Maple Leafs first half report: Confidence soaring in Toronto

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Toronto Maple Leafs' Mitch Marner (16) and Auston Matthews (34) celebrate after a goal. (Nathan Denette/CP)

The Toronto Maple Leafs are on pace for a 112-point season, which would break the franchise record set just last year.

Pret-ty, pret-ty good.

Through 41 games, they are outscoring their opposition by an incredible 0.95 goals per game and have treated star-player injuries and contract disputes like minor speed bumps.

Not once have the Leafs lost three games in a row, which is a sign of a maturing contender, and a deep roster that can sustain adversity without letting it become a disease.

“It’s just like life: you want your ups to be longer than you downs,” says coach Mike Babcock, pleased if not satisfied with the improved consistency of his high-flying club.

Though far from flawless, the Maple Leafs have a litany of reasons to be encouraged that a strong first half bodes well for the stretch run.

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THE GOOD

Where to begin?

We could start with John Tavares, who is on pace for his best statistical campaign in the league, despite it being his 10th. Or we could look to the free agency windfall’s right and discuss the exploding threat that is Mitchell Marner, who must be getting tired of leading the entire circuit in primary assists because now he’s started scoring with regularity. (Oh, and he kills penalties now, too.)

Perhaps we should begin with Auston Matthews, who is producing points-per-60 at a rate that exceeds Connor McDavid, Mikko Rantanen, Nikita Kucherov and anyone else you can think of. The 21-year-old has again proven his uncanny ability to return from injury (in this case, another shoulder) without looking worse for wear.

Or we could build our case, like a franchise, from the net out. Goaltender Frederik Andersen, who led the NHL in wins before taking time to heal a lingering groin injury, has on so many nights been steady enough that Toronto’s D-zone gaffes get overlooked.

The steady ascent of Morgan Rielly has kicked into overdrive as well, as the No. 1 defenceman has flipped from a minus-4 to a plus-27 and only leads all blueliners in goals and points per game and instances where he sloughs off his own prowess to make it all about the team.

Confidence is soaring in Leafs Nation. Maybe even high enough to meet your expectations.

THE BAD

The cap crunch is a-coming.

Usually a young powerhouse wins a Stanley Cup or, say, a playoff round before the painful task of shedding salary in the form of core players must commence. But with Tavares ($11 million cap hit) and Nylander ($6.97 million) locked up long-term and big RFA tickets Marner and Matthews needing to be ASAP, the notion of there being enough dough left over to properly compensate free agents Jake Gardiner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson seems far-fetched at best.

Oh, and the quest for another defenceman continues.

As wonderful a blessing as the Nylander stalemate was for drama and pageviews, in retrospect both management and the player (who has been outscored by guys like Josh Leivo and Frederik Gauthier since his return) might have wished to handle their business earlier.

On ice, the penalty kill is simply average, and opponents are beginning to solve a stacked power play, dropping it to eighth overall (22.9 per cent).

The Leafs still have much room to improve on breakouts and “heavy” play, ranking ninth-worst in giveaways and delivering the second-fewest hits league-wide. They’re getting outshot again, too, but Babcock pays that no mind.

“We don’t worry about shots,” he says. “We worry about scoring chances.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

TRADE DEADLINE LOOKAHEAD

Toronto is a legitimate championship contender, but one that must get through the Tampa Bay Lightning — far and away the NHL’s pace-setter — to even escape its own division.

The obvious edge Tampa has over Toronto is defensive depth, partly because the Bolts outbid the Leafs for a legitimate top-four defenceman, Ryan McDonagh, at the 2018 deadline.

Dubas is on record saying that if he doesn’t see enough organic improvement in the D-zone (i.e., smoother breakouts; less time hemmed in), he’ll go shopping.

“It is an area we can make great gains and continue to improve as a club,” Dubas said. “If that isn’t something that’s happening as we get closer to the end of February, I think we’ll certainly look to improve.”

This is the rookie GM’s first deadline, however, so it’ll be fascinating to see just how much of the future he’s willing to mortgage for this spring’s window. A first-rounder? A promising young forward?

Dubas’s dream rental is a trusted right-shot with playoff experience who can kill penalties and log top-four minutes. He might not exist.

St. Louis’s Alex Pietrangelo fits that bill, and the teams have been linked in rumours. The Blues captain won’t come cheap, however. This is blockbuster territory.

Carolina is selling, and the Leafs and Hurricanes were in dialogue during the Nylander saga. Brett Pesce and Dougie Hamilton are options here.

Cheaper, older options could be Vancouver’s Alex Edler or Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall — both find themselves on expiring deals and non-contending teams, although Edler and Vancouver have mutual interest in an extension.

MOST IMPORTANT STORYLINE OF THE SECOND HALF

Re-signing Matthews and Marner, it goes without saying, is priority No. 1 on the business side of things.

Aside from the paperwork, catching Tampa is a tall order with the Bolts’ 10-point lead in the standings, but securing second seed and home ice for Round 1 (best bet: a Boston rematch) will be key.

The Maple Leafs could benefit from digging down and discovering a little edge to go with all that talent.

“God touched you with the wand and gave you the skill, but he didn’t necessarily give you that work ethic to grind every day to keep getting better,” Babcock warned at the 41-game mark.

The most specific and immediate concern down the stretch is in the crease. Can Andersen — who threw up a .896 save percentage in last spring’s post-season — be rested and in tip-top form when it matters?

“Let’s get him healthy, let’s get him back playing good, and then we can say at the end of the year he played the perfect amount of games,” Babcock said.

“I don’t believe that anyone is tired at playoff time. I just don’t.”

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