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Maple Leafs rebuild coming along nicely, now to get hungrier

The Maple Leafs need to improve in a few areas during the off-season but the future has never looked brighter.

As series-ending overtime goals go, Marcus Johansson’s dagger for the Washington Capitals in Game 6 didn’t seem to break the hearts of those at the Air Canada Centre the way you might expect. Sure, Toronto fans would have preferred a win, but it became pretty clear that the diehards know this season was just the beginning for their beloved Maple Leafs.

“We have a lot to be proud of,” said veteran James van Riemsdyk. “From where we started this season to where we are now, we made a pretty big statement with our play. It’s always disappointing when you lose out, but I thought we gave them everything they could handle. We showed that we can be a force to be reckoned with.”

Indeed, with Auston Matthews leading the offensive charge and Frederik Andersen showing that he can go toe-to-toe with the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in Braden Holtby, that vaunted rebuild in Toronto is coming along nicely.

Were there flaws in Toronto’s series? Of course there were. Little details and missed assignments in the defensive zone led to several key Washington strikes, while in other cases Andersen bailed his boys out. The Leafs’ defense gave the Capitals’ incredibly talented forwards too much time and space and it led to several games of chicken in the danger areas, where Washington puck carriers slowly but methodically got into great scoring positions before a Leafs defender would commit to closing in. Some of that will come with maturity, some will come with personnel updates.

Defense is where the Maple Leafs need to improve the most and GM Lou Lamoriello now has the summer to bolster that back end. One name that keeps coming up amongst pundits is Vancouver’s Chris Tanev, while I would also put forth pending Washington free agent Karl Alzner, who missed most of the series due to injury.

I believe in Morgan Rielly as a top-pairing guy, but he needs help up there. I believe Nikita Zaitsev had an admirable rookie year in the NHL, but he still played like a rookie in the post-season. If he continues to mature as a player, he will be a very good second-pairing D-man.

So what the heck are we to make of the Washington Capitals now?

If there was a definitive theme to the team’s post-game interviews last night (besides the obvious “it stings, it sucks to lose”) it was how important the experience of a playoff series was to the young core. The Capitals are a heavy, talented team that didn’t have much trouble dispatching these same Leafs late in the regular season. But with five of six games going to overtime and the other decision a one-goal affair, it’s easy to see how close the two squads were. And figuring out how to win by losing first is something you have to play through to understand.

“They’re the Presidents’ Trophy winners and it was one-goal games,” said rookie Zach Hyman. “That’s the playoffs; it’s bounces. You try to get a dirty one and you have to have a good goalie – we had an unbelievable one in Freddy – and it’s tough.”

The Chicago Blackhawks went through playoff losses before they ascended to a perennial Stanley Cup contender, as did the Pittsburgh Penguins slightly before that.

Expectations will be high for the Maple Leafs next season, but the ability to hang with the best in the East will undoubtedly help them close out some games next year that they failed to do this time around.

Coach Mike Babcock spoke about the need for some of his players to “earn some pounds” this summer, which is to say that the young Leafs need to get heavier without sacrificing fitness. This is another step in a process that can only be accelerated so much by the team’s young skill and speed. But time is on Toronto’s side and the lessons learned in April will stay with them until fall.

“It’s another summer to be hungry,” van Riemsdyk said.



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