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Sunday, March 19, 2023

The future of the Toronto Maple Leafs may arrive early

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You don’t have to be a hockey expert to know that the Toronto Maple Leafs are a team on the rise and many consider them the team of the future in the NHL. I agree, but will take it a step further and say the Leafs are also a team of the present and can win Lord Stanley’s Cup THIS year.
In 1942, with the demise of the Brooklyn Americans, the “Original Six” era of the National Hockey League began. During the 25-year span from then until the 1967 expansion, the Leafs won the Stanley Cup nine times, only one fewer than the storied Montreal Canadiens of that era. At that time, the league doubled to 12 teams. Fifty-one years and 19 additional teams later, the franchise that represents the city that houses the Hockey Hall of Fame has won exactly ZERO Stanley Cups. This drought has not only left this city empty, but they have not even played for a championship since that 1967 title team.
Needless to say, the growth of the NHL has been good for the league, but not so much for the Maple Leafs. In 2016, all that may have changed when the Leafs used the first pick of the draft to nab Auston Matthews. Born in 1997, Matthews arrived on earth during a time when the NHL had just made a bold move to expand the league, this time to places that were certainly not raising kids playing pond hockey. Warm weather cities were the beneficiary of a gutsy and smart decision to expand or relocate away from frigid temperatures. From 1992 to 1998 the league added teams in Tampa, Anaheim, Miami, Dallas, Phoenix, Carolina and Nashville. Born in California, Matthews’ family moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, when he was an infant. He saw his first Coyotes game at age two. Clearly, he was one of the first, and certainly the most obvious products of southern and westward expansion. Ironically, Toronto is now positioned to reap the benefits in a huge way.
Starting at the top of the organization, Toronto is loaded with the brain power to warrant the hype and excitement. Hall-of-Fame player, Brendan Shanahan — before becoming the Leafs’ President in April, 2014 — worked in the league office as Vice President of Hockey and Business Development. Translation: In addition to being a great player with three championship rings, the man is smart and very well respected around the league. Also, as a local guy, he feels the passion of this fan base and knows the only end result that will be acceptable during his tenure in Toronto is a Stanley Cup.
Similarly, General Manager Lou Lamoriello — hired in July of 2015 — is no stranger to winning. Prior to joining the Leafs, he was the brain behind the New Jersey Devils. Dubbed a Mickey Mouse organization by Wayne Gretzky in 1983, New Jersey went on to earn five Stanley Cup Finals appearances and three championships. His challenge in Toronto pales in comparison to what he had to do in Jersey.
Completing the management hat trick in Toronto is Head Coach Mike Babcock. Before being named head man on May 20, 2015, Babcock put together quite an impressive resume in Detroit. He compiled more wins (458) than any coach in Red Wings history, including a Stanley Cup in 2008. Additionally, he led the Canadian Olympic team to gold medals in both 2010 and 2014. Make no mistake, this is not a retirement job for Babcock. He and the rest of this front office came here to win, and win now.
Obviously, the ultimate responsibility to bring home the Cup is with the players. Aside from the all-world ability of Matthews, 20, the front line of this team is talented, fast and too young to think they are somehow not yet ready. William Nylander, 21, Mitch Marner, 20, and Nazem Kadri, 27, are explosive and dangerous players. Veteran goal scorer James van Riemsdyk is still only 28, while longtime Leaf Tyler Bozak, 31, continues to be a stable force and an excellent face-off guy. The offseason addition of veteran Patrick Marleau provides a world of playoff experience and big-time scoring ability, even at 38.
In net, the unheralded 28-year-old Frederik Andersen is more than capable of carrying this team into June. At 6 feet 4 inches and 230 pounds, he is the prototype goalie in today’s game. His career record with Anaheim and Toronto is 139-57-30. His career .919 save percentage, once he plays a few more games to qualify, will rank him in the top 10 all-time in that category. He currently leads the league in saves by a large margin. This helps sell his value, but also points out the glaring weakness of this team.
Defensively, this team clearly isn’t good enough, yet. However, with Babcock behind the bench, expect them to play their best team defense when the postseason arrives. Additionally, Lamoriello has until February 26 to pull off a deal or two that just might bring in the missing piece(s) on the blue line.
The Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Toronto Marlies have finished first or second in the North Division the last six years, so they likely have the prospects to land a defenseman who could put them over the top this year. The city and fans have been waiting since 1967, but don’t think for a minute that it is in the DNA of Shanahan, Lamoriello or Babcock to consider the notion of waiting until next year. They are all-in now and the teams they face in the playoffs better be ready, because the future is already knocking on the door in Toronto.

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