto had 5 forwards with over 60 points. It’s incredible that the Leafs have such balanced scoring.

The most exciting part about this comparison is that the Leafs are just getting started. They had a 19-year-old 40-goal scorer on their team and two other players under the age of 21 who had at least 60 points. If you add in a proven veteran in Marleau, a recent 30-goal scorer in Kadri and a consistent contributor in JVR, you can understand understand the comparison to the Stanley Cup champions.

Nazem Kadri, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL
It was a career year for Nazem Kadri, who reached the 30-goal plateau and 60-point mark. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If we focus on goals scored instead of points, it’s an even closer comparison. The Penguins’ top-6 scored a total of 160 goals last season, the same number as the Leafs’ top-6. However, the Leafs have added a 27-goal scorer to their lineup with Marleau heading into 2017-18.

It should be noted that the Leafs were very lucky in terms of injuries last season. Their top-6 had a total of 482 games played between them, whereas the Penguins’ top-6 only played 390, indicating that the Penguins’ top-6 produced at a better rate in terms of points-per-game. However, the Leafs are younger, loaded with potential, and have added a proven veteran goal scorer.

It’s tough to compare the Leafs to the Pens, given that the Leafs haven’t won back-to-back Cups and don’t have two of the best centres in the league. But, since the Leafs forwards haven’t reached their potential yet, it’s easy to be optimistic and say the best is yet to come for the young team, and maybe they will outshine the Penguins offensively next season.

Predictions for the Young Leafs

With all of the success the Leafs young studs had last season, is it possible to improve upon their stellar rookie seasons? The answer is yes, by adding strength and experience they are expected to improve. Matthews could easily score another 40 goals and could realistically elevate his totals to around a point-per-game pace. In doing so, Matthews would be considered a top-10 NHL forward, maybe even top-5.

Auston Matthews, NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs
(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Both Nylander and Marner are capable of consistently contributing, and could improve on their recent 60-point seasons. A 70-point campaign isn’t out of reach for either of these young studs. Nylander has a deadly shot with a wicked release and I expect to see a lot more of these highlights once the 2017-18 season rolls around:

Expect Nylander to improve on his 22-goal campaign. The Swede will continue to be a weapon on the power play and a threat whenever he touches the ice. A shot that hard and accurate could net 30 goals next season.

The Scare of the Sophomore Slump

With so many dominant rookies last season, should the Leafs be worried about the sophomore slump?

Although it can happen to anyone, the likelihood that it happens to all of the Leafs’ rookies at the same time is slim-to-none. Even if one or two were to have a disappointing year, the Leafs have enough talent to pick up the slack.

Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs
(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

If the Leafs were to improve their defence with a trade, they would be on the brink of Cup contention next season. Marleau wants to win and he chose Toronto as the destination that gives him the best chance. His decision to commit, what will likely be, his last three seasons in the NHL speaks wonders as to how far along the team has come.

With the expected progression of the rookies heading into the 2017-18 and the addition of veteran scoring, maybe the Leafs do boast the best top-6 forward group in the league, even better than the Penguins.