TORONTO — Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello likes to say that when it comes to managing an NHL team, there’s a five-year plan which changes daily.
Lamoriello acknowledged this week that the Leafs are running in front of that ever-shifting timeline as the season’s halfway point approaches. The club is on pace for 93 points, a substantial 24-point jump from last season when they finished with a league-worst 69 points.
“I would say we’re a little ahead of where we might have thought we could (be), but (that’s) really not saying that we shouldn’t be here,” Lamoriello told The Canadian Press in an interview during the Maple Leafs’ bye week. “You don’t know how quickly some of the young players will adjust and you also have to be very careful when you respond to a question like that at this time in the year, after a little under 40 games.”
Rapid adjustment from Toronto’s youth has been the driving force of success in the first half.
It starts with Auston Matthews, who became the youngest Leafs all-star in 31 years earlier this week. He’s headed towards not only the greatest rookie season in franchise history, but one of the best ever for a first-year NHL player.
Matthews took over No. 1 centre duties from Nazem Kadri in late December and is leading the Leafs with 21 goals and 35 points (a 44-goal, 74-point pace). He’s also averaging almost 18 minutes of ice time per game — tops among Toronto forwards — playing alongside fellow rookies Zach Hyman and Connor Brown.
Matthews met head coach Mike Babcock’s confident projection of “dominant” centre-status by Christmas, stringing together 15 goals and 22 points in the last 20 games.
“I think he’s right,” Matthews said earlier this week. “I feel I’m playing well. I feel like I can be a dominant centre.”
Lamoriello believes the American centre has demonstrated “complete player” potential already, noting his willingness to work as hard at defending as he does at producing offence.
“In other words, what the end result will be only time will tell, but right now he has certainly shown that he can take quality minutes and he can be counted on in key situations,” Lamoriello said. “I think that he’s done maybe more than we might have expected if that’s the answer you want.”
Matthews and fellow 19-year-old Mitch Marner (32 points) are both actually on track to break Peter Ihnacak’s 34-year-old record for points by a Leafs rookie (66). Marner, a Thornhill, Ont., product who leads Toronto with 22 assists, has showcased spunky creativity on a line with veterans Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk.
Babcock, notably, hasn’t played them together because he says Marner has already shown himself capable of driving his own line.
Lamoriello spotted something in Marner at training camp which suggested that he would not only stick around the whole season, but also become an impact player. It was a sense that Marner, following a dominant season in the Ontario Hockey League, was “comfortable in his own skin” more than a year after he was picked fourth overall at the 2015 draft.
“He’s just going to get better and better,” Lamoriello said.
Beyond that, the Leafs have had other significant rookie contributions: defenceman Nikita Zaitsev is averaging 22 minutes a game on the top pairing; Hyman has produced 18 even-strength points and been strong on the penalty kill; Brown has nine goals and 18 points while William Nylander is among the NHL leaders with 15 power-play points.
Players like van Riemsdyk (33 points), Bozak, Kadri (16 goals), Jake Gardiner, Leo Komarov and 22-year-old Morgan Rielly have also had solid seasons and it’s that combination — veterans performing to expectations and young players improving — which Lamoriello credits for the team’s strong performance alongside the Babcock-led coaching staff.
Indeed, Babcock has the Leafs boasting a top-10 power play and penalty kill, positive goal differential (plus-four) and puck possession numbers in the top half of the league.
There are some troublesome signs as well.
Toronto gives up a lot of shots and chances, leans heavily on goaltender Frederik Andersen (33 starts), and often lets leads slip away. In addition, the Maple Leafs have not had to deal with any significant injuries over the first half.
If Andersen, in particular, slows down following a dominant November and December (.939 save percentage), or his new backup Curtis McEhlinney struggles, the Leafs’ pace could just slow enough to miss out on the post-season.
Playoffs weren’t really supposed to be in the cards this soon so even contention would demonstrate real progress.
Lamoriello said the Leafs “know how quickly things change.”
“In other words, we have to be careful,” he said. “We can’t get high, we can’t get low. But we certainly feel good about the direction that we’re going and not getting off really the course of what has to be done to have success.”