Really, what is there to complain about when it comes to the Maple Leafs so far in the 2016-’17 NHL season? They are on the outside looking on when it comes to a playoff spot, but who was assuming they would be in the playoffs in any event?
Most of us have been looking for a sense of direction, of progress. And we're seeing that.
This is a young, emerging team with (finally) plenty of assets. They are well coached. The management team brings a wide range of views and experiences to every major decision. The future is hopeful, indeed.
In terms of the standings, well, only 28 points in 28 games does not tell the whole story. They’ve been in virtually every game—and have often held leads against some top teams but not always being able to close the deal, as was the case Tuesday night at the ACC against the visiting Sharks—last season’s Cup finalists.
They’ve beaten Boston twice (including once in Boston this past weekend), Nashville, Philadelphia and Washington—all highly regarded teams.
Most importantly, they look like one of those teams that will be a lot better in two years than it is now. No one is expecting a championship this season. But there is an expectation from the fan base that within the next two or three years, this will be a contending team. They may well be.
Some thoughts as the Leafs head toward the Christmas break:
- There were concerns around Frederik Andersen early on this season, because he was struggling a bit with his new club. But he has played some good hockey in recent weeks (at times much better than good), providing the Leafs most nights with the caliber of goaltending they will need to contend when they turn the corner for good.
- I know Auston Matthews is not a cruncher like Eric Lindros, but there are some ways the Leaf rookie reminds me a bit of the former Flyer leader. He moves awfully well for someone his size and gets places quickly. He’s smart, and seems to know where the puck will be. Hard to believe sometimes he really is only 19.
- I saw that Babcock stressed recently how well he thought Jake Gardiner has been playing and how much he has improved. My concern with Gardiner over the years has always been his play in his own zone and around his net. He’s always been an excellent skater with good offensive skills. (I once opined here years ago he had the ability to score 20 goals a season from the blueline. I’ve not been prophetic on that one…) That said, we’ll see if he really can continue to consistently develop the defensive part of his game over time.
- I would not have forecast at the beginning of training camp that Zach Hyman would be providing what he has to the Leafs—being that solid checking forward with just enough offensive punch to make him a two-way threat.
- It’s good to see Roman Polak playing pretty regularly. He’s not a big minutes guy, but he brings the kind of grit I like to see. He just seems like a big hearted, rugged, team-first individual, the kind of player every team needs.
- I’ve always liked Leo Komarov as a Leaf. Like Polak, he has always been a hard driving, determined player who is hard to play against. That said, I do wonder if he would bring something useful in a trade at the deadline. He may mean more to a contending team looking for a third-line grinder. My concern is that Komarov may not be able to continue to play the hard-driving style he has in the past by the time the Leafs are a contending squad.
There are many other players we could talk about who have made contributions already this season. Kadri, for sure. But in short, doesn't it seem as though just about everyone is pulling their weight? Who of the kids—Nylander, Brown, Marner, and the aforementioned Matthews and Hyman—hasn’t continued to show us something most nights? They will all no doubt hit rookie walls throughout the course of a long season, but they are helping make the Leafs fun to watch again—which is not something we have said too often here at VLM over the past few seasons.
Sure the team has flaws, and still needs some upper-tier defensemen, I think. But making roster adjustments is all part of the building process.
Over the past couple of years especially, as I have posted less often here, it has often felt as though there has not been that much to write about. And VLM contributors have often suggested they weren’t even watching the Leafs as regularly any more, because the games weren’t enjoyable, and the team was seemingly headed nowhere.
My guess is that’s no longer the case. Every Leaf suppoter knows there’s still a long way to go—but maybe before too long, we can talk here about more than just hope, but instead about a team that is on the verge of doing something that longtime fans can get genuinely excited about.