Custom Search

Things I didn’t expect from the Maple Leafs this season…

Like a lot of Leaf followers, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect coming into the 2016-’17 NHL season. We knew they would play a lot of “kids”.  We doubted (at least many of us) that they could realistically be a playoff contender—much less an actual playoff team. But we figured they may be fun to watch and they certainly have been.

With only 8 games remaining in their schedule, here are some things I honestly did not expect to see this season:

  • Auston Matthews leading the team in scoring. Maybe van Riemsdyk, perhaps Kadri.  But a 19 year-old?
  • Zach Hyman being on the roster and playing 74 games—and not only playing tenacious defense, but earning close to 30 points.
  • Morgan Rielly being a minus 19 so far on the season (though he’s still a key guy for us, obviously).
  • Mitch Marner being a go-to player already. Wow.
  • That we could have a legitimate debate about who the best all-around Leaf rookie is—and that there would be so many names in the discussion.
  • That more than one Maple Leaf could/should receive serious consideration for the Calder Trophy.
  • I was expecting that Andersen would be a good goaltender—we all saw that he was a capable NHL goalie before this season. But that, after a middlish start to the current season, I wasn't expecting that he would settle in and be mostly outstanding in one of hockey’s toughest markets, on a team that wasn't supposed to be very good yet. That's been impressive.
  • I wasn’t sure if Kadri would step forward or step back this year. For the most part he has brought his “A” game most nights. He has always been a player with unquestioned talent, but maybe the whole package was not always in evidence. It is more often now, it seems.
  • That Jake Gardiner would be a plus 25 on the season. I have often been concerned about Gardiner’s play in his own zone through his years in Toronto, but used to suggest here that Gardiner could score 20 goals in a season because of his offensive skills. While that hasn’t happened, he has certainly brought his game to a higher level overall, it seems.
  • That Connor Brown would be this important to the team this soon.
  • That Leo Komarov would still be here—and still be an edgy catalyst that a team like the Leafs need.
  • That Tyler Bozak would survive all the previous purges and remain a steady contributor on a playoff-bound team.
  • That we haven’t trade away van Riemsdyk, who I think remains an important guy for the Leafs. (I’d rather see him here than elsewhere, though we will need to bring in some help on the blueline next year, I suspect.) 
  • That Polak, a heart and soul guy I really like (on this note, many of you no doubt remember guys like Danny Markov and DmitryYushkevich), is still a fit for Babcock’s roster.

This is all by way of saying…in this instance, things I am surprised to see is a very good thing.  I did not expect to be talking this late in the season about the Leafs having a shot at the playoffs when training camp kicked off way back in in September.

To me, despite the loss to the Sabres (and here’s hoping Andersen will be OK) on Saturday night, it just feels as though the Leafs can play with anyone now just about every night.

I wasn't expecting that, either.

What has surprised you about the Leafs this season?


  1. as usual, i enjoy reading your updates michael.
    even though i should be used seeing it, matthews' age jumped off the page to me... 19. incredible!
    i am also a bit surprised that bozak remains on the team despite massive changes that have occurred around him. i think he's fully cemented/earned his place on the roster at this point.
    you didn't mention nylander, and i must say i enjoy his speed and nimbleness handling the puck.
    as an aside, it seems that this season has seen your fewest updates. i'm wondering if it is not more exciting for you to write (and us to comment), when there is greater uncertainty in the air? now that things seem to be on an intelligent, well-developed path, perhaps the team ironically loses a little bit of the excitment for us?

    1. Always good to hear from you, Alex. Yes, Matthews has proven to be every bit as good as his "press clippings" prior to the draft. Possibly even better.

      Agree on Nylander- Before this season, I wasn't sure where he was on the development curve in terms of living up to his potential. But he has certainly blossomed.

      I have indeed written less this season. That's a function of a lot of things, but it's true there is less to bat around in terms of what should be done differently when a team is well coached and managed! Thanks Alex.

  2. Hello Michael. Good read as usual:)
    I cannot disagree with much you said.
    I would also add that not many thought the rookies would be driving the team for a few years yet but there is next to zero chance the Leafs are anywhere near sniffing the playoffs without them. Even if they do not make it this year it is a fantastic learning experience for them and a massive step toward building the "right winning culture" for the future.

    1. Absolutely agree, Pep. They needed consistent goaltending- and they needed (but couldn't really have expected) the kids to be this good, to get this far. But things have shifted for the better, for sure.

  3. How we execute high skilled plays at top speed. How presion cross ice tape to tape passes are routine play's whiLe we wait for for marner magic. How when we're humming we have 3 deadly lines that remind me of team north America from world cup. 100th year chasing the cup. If we get in and stars align ...Cup or bust.

  4. I'm with you on the Team North America comparison, Anon- skill and speed.

  5. Right now I am looking forward to the Leafs Preds game which is a very important game for both teams with the Leafs in a battle to make the playoffs. Playing meaningful games at this time of the year is something we haven't seen for years.
    A year ago I guess I still mostly watched the Leafs although sometimes I just checked to see how they were doing and of course I was hoping they would be losing for obvious reasons. What a change, it has been so long I almost forgot what it was like to have a decent hockey team to cheer for. Win or lose I have to think this has been a successful season and the Leafs could even potentially win a round or two in the playoffs. I could see them beating both the Sens and the Habs and definitely expect to see them keep improving and actually challenging for the Cup in a few years. It also doesn't take a television hockey analyst to realize when you have 19 and 20 year old rookies setting records that it only a matter of time until they start dominating the league.

    For the most part all of the pre-season predictions from The Hockey News, Sportsnet, TSN and other magazines had the Leafs finishing last. I thought the Leafs could make the playoffs this year if they could stay healthy and play the way I thought they should given everything I had heard about elite level skill they had. What surprises me most is how everything has come together for all of the rookies not just two or three. Looking at each player individually they are all doing exactly what I hoped. We knew Auston would be good and Nylander was rated as one of top top prospects in the NHL a year ago. Marner was an elite player and I recall reading a lot of scouts actually said he had Connor McDavid skill and only lacked the physical size. Zaitev was an unknown but at the same time was a top KHL player and looked solid in the World Cup.

    It has taken a long time to get to where the Leafs are now and I was just reading an interview with Rick Dudley from June 2012 that I saved on my computer which makes me think it really takes a lot of work, good drafting, smart trades and also luck to build a winner. Winning the lottery and Auston Matthews probably moved the Leaf rebuild ahead by a full year. In the article Rick Dudley had just joined the Habs and gave his thoughts on the current state of where the Leafs were and I saved it because it had me really excited about the Leafs future.

    Apparently the Leafs were a lot closer than it looked and Dudley knew because he been in identical situations in Tampa and Chicago where a really bad team turned things around quickly because of all their young talent. Rick goes on to say the Leafs needed a goalie and Burkie would get one and they also needed a No. 1 centre. Those were the priorities after that they were pretty much set. He says Blacker, Holzer, Granberg and Percy were all going to be good NHL defenseman and that Schenn may not be a #1 but could still be a good #4. He also mentions prospects like Colborne who he thought could be a #2 center and Biggs, Ashton, and Frattin.

    I guess hindsight is 20/20 but the players they have now are actual elite skilled players on the team and the players we hoped would be good five years ago are either not in the NHL or marginal players at best. Anyway after being a Leafs fan now for over sixty years I'm am starting to realize that what you think you have and what they say you have may not be what you actually have.

    Finally the Leafs really do have what I think they have and these are actual players doing it on the team right now not talented skilled guys in the system that they keep telling us will be good players in the near future which never seemed to actually come.

    1. We're on the same page, Alton. I think over the years we've hoped the Leafs were building some good young teams, but for a variety of reasons things never quite developed as fans had hoped.

      Now, it is evident this team has talent. They can skate and make plays. Andersen is very capable. I'm sure there are ways they can get better in the years ahead but they have cornerstone players to build around now without question.

      It's always good to have young players with potential in the pipeline. It's even better when you have young players on the roster who are already NHL difference makers. Thanks Alton.

  6. Dear Michael,

    Oh, how I miss your posts. This has been the most reasonable Leafs fan-site for years - even-keeled and mature, respectful and never falling into whatever the latest fad has been as most other young bloggers are want to do. A place for grown-ups. I really hope to hear more from you as we enter the postseason.

    You may have noticed that, as my name suggests, I've been pretty optimistic over the years and this year is no different - I have my sights set on the Cup now and I cannot help but feel like it's actually possible and fitting for us to win in this centennial season and on the 50th anniversary of the last time our Leafs won the Cup.

    Why? Because we have the best coach and management crew in the game, by far the best collection of rookies in the game and, and this is key, because we didn't sell off our veterans at the trade deadline.

    If am I surprised at all about anything this season it is that we didn't cash-in at the deadline. I am not surprised that we are doing so well - we knew we had those top-picks coming in, we knew that we had a good development program and, when we traded for Andersen, it was hard to doubt Lou's decision as he has the distinction of having picked the right goalies throughout his career (Brodeur and then Schneider).

    Anyone that watched the games over the last two seasons, beginning with Horacheck replacing Carlyle, could see that the team was a lot better than the results indicated and that the Shannaplan was to tank while teaching kids how to play ‘the right way’ – Horacheck’s team was practically not allowed to play offense and last year’s team was playing without the top players whether because they were traded like Kessel and Phaneuf or because they were ‘injured’ or simply sat as Bernier was towards the end of the season in favour of young Sparks who wasn’t even healthy enough to play, let alone ready to take the sails in NHL.

    A logical continuation of that ‘plan’ was to trade the rest of the vets at the trade deadline, miss the playoffs again, and draft another nice crop of kids in the summer and I braced myself for that outcome all year, enjoying watching the rookies and hoping for the outside chance of success despite the management’s best efforts. When we stood pat and even added veteran depth at the deadline I was very surprised but I also realized that we’re ‘going for it’ this year. And by ‘going for it’ I don’t mean just gunning for the playoffs, but for the Cup. The Shannaplan was only delayed by a few months – nothing drastic was done – but the tank was called off. Genius!

  7. Why not the Cup this year? I can think of a few reasons people could come up with – the kids are too young, our vets are not exceptional, our defense is porous, we have no proven winners on the roster and you just don’t go from last to first – I don’t think that’s ever happened before in the modern era. Fair enough, but I’ll leave you with a few reasons why we may well win it all this year:

    - Lou Lamoriello is on a 3 year contract and running out of time being old and he wants to win to show the Leafs that he’s still got it and that they should sign him for the rest of his life.

    - Mike Babcock is the best coach in the world and bar-down best when it comes to elimination games and best-on-best situations like he’s proven in the World Cups and Olympics. If he is going for it, and he is, watch out.

    - All our elders are on board. Wendel is commenting on Matthews’s beating his rookie scoring record, praising the kids every chance he gets, and hanging around the locker-room, numbers have finally been retired, the legends’ row is being built and, most importantly, arguably the greatest Leaf of all (Dave Keon) has been given respect and brought back into the fold.

    - The rookies are winners and have no attachment to the losing past. Same goes for Babcock and Lou – they’ve repeated this enough publically already and it’s true.

    - Shannaplan continues – winning will inflate the value of our vets – Bozak and JVR with a ring are worth a lot more than as losers who haven’t taken their team to the postseason year after year. The only way standing pat at the deadline makes sense from ‘looking ahead to the future’ perspective is if the plan is to inflate the value of the veterans. They are hungry and will play their hearts out, not only because they want to leave the losing past behind them, but because they know they will get paid if they do well.

    - The numbers: 50 since the last Cup and 100 since the Club started – it’s just too perfect not to work out.

    It’s time to believe. The Cup is coming to Toronto. What better time than now?

    1. You raise, as always, some very good points, leafdreamer. A lot of things have transpired over the past two seasons, almost all good with regard to building the team- and organization.

      The points you raise (team is too young, iffy defense, not enough guys from winning teams, etc.) are indeed realistic reasons why this team may not go far in the playoffs. But as you also note, a lot of things balance that out, too.

      So, we'll see just how ready this group is. I suspect they'll compete hard, and hang with just about anyone.

      One thing I will add to your post: trading away their "vets" for even more future draft picks and prospects may well have been an expected next step in Shanahan's plan for building the roster going forward. But I sense you will likely agree that while we can't necessarily "measure" the benefit of finally making the playoffs for the guys on this roster, I suspect it will actually mean quite a lot for them- and not only as it pertains to the future trade value of some of the young veterans

      I think the idea of learning how to win is always a good thing. Sometimes a team doesn't necessarily have a craftyGary Roberts-type older player to teach them the way- they have to figure it out for themselves.

      So whether this Leaf squad advances in the playoffs or lasts one round, it will all be part of building a winning culture, where expectations are high and players learn to hate losing.

      I remember the late 1950s when Punch Imlach re-built the Leafs. They lost in the playoffs three years in a row, but kept building before going on to win three Cups in a row. It's a very different time and era, of course. But the Leafs are indeed building a very strong roster.

      Thanks leafdreamer- I do hope to post more regularly at playoff time.

  8. As Lou often says, management has a 5-year plan that changes every day. I don't believe anyone thought this year's team would make the playoffs. My expectation was that the plan called for development of the rookies, having them learn how to "play the right way", as Babcock often says, and then making some moves at the trade deadline to bolster the club for the future. But... the plan changed. The rookies have been nothing short of phenomenal, the goaltending has been solid, and here we are looking at the very real possibility of making the playoffs - perhaps as high as second in the division. I think the decision was made to go for the playoffs because there's no other way to gain the experience of what it's like to play under that "must-win" pressure than to be in them. (Though the last 10 days has been pretty "must-win" pressure-packed, and the team hasn't wilted yet). Anything can happen in a short series, as every team says, but I have no grand expectations this year. To be honest, it's all gravy at this point! What I'm really looking forward to - and I haven't felt this way in years - is what's coming down the line for Leaf fans. That promises to be exciting!

  9. As you mentioned Gerund O', the Leafs have, in a sense, already handled pressure very well. Of course we all understand that playoffs are different still, but fighting to get into the playoffs is surely an experience that will benefit this young team. And that they have already earned a measure of success in big games means something.

    You're right, Gerund, there is legitimate hope for the future now. Nothing is guaranteed, but this team should only get better and better.

  10. Hi Michael,

    This season really didn't surprise me much, but I am forever the optimist.

    From following the Marlies all these years, I thought I had a good gauge of the prospects, not just the A level like Nylander, but I had some faith in the next tier, Hyman, Brown, Sosh, Leivo even Gauthier. From his international play, I was quite sure Zaitsev would be a top 4 NHL defenseman. Mathews, I named him lanky Crosby. I think 34 will be close to a generational talent.

    It's a historic collection of prospects right there. At the beginning of the season I would tell people that I thought the kids were good enough to make the playoffs:

    "From 30th to the playoffs?"
    "Yep, the kids are that good."

    Two things surprised me, I thought the defense would be better earlier. The other was Mitch Marner. I wasn't even sure he could play in the NHL, yet, maybe never. There have been tiny record setting junior players that don't quite produce at the same level in the NHL. Many top out as AHL superstars or middling NHL players.

    Wow, was I wrong. Marner looks so much better year and a half later. He looks to be a legitimate NHL star.

    1. I know your have for many years followed Toronto's prospect pipeline very closely, DP, so I'm not surprised you saw this coming. It's taken a long time but it may prove to have been worth the wait.

      With regard to Marner, there are, as you said, so many young players with talent at the junior level. It's not always easy for that to translate to the NHL. But he is certainly a big [part of the Leafs future- and present. Thanks DP.