TORONTO – Has Barry Trotz, wise NHL head coach for 18 seasons, ever in his life seen a freshman crop like this one?
Does anything resemble the underaged, overachieving Toronto Maple Leafs who are redrafting the record books and passing the Rookie of the Month award around the room like a blown secret?
Just the second team in history with three 60-point rookies (Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander)? The club with another rookie (Nikita Zaitsev) on the brink of earning a seven-year contract extension, and still another (Connor Brown) poised to become a 20-goal scorer, and one more (Zach Hyman) who sits second overall in short-handed goals?
Surely Trotz hasn’t seen a perfect talent storm like this before.
“Yeah, I have,” Trotz said Tuesday. “Edmonton Oilers, way back in the day. Starting with 99.”
Another day in we-think-we-can, we-know-we-can Leafland, another coat of hyperbole to lather on.
Except tonight is different.
With a win over Trotz’s Washington Capitals, only the NHL’s best team, and a Lightning loss in Boston, the Maple Leafs will secure a post-season berth for the first time in four years. This just one calendar removed from 2016’s dead-last finish in their first campaign under Mike Babcock, with whom Trotz has shared a Team Canada bench.
“As [Babcock] said, there would be pain. I think everyone thought there’d be more pain. They did a really good job. They turned it around quick. They did a great job drafting and putting the right pieces together,” Trotz said.
“They’re playing with structure. A lot of focus and a lot of commitment. They’re in a position to be in the playoffs right now. They’re playing good hockey, they’re getting great goaltending from [Frederik] Andersen, so there’s not a lot of holes in their game. They got it dialled. Their speed and skill are acute right now. They’re 8-1-1 in their last 10. Pretty good record.”
Also 8-1-1 in their last 10? The Capitals, who could tie a bow on a second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy tonight.
“Yeah, but we’re not as tight in our game right now [as Toronto],” Trotz said. “We’ve got some work to do.”
Don’t ask Babcock about the city’s anticipation of waking up to see that X beside the home club in the standings page. Four times the coach was poked to comment on the P-word Tuesday; four times he redirected the conversation to tonight’s critical battle of the backups: Philipp Grubauer versus Curtis McElhinney.
One reporter began this way: “I just spoke to a group of 14-year-old students who said they have virtually no Leaf playoff memories—”
Babcock cut him off: “I don’t either.”
Laughter punched the Leafs media room like a Matt Martin right.
“We’ve got to get into the playoffs,” Babcock said. “Momentum’s a great thing. When things are going good in your life, you’re in a happy place and life’s good, you seem to have more energy and it’s easier to work harder.”
Toronto is feeling it, team and town.
“We have a winning mentality in here,” Marner said recently.
Matthews became the highest-scoring rookie on a 100-year-old team Monday. He’s put a muzzle on the Calder debate. He’s evidence that a teenager can lead a moribund franchise to 11-2-1 in their last 14, raise the hopes of kids and grandparents alike, and still take the hype in stride.
“You get those streaks where your confidence is up and things are happening. Right now, that seems like the whole team. When we’re winning games and playing the right way, I think everybody looks pretty good,” Matthews said.
“That’s been our goal all season, to make the playoffs. We have enough talent in this room to make that possible, and a good coaching staff and a good group of guys that wants to get better. That’s been our main focus all year—improve each [five-game] segment, each month—and that’s what we’ve been able to do.”
The kid makes it all seems so matter of fact.
Hey, I heard you weren’t feeling well. Oh, look, I have the anecdote in my pocket.
“They’ve been difference-makers their whole life, so they don’t understand anything different,” Babcock said, but on a more talkative afternoon.
Trotz’s club—a veteran, first-place roster stacked with expiring contracts and Olympians scorned—has its own demons to slay. Not once has the Presidents’ Trophy been mentioned within the Capitals’ walls. Their sights remain affixed on a shinier bauble, one that has eluded all past editions of the D.C. hockey team.
“It’s no different than the Leafs,” Trotz philosophized. “They’re trying to affect the future; they’re not looking at the past. The past is done. They’re trying to create something; we’re trying to create something.”
Funny that their fates cross tonight. Funnier still that a Capitals-Leafs first-round matchup is highly possible. The Caps have already conducted a deep pre-scout on Toronto, Boston, Ottawa and Tampa in preparation for the first series of their real season.
Oh, and about that crew of 1979-80 rookie Oilers? They made the playoffs in their Year 1, too. Squeaked in and got swept by the Presidents’ Trophy–winning Philadelphia Flyers.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s savour the moment when the playoffs are so close you can taste them, so near you don’t want to jinx them.
“It’s pretty cool for the city of Toronto,” Matthews said.
“The Jays have been good, the Raptors have been good, the soccer team’s been good. So it’s good that we have an opportunity to be in a playoff spot. Pretty big sports city, especially when it comes to hockey.”