If you predicted before the season that the Maple Leafs would beat the Florida Panthers in Game No. 17 of the season and surpass them in the NHL standings, go immediately to the head of the class and collect your gold star. You’re also probably one of those starry-eyed dreamers who thought they’d make the playoffs this season. Well, you might be right. Think about it. Powered by a group of rookies that came in with an enormous amount of hype and has still been far better than anyone could have imagined, the Maple Leafs are 6-2-0 in November – granted six of their eight games have been at home – and when they look at the standings, they see that they’re two points ahead of a team that earned 103 points last season.
Nobody associated with the team is saying it, but you’re starting to get the sense that this team believes it really has something going, that it actually could be a playoff team in Year III of the Shanaplan. It’s not something anyone will come out and say. It’s more of a thing that seems to be growing organically as the Leaf coaches and players find out just how good their young players are.
“These conversations don’t really happen very often,” said Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly after a 6-1 drubbing of the Panthers Thursday night. “It just kind of goes unspoken and guys kind of get a feeling. You watch Mitch’s (rookie Marner) goal tonight, you watch Auston (Matthews) play, you watch Willie (Nylander) and (Zach) Hyman and Brownie (Connor Brown), I mean I don’t think we thought these guys were going to be this impactful.”
So here we go. Things can sometimes get, well, a little carried away in Toronto. Or as Leo Komarov said, “You have a winning streak and everyone thinks you’re a Stanley Cup champion and if you lose you suck.” But even here, there is a different feel. There hasn’t been this much optimism surrounding this team in years and even if it doesn’t make the playoffs there’s the sense that it will be in the hunt for much of the season.
Which leads us to one very uncomfortable question. What do the Leafs do now? Clearly, the play of the young players has accelerated the rebuilding program. And clearly this is a team with a bright future. And what would be the good of finishing just out of the playoffs, as this team has done so many times in the past? If the Leafs are really going to be a playoff team, they need to shore up their blueline and they could use a forward or two who knows his way around his own end. So does the organization go out and get an established veteran or two at the expense of giving up some of that abundant youth?
You have to realize that this organization has made a cottage industry in the past of giving up young talent in order to make a run for the playoffs. The notion seems counter to everything the Leafs have been preaching the past couple of years. But know this. Those who know Leafs coach Mike Babcock best say that coaching a team to a 30th-place finish almost killed him last season. And he wants to be in the playoffs this spring. All the Leafs do.
“We go into each game like we have a chance to win,” Rielly said. “We approach every practice and every game like we’re one of those (playoff) teams. We think we can beat anyone in this league. And if you have that attitude every day, long story short, you want to be playing in May and June and that’s how we feel. We believe we can beat anybody and play with anybody and with that comes the idea you’re going to be playing for a long time and you’re going to make a push.”
So now things get interesting. What if the Arizona Coyotes, who have almost no chance of re-signing Michael Stone, offer up a very good 26-year-old defenseman on an expiring contract at the deadline? Heck, what if the Colorado Avalanche is out of it and puts Jarome Iginla on the market? Do the Leafs bite? Do they eschew their plan to stockpile picks and prospects to enhance their playoff chances? It will bear watching if it comes to pass.
Babcock’s old boss, Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland, has long claimed that the standings don’t change all that much after American Thanksgiving. The Leafs have four more games and are two points out of a playoff spot. They have to be better on the road and Saturday night against Montreal will be a great test. (After all, they’ll likely be shooting pucks on Carey Price, not Marek Mazanec or James Reimer.) But almost a quarter of the way through the season, they’re at least in the hunt, a place that would surprise a lot of people. And with that status, comes a whole bunch of questions.