The Maple Leafs start this upcoming season with much hype and heightened expectations. The task of making the playoffs again is made harder by the fact that Auston Matthews and company will now be defended tighter. Teams will now adjust their defensive plans around the Maple Leafs speed and highly creative young core.
What makes this season so hopeful however, is this version of the Maple Leafs learns quickly and is highly talented. The progression the team made from the early part of last season to the team who closed out last season’s playoffs is not comparable. A team who early on last season lost focus late in games coughing up leads, became one who was confident going up against any opponent and picking up key points late in the season.
Coming into the 2017/2018 season there will be more pressure on Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander to lead the offence for the Maple Leafs in their second season in the NHL. To make things easier, the addition of Patrick Marleau and returning veterans like Nazem Kadri, James Van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak offer veteran support to offset some of the pressure and expectations to keep the offence near the top of the NHL.
One of the perils a young team can face is they sit on their laurels from last year’s success. The need for veteran leadership in the face of adversity is crucial for success this season while the young core takes another step forward in their development. The true value of the free agent signings this summer of veterans like Ron Hainsey, Dominic Moore and Patrick Marleau will be gauged on how they can continue to mentor this young core still learning their way in their second season in the NHL.
Steve Stamkos’ Tampa Bay Lightning and Carey Price’s Montreal Canadiens offer the fiercest competition to the Maple Leafs plans to improve from last year. Stamkos will want to make his presence felt after an injury riddled season, and can you ever write off a team with a world class goalie like Carey Price? Even though the Canadiens do not appear to have improved their roster, Price definitely has the talent to mask the deficiencies with the Canadiens to keep them more than competitive this season. The other teams in the division offer the Maple Leafs different degrees of challenges but none have the talent depth to generate any concerns.
The upcoming season offers so much promise and excitement. There are always peaks and valleys in every season and I would expect this team to face its fair share of adversity in a league built around parity. That said, I am confident with the talented coaching staff’s ability to support this team through any turbulence we may encounter on our road to the playoffs. I predict we will find ourselves in or around the top of the Eastern Conference and at the very least, the second round of the playoffs. Who would have predicted that 36 months ago? This is another reason Toronto will be painted blue and white again next spring!