(By: Nick Baxter)
If someone had told me at the beginning of the season that the Leafs would make the playoffs one year after finishing dead last in the NHL, I would have laughed in their face. Don’t get me wrong, I am a Leafs fan, but I’m also a realist.
There’s no doubt that there was some serious excitement surrounding the team at the start of the year, but nobody would have imagined that the playoffs would soon be a reality.
But here we are, anxiously awaiting the drop of the puck in Game 1 between the Leafs and the Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals.
General manager Lou Lamoriello introduced a five-year plan to rebuild the Maple Leafs when he was acquired in 2015, a plan that he says changes every day. In an interview with The Canadian Press, Lamoriello said that their progress is “a little ahead of schedule,” though he emphasized their position in the standings was no accident.
A big part of Lamoriello’s plan had to do with player development, and the performance of this year’s rookies have spoken to that. It was rookies Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander who put the team on their backs. Matthews leads the team with 40 goals and 69 points. Marner leads with 42 assists. With coach Mike Babcock behind the bench, the young players were given the guidance they needed to become dominant forces in the league.
Babcock told The Canadian Press that he “didn’t know the kids could be this good.”
With the rookies in the spotlight, some of the older players were able to have career years of their own sliding under the radar. Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk all beat their career-highs in points in a single season during this 2016-17 regular season.
When the Leafs made all sorts of personnel changes after the hiring of Brenden Shanahan as president of the team, it was clear they were looking to build a new identity. A new coaching staff was brought in and a wave of young players were thrown into the mix. After just two seasons, these were not the failing Toronto Maple Leafs from past years. A new era was born.
Thinking back to where they finished last season, and their short-lived playoff run in 2013, the Leafs have come a long way and it looks like this could be the light at the end of the tunnel.
But all the hype surrounding their epic 5-3 playoff-clinching win against Pittsburgh on Saturday came with a wake-up call. The young Leafs are getting set to face-off with the President’s Trophy winners, a team that is ready to win.
Led by captain Alexander Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals are a force to be reckoned with. With tons of fire-power coming from all positions, the Leafs know this won’t be an easy feat. But the team says they will be ready for Washington, and they don’t mind being the underdog.
The Capitals have a history of early playoff exits after exemplary regular seasons, and the Leafs look to capitalize on the opportunity to let history repeat itself.
“I’ve been a President’s Trophy winner and lost in the first round,” said Babcock in an interview with the Toronto Star. “We’re going to Washington and we plan on winning.”
Despite failing to draw Ottawa in the first round due to their regulation loss to Columbus on Sunday, nothing has changed in the team’s mindset.
Leaf Nation is full of excitement, and what’s about to happen in the next couple of days needs no build-up.