The Toronto Maple Leafs had one of the most prodigious rookie classes in recent history last season, but what happens once the fresh sheen comes off the kids? That’s what the team is wading through now, as some of those players try to wrest their way out of the dreaded “sophomore slump.”
The Leafs are one of the better teams in the East, so the problem is somewhat mitigated, but it is interesting to watch the dynamic play out. And it’s not across the board.
Auston Matthews, the franchise’s brightest star, has been as good or even better than he was during his Calder Trophy campaign, but No. 34 has also missed time due to an upper-body injury. The first time Matthews was out, Toronto didn’t miss a beat. During the second stretch, however, things have been tougher.
An 8-1 laugher against Carolina helped get a lot of players on the scoresheet, perhaps none more important than Mitch Marner. The incredibly talented right winger hadn’t popped in a goal since Nov. 11, but his four-point outburst against the Hurricanes certainly helped matters. He followed that up with another goal and some strong play in a loss to Columbus Wednesday night. Likewise, William Nylander smelled blood on Scott Darling and got his first goal of December in the win over the Canes.
“You can see the energy in their bodies,” said coach Mike Babcock. “If you’re a goal-scorer and you’re not scoring, it starts weighing on you.”
While Marner and Nylander have put up decent assist numbers so far, neither player is on pace to match their rookie outputs with the team. On the back end, Nikita Zaitsev has been less effective than he was in his first year. The absence of Matthews up front is one obvious excuse for the forwards, but other youngsters on the team are trucking along just fine.
Connor Brown, for example, is on pace for another 20-goal season while playing solid two-way minutes. And Zach Hyman is putting up points and killing penalties just like last year. His antidote for the sophomore slump?
“I don’t know if you can prepare against it,” Hyman said. “I’m a little older than the other rookies from last year and I go in with the same mentality: work as hard you can, do what you do right and good things will happen.”
The Leafs got nearly half of their goals from rookies last season and having so many (anywhere from seven to nine on a given night) was both exhilarating and nurturing.
“Last year it was really helpful having everyone come up together,” Hyman said. “Because everyone was going through the same thing.”
Now, they can support each other through the tough times because, again, they’re all in the same boat. For Marner, that means keeping things light off the ice, even when the goals aren’t coming. It really helped having three days off between a loss to Detroit and the win over Carolina.
“I’m always usually joking around and having fun,” Marner said. “That’s just the way I’ve grown up. The guys in this room, we all have that in us. We keep it light and joke with each other a lot. Those days off definitely made us feel better and calmed us down.”
But there is still work to do if everyone is going to get back on track.
One thing lacking this season has been line consistency. Babcock is usually pretty dogmatic about his combos, but stretches of ennui (and injuries) have seen him deviate. Zaitsev, who is hurt right now, has spent most of his minutes with Jake Gardiner this year – last season he spent the majority of his time with Morgan Rielly. Marner has bounced around a lot this season, but lately he has been back with Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk, his usual linemates.
“We had a lot of bounces that didn’t go our way,” Marner said. “It’s nice to get a couple and have those chances come back to you and not bounce off your stick. Hopefully it builds from here.”
Toronto faced very little adversity last year and luck was bound to catch up to the club. Now, it’s up to the players to figure out how to get to that next level even when things aren’t going so smoothly.