From the the top down, the much-hyped 2017-18 Toronto Maple Leafs are fast to remind you that they’re still young, still developing.
But April changed everything.
Skating fearless and free, the healthy wild-card underdogs nearly upset the two-time Presidents’ Trophy winners in a tingling first-round series that featured six overtime periods in six games.
Nineteen-year-old Auston Matthews busted records and snatched the Calder Trophy in a rout. Management sought out and landed Patrick Marleau, one of the best free agents on the market, promising even more red lights to flash on enemy goalies’ necks. Generations of Torontonians long removed from the 1967 parade felt something foreign and lovely: hope.
The catch here is that expectations have lifted, perhaps to unreasonable levels.
“People didn’t know much about us last year, so this year we have to be ready. Every game they’re gonna be coming for us, so we have to be on our toes,” William Nylander says.
“We have expectations of our own. We want to go just as far as the fans do.”
UP-AND-COMING PLAYER TO WATCH
The Leafs’ developing trend of fishing across the sea for free-agent defencemen when North American prices rise began with Nikita Zaitsev, whose solid freshman campaign in 2016-17 netted a seven-year extension, and extended to Sweden’s Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman this past off-season.
The slicker, slimmer, 23-year-old Rosen appears to have the inside track over countryman Borgman in terms of landing a spot in the opening-night lineup (peep Chris Johnston’s excellent feature here), but we like what we’ve seen of Borgman so far.
Built like a linebacker — 6-foot, 203 pounds with no discernible fat — the 22-year-old Stockholm product flexed a nasty edge in training camp, throwing hits aplenty and accepting fights when challenged.
“It was crowded and it was a lot of fun,” Borgman said after his first pre-season look. He noted that cutting off angles on the North American ice presented some difficulty. “I’m probably going to learn some new stuff each game.”
As Borgman adjusts to a more confined ice sheet, some time with the AHL Marlies may serve the physical defender well. We expect to see him throwing his weight around the show before too long.
“He’s a big guy, moves the puck well, moves his feet,” observes fellow left-shot defender Morgan Rielly. “It’s always tough when you come over from Europe and there’s a bit of a language barrier. You don’t know the coach, you don’t know your teammates that well, but [he’s] handled it very well.”
WHAT A SUCCESSFUL 2017-18 WOULD LOOK LIKE
More good health, and no sophomore slumps.
Joffrey Lupul and Nathan Horton notwithstanding, the young Maple Leafs bucked odds by avoiding long-term injuries to their core last season. Narrow your focus to the Atlantic Division only, and consider how much better the seasons of the Panthers, Sabres, Bruins, Senators and Lightning would be if they’d enjoyed Leafs-level health.
If Number 1 goalie Frederik Andersen stays healthy, the playoffs should be a lock.
Matthews may not score 40 again, but we should expect the centre’s assists total (29) to spike alongside wingman William Nylander’s goal total (22). Babcock predicts Marleau will net 20 minimum. The goals should be there.
Anything less than a top-three seed in the Atlantic and a Round 1 victory will be viewed as a disappointment, fair or not. A trip to the conference final would be totally satisfactory, as the core’s best years should still be coming.
With that in mind, Matthews can sign a new deal on July 1. Getting the future captain secured for eight years at a reasonable rate will be Summer Priority No. 1.
BIGGEST REMAINING QUESTION
When do the Maple Leafs acquire a top-four right-shot defenceman?
The franchise would have you believe it is content to play out 2017-18 with its D core as is. But the saying “Offence wins championships” isn’t really a saying at all.
Prone to track meets, the 2016-17 Maple Leafs ranked 22nd overall in goals allowed (2.85 per game) and a lowly 28th in shots allowed (32.6 a night).
Now, the Pittsburgh Penguins also surrendered 32.6 shots per game and won the Stanley Cup without a sure-shot healthy No. 1 defenceman. It can be done, if you own the world’s best player and get Grade-A goaltending, but it’s certainly the road less traveled.
Signing veteran UFA Ron Hainsey, a stay-at-home journeyman, to play his off side next to Rielly in the top four has the feel of a decent backup plan.
But is this blue line good enough to go all the way?
We know the Leafs offered James van Riemsdyk (UFA 2018) in a package for Travis Hamonic, who ultimately went to the Calgary Flames. We know Drew Doughty just wants to win Cups. We know Red Wing Mike Green is on an expiring deal and, unless Detroit shocks the world, is likely headed for a deadline rental situation. We know the Golden Knights have so many defencemen they don’t know where to put ’em all.
At some point, Toronto must pull from its deep well of forwards — the NHL-ready Kasperi Kapanen is looking like a Marlie, and Josh Leivo can’t squeeze into a lineup that has 20-goal scorer Connor Brown on the fourth line — and draft picks (Toronto holds nine, including two second-rounders in 2018) to improve the shield around Frederik Andersen.