The Toronto Maple Leafs clinched a playoff spot on Saturday. Nobody expected them to reach the playoffs this season despite an influx of good young players led by their number one pick, Auston Matthews. Brendan Shannahan, Lou Lamoriello, and Mike Babcock should get all the credit for the Maple Leafs’ turnaround this season.
Before I continue on, I predicted before the season that the Maple Leafs would make the playoffs, get 40 wins, knock the Habs out of the playoffs, and Mitch Marner and Connor Brown would each get 20 goals in their rookie season. I’m 3 out of 5 at this point. Not too shabby, huh?
There are many who are quite surprised of the turnaround that the Maple Leafs had this season. It was one year ago that the Buds were dead last and were a lottery ball away from officially drafting Matthews. But it didn’t surprise me, mainly because there was a management team in place that believed in them. They drafted, developed, and played them in the minors. They believed enough in them that they didn’t go out to land a major acquisition at the trade deadline. Now we are seeing how they fare against the big boys.
Another thing to add is health. As of Saturday, 9 players have appeared in all 81 games. 4 more missed a total of 16 games due to injury: William Nylander (1), Tyler Bozak (4), Marner (5), and Morgan Reilly (6). You can’t make the playoffs with your best players on the sidelines. Part of it is luck but how you manage those injuries is also key and that is where good management comes in.
Frederik Anderssen rebounded after a slow start, Nazem Kadri is playing like he did when he was a star with the London Knights under Dale Hunter, and Bozak and James van Riemsdyk are having a revival thanks to the infusion of youth. If the Maple Leafs hadn’t had blown so many third period leads early on in the season, they would have been challenging the Habs for first place in the Atlantic and Washington for the President’s Trophy.
People who spent the entire season second-guessing decisions of management, or were banking on a late-season collapse, are going to be on a steady diet of crow the next few weeks. What the Maple Leafs do between now at the end of the playoffs is gravy. The fact that they exceeded everyone’s expectations should make this season a success. And you can thank the three amigos for it.