In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs’ Quick Hits, I’ll take a look at the team’s preparation for the postseason. This team might be the best Maple Leafs team – more prepared for a long playoff run – than any team in decades.
Will the team win? That’s yet to be determined. However, there’s a chance. And, the rest of the NHL knows it. The Maple Leafs might be a scary team to face once the postseason begins.
Quick Hit One: This Maple Leafs Team Is Maturing
This season’s Maple Leafs’ team has matured, especially in its top three young forwards – Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. Nylander has scored 31 goals on the season. Every once in a while, he gets scolded for a defensive lapse; however, he can turn a game when he needs to. He was also one of the best players during the postseason last year.
The team has the ability to be an offensive juggernaut. They’re starting to come to play every game – except against the Buffalo Sabres it seems. Even when they lose, they rarely fail to show up. They can dominate offensively and regularly have a great shot differential than their opponents. The best defense is to play in the other team’s zone, it seems.
The Maple Leafs are more physical this season than in other seasons I’ve covered. Even Mitch Marner has picked up his physical play. Ilya Lyubushkin adds a physical presence. If Jake Muzzin isn’t injured again during the postseason, his physical can make a huge difference. But the whole team has started to hit more.
Quick Hit Two: Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner Have Improved
It’s tough to look at the history of the Maple Leafs’ two young stars and think they could get better. Last season Auston Matthews led the NHL in goals. Last season Mitch Marner was fourth in NHL scoring. Was there even room to improve? The answer was “Yes!”
This season Matthews has become a different player. A few seasons ago, Maple Leafs’ President Brandan Shanahan told everyone Matthews would become a Selke Trophy winner (as the best defensive player in the NHL). That prediction, although not fulfilled yet, could come to pass. Matthews has improved his defensive game by miles. He’s big, fast, determined, and smart. Newcomer defenseman Mark Giordano raved about the strength of Matthews’ 200-foot game.
Mitch Marner was a much-improved player once he returned from his injury and his bout with COVID-19. He’s returned with a different attitude. He’s scoring far more. He’s more determined. He’s less predictable. He’s even smarter on the ice. He’s more physical.
Marner’s on-ice results are impressive. His manner of playing has taken the pressure off Matthews. Even with all the games he’s missed on the season, he’s likekly to hit the 100-point mark. He has 34 goals and 60 assists (for 94 points) in an amazingly small number of games – 67 to be exact.
Quick Hit Three: The Maple Leafs Are Ready for the Postseason
Last season’s postseason was notable because the Montreal Canadiens pushed the Maple Leafs out of the postseason. That loss showed that the Maple Leafs’ were too reliant on its top four players. Once the Canadiens shut those players down, there was not enough depth to counter.
The Canadiens negated Matthews and Marner, and John Tavares was gone with a Game One concussion. Only William Nylander and Alex Kerfoot performed well. That wasn’t enough. In short, the Maple Leafs were not a deep enough team to compensate for key injuries. With Tavares ,Muzzin, Zach Hyman, and Nick Foligno injured, they simply couldn’t pull it out.
The team has added depth with Michael Bunting; secondary scoring with Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall and their skills and desire on the special teams; and, the addition of a strong defensive third line with David Kampf and others.
There have also been key additions to the team’s defense. Even with Muzzin and Rasmus Sandin currently injured, the presence of Ilya Lyubushkin and Giordano has helped tremendously. The defense is better than it’s been in decades. Furthermore, it’s more experienced and less prone to make egregious errors.
In short, this is a stronger team. No one knows the outcome yet, but the team is prepared like never before.
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