2018-19 was supposed to be the year for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Not just any year. The year.
The year fans would see the over half-a-century-old Stanley Cup drought be broken. The year the Leafs would finally rise to the occasion, conquer their demons, and mercifully vanquish the Boston Bruins. The year that the first game of any playoff series would be played in Toronto.
The year it all came together.
Each and every one of those things could still happen.
As of March 16th, 2018, the Maple Leafs sit 5th overall in the NHL standings, on pace to flirt with the franchise-best total of 105 points, which they set just last season.
Earning their 43rd ROW (regulation and overtime wins) following Friday night’s 7-5 slugfest with Philadelphia, Mike Babcock‘s squad jumped up into a tie for the third most in the league – a testament to how little they tend to rely on the pity point.
The Leafs also possess the second-most road wins in the NHL, second-fewest road losses, third-highest goal total, third-best goal differential and, in spite of their defensive woes and injury-ravaged blueline, have given up the 13th fewest goals against.
Normally, this would be right around the point of the article where I’d transition away from flippantly listing off stats and dive into the meat of things. But I’m not going to do that. Want to know why?
Well, because I think it’s important to bludgeon home just how good this Leafs team actually is. For the sake of your health, that is.
Sitting at a sparkling 22.9% at the moment, the Maple Leafs possess the NHL’s 7th most efficient power play. Their .641 points percentage, aided by a 43-23-5 record, lands them 5th league-wide in that category, while a scoring average of 3.62 goals per game makes Toronto the second most offensively lethal unit in the entire league – just 0.20 behind Tampa.
That’s pretty remarkable. In fact, it becomes even more remarkable upon considering how all the aforementioned success comes from a team that was forced to make do without the services of William Nylander, one of their foremost young pillars, for the first three months of the season. A team that saw Auston Matthews miss 14 games of his own thanks to a shoulder ailment during that same span, as well.
A team with both Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott, two of their most talented left-handed defencemen, expected to optimistically remain on the IR until the beginning of the playoffs, with Gardiner’s return not even guaranteed, at all.
This, all coming from a team ravaged by a flu bug as of late. A team that lost one of their integral centres, Nazem Kadri, to a concussion for over a month, and whose starting goaltender underwent extended injury absences on two separate occasions this season, leaving the newly-acquired Michael Hutchinson as the de facto top dog.
Case in point; the 2018-19 season has not been an easy one for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
This isn’t to paint their adversity as unique, mind you. Every team gets dealt an unfavourable hand at one point over the course of an 82-game season, and running into some bumps down the road is inevitable.
What makes the Leafs so impressive in this case, however, is how they’ve managed to turn this shotty hand into what has been a top-5 NHL output nearly across the board, with the potential to establish franchise-best totals by year’s end, as well.
What better rallying point can sports offer than adversity? The Leafs have endured a metric ton of it thus far and done nothing but barrel on through.
This should all be fun.
Watching John Tavares shatter his career-high in goals by mid-March while, in the process, form a lethal symbiotic relationship with fellow hometown star, Mitch Marner, should be a blast. Pointing to how Auston Matthews, despite missing over a month of action in November, still has a better chance than not of hitting 40 goals for the second time in three years should be at the tip of every person’s tongue.
Events from this past week aside, a dominant campaign from Frederik Andersen has seen the 29-year-old build a legitimate argument for himself to become the first Vezina-nominated Maple Leaf goaltender since 2003, and the first to win it since the Great Northeastern Blackout of 1965.
That seems pretty noteworthy, right? Is anyone talking about this? Of course not.
Instead, the discussion appears to be centred around the relative struggles of a 25-year-old backup goaltender making a smidge above league-minimum and who only sees the ice on the second half of every back-to-back.
Is that the best use of the fanbase’s energy? Probably not.
Of course, the usual red flags still linger on. Ron Hainsey remains a top-pairing defender in Babcock’s eyes, while Connor Brown continues to not score goals at a blistering pace despite the top-9 deployment he’s consistently been given. A first-round matchup with the Bruins looms ahead once more and, as of now, game one would kick off in Boston.
All of that anxiety is valid. But there is also something to be said for simply enjoying the ride; which can only happen by taking in what is right in front of and not what lies a month down the road.
What lies in front of you right now is a Leafs team of near-historic proportions, with an offensive core that rivals any in the league and the goaltending to back it up.
What lies in front of you right now should, in theory, be cause for celebration. And while you can’t necessarily quell the constant offer sheet talk or debate about whether Auston Matthews sells tickets, you can decide how to react to it.
Choose to be happy. Choose to have fun.
Thanks for reading!
All stats courtesy of NHL.com & HockeyReference.com