Enjoy the meme, analytics crowd. We've earned it. It’s time for #TheLeafsAreActuallyGood to have its day in the sun.
We predicted a faster-than expected ascension for the Toronto Maple Leafs as far back as a year ago. The signs were there. Under Year 1 of Mike Babcock’s Pain Program, we noticed plenty of systemic improvements. The Leafs finally kicked a years-old habit of allowing far more shot attempts than they generated, a mainstay of Randy Carlyle’s tenure in Toronto. They became a decent possession team under Babcock. They bettered their penalty kill. Their peripherals suggested improvement would come – once the skill arrived to finish all those scoring chances. Toronto ranked 30th in the league in shooting percentage, 29th in power play efficiency and 30th in the overall league standings last season. They were quietly changing the way they played under Babcock, and the analytics advocates knew this team would start winning games once the likes of Mitch Marner and William Nylander stuck with the big club for good.
Of course, more than that went right when the Leafs won the draft lottery and secured Auston Matthews, currently enjoying the best rookie season in the 99-year-old franchise’s history. Anyone who studied Matthews over the past few years, tracing him back to his Arizona roots, knew “generational talent” wasn’t a hyperbolic description for him. It was merely a coincidence he and Connor McDavid arrived in consecutive years. That made it seem like media hype had gone too far when, in reality, we just happened to get two (three if you count Jack Eichel) unique talents arriving in a two-season span.
Toronto paid a high price in draft picks to acquire Frederik Andersen and paid him as a No. 1 goalie despite the fact he didn’t fill that role in Anaheim, and that move has come up rosily, too. After an .857 save percentage in his disastrous first five games, Andersen has hummed along at .936 in 25 appearances. He’s reached the threshold of Vezina Trophy consideration. He’ll get top-five votes if he keeps this up.
Many of us expected this Leafs group to boom, but it’s happening even sooner than expected – one season sooner if you ask me. This team has five straight victories, swelling its record to 17-12-7, and countless losses came from squandering late-game leads, a trend that should improve as one of the NHL’s youngest rosters matures. Toronto ranks merely 16th in shooting percentage while averaging the second-most shots on goal per contest behind only the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Leafs’ defensive play remains glaringly leaky, but they rank second in 5-on-5 Corsi For per 60 on the year, trailing only Boston. The Leafs truly are a handful as an attacking team.
Back to the meme, #LeafsAreActuallyGood. It works. Nothing about their peripheral numbers suggests lucky play. They aren’t perfect by any means, but they’re legitimately competitive. That poses an interesting conundrum for the Leafs’ front office going forward. It doesn’t seem like we’re about to see a regression – if anything, Toronto seems poised to keep improving – so does that mean GM Lou Lamoriello and president Brendan Shanahan have to start thinking of the Leafs as playoff-bound?
That could screw up what was thought to be another year of the slow-burn, low-expectations rebuild. Is it still a given Toronto shops some veteran talent at the trade deadline, such as pending unrestricted free agent D-man Roman Polak or center Tyler Bozak, whose deal expires after next season? Those are easy choices for a team challenging for the lottery and looking to gut its roster, as the Leafs did last year. But can Lamoriello justify dealing his best faceoff man and his oldest, toughest defenseman should, say, the Leafs find themselves in a wild-card position two months from now?
The shortsighted position would say no, that this team needs those veterans, that contention windows in today’s NHL are so small that any team should pounce the moment one opens up. Heck, if we play along with that idea, the Leafs could dangle someone from the AHL Marlies in hopes of acquiring veteran help for the stretch run.
Not that things will play out this way. It’s merely an idea posed to me by some increasingly excited Leaf fans over the holidays. The reality, with all due respect to these hopeful people: that’s a terrible idea. And we should expect nothing less than a calm, measured response from this Leaf regime, no matter how many more games Toronto wins between now and March 1.
The Leafs are playing the long con. They’ve picked in the top 10 of the NHL draft four times in the past five years. They have one of the NHL’s best young cores, not merely including current Leaf rookies Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Zach Hyman, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown and Nikita Soshnikov. Brendan Leipsic and Kasperi Kapanen continue to light up the AHL, and USA world junior standout Jeremy Bracco becomes an intriguing name if he decides to sign an entry-level deal in the Big Smoke.
We’ve seen an entire franchise makeover under the Shanahan/Lamoriello reign – off the ice, too. That includes everything from finally retiring players’ numbers to making all current players shave their facial hair to hiring an outstanding new anthem signer in Martina Ortiz-Luis. It’s like Shanahan found every situation in which the old Leafs would zig and decided his Leafs would zag. He and Lamoriello thus won’t rush to trade prospects and picks for immediate help. Everything has gone so swimmingly that the entire season is a bonus anyway. There’s no reason to ask for too much from this young team.
Better yet – who says the Leafs can’t still behave like a “seller” at the trade deadline and shop some of their aging vets? The kids are outplaying them anyway. Polak and fellow veteran UFA Matt Hunwick have been downright horrible defensively. Former No. 1 pivot Bozak now toils on the third line. The likes of Leipsic and Kapanen may well make this team better today if spots on the depth chart opened up for them. So if Lamoriello gets an itchy trade finger in the coming months, he should and likely will stick to the long-term plan, which could include selling vets or, in the case of Bozak, retaining them for the sole purpose of expansion draft bait.
Go ahead and take the Leafs seriously. They’ve earned it, and they have an excellent chance to make the playoffs. But don’t get big eyes over a real Stanley Cup push right now. Their management won’t. The surprisingly effective first half of the 2016-17 season is merely house money. It won’t deter the franchise from the real goal of painstakingly crafted long-term success. If we see the Leafs in a position of power by this time next year? Different story.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin