Why rapidly improving Maple Leafs are good bet to make playoffs

Shea Weber writes the perfect story line in Nashville, the Maple Leafs go blow for blow in a wild one with Washington while the Jackets ridiculous run rolls on.

When it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs you can fixate on the blown third-period leads and opportunities lost, or you can look at this season for what it’s actually been: A three-month stretch where they’ve measurably transformed themselves into a playoff team.

Just because the train arrived ahead of schedule doesn’t change the fact that it’s here now.

The Leafs woke up on Wednesday morning with the eighth-best points percentage in the Eastern Conference—an important piece of context given how much a compressed schedule and the bye weeks have skewed the number of games played by each team.

There is nothing to suggest that Mike Babcock’s group has reached this point by fluke. They remain on the positive side of the ledger in even-strength shot attempts, a shade ahead of teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning, and are an offensive juggernaut in a goal-starved league: Sitting second in shots per game, fifth in goals per game and second in amount of time spent leading.

That last metric is an important one, particularly in the wake of Tuesday’s 6–5 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals. It featured another inglorious third period—with Toronto twice squandering leads before leaving Alex Ovechkin wide open for the 3-on-3 dagger—and that’s fueled more talk about a “concerning trend” for an organization still just half a year removed from a 30th-place finish.

But what’s really more telling here?

The fact Toronto has been ahead in games more often than any NHL team except Columbus—winners of 16 straight and counting!—or the fact they’ve managed to convert only 13 of 20 second-intermission leads into victories so far.

I’ll take the former and it’s not particularly close. Your odds of long-term success are significantly better with a team that repeatedly puts itself in position to win.

And so with the season now approaching its midway point, the playoff chase is on. The Leafs are a good bet to get there.

Babcock has started managing his roster with an eye on qualifying, and he’s established an internal system of rolling five-game segments to help his players keep a micro view of what they need to do to accomplish that goal.

“What happens is your team gets better and better. The competitive people get better and better and the non-competitive people have got to find someplace else to play,” Babcock said recently. “That’s just what happens in the good programs. We’re finding players every day as we watch them grow, and we have aspirations to be a really good team in the National Hockey League; one that in the summer you know you’re going to make the playoffs.

“That’s not where we’re at right now, but we’re a work in progress. We like the direction we’re going.”

As it stands now, they’re on pace to finish with 93 points—a 24-point improvement—and score 52 more goals than they did last season. Some models predict they’ll do even better than that.

While the Leafs expected better results after plugging more talent into Babcock’s system, they couldn’t be sure Year 2 under the head coach would trend upwards so dramatically.

The last month, in particular, has put them on the radar of rival teams and it’s come with Babcock leaning more heavily on his young players. Auston Matthews is now being deployed as a first-line centre and continues to produce like a superstar—on pace for an unthinkable 44-goal, 75-point rookie season.

“He’s got a skillset that allows him to do things that a lot of other people can’t do,” said teammate Morgan Rielly. “But on top of that he’s got a good brain, he works hard and he’s been playing with good teammates…. We have lots of faith that it’s going to continue to roll the way it is.”

Matthews also acts as an umbrella for everyone else—shielding some of the focus away from fellow rookies Mitch Marner and William Nylander, who are both on pace to comfortably eclipse 50 points. No Leaf hit that mark a year ago.

Absent a crystal ball to tell us if the team will continue to enjoy good health in the second half, there’s little to suggest the Leafs won’t be part of the battle for the second or third spot in the so-so Atlantic Division. Or, failing that, a wild-card position.

Frederik Andersen still sports a stout .920 save percentage after allowing 10 goals the last two games and some of the team’s early blue-line concerns appear to have been overstated.

If anything, a young group seems to be finding its stride. Following a win over Detroit in the Centennial Classic last weekend, Rielly referred to the Leafs dressing room as the closest-knit one he’s ever been part of.

“If you’re a guy like (Morgan), you arrive here and everybody is leaving all the time,” said Babcock. “[The players we have now] aren’t leaving; they’re staying, and they’re going to stay for a long time and be a real good team. Now, it’s going to take us some time to get there. It’s going to take us time.

“Obviously, we’re not deep enough and not good enough, but we’re going to get there.”

Based on what we’ve seen so far, it could be a lot sooner than once expected.

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