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The Toronto Maple Leafs came into the season with some real hype. Most inside the hockey world said this team had a real chance of taking home the cup with the signing of John Tavares, while others said Auston Matthews had improved his shooting ability (which most would already rate as top notch) and had a chip on shoulder. Mitch Marner looked stronger and the young defensive core and core youth were a year old and ready to take another big step forward. The only thing that was looming over the Maple Leafs was the holdout of William Nylander.
The William Nylander holdout didn’t seem to bother the Leafs out of the gate as they started the season 6-1, While Auston Matthews (16 points), Morgan Rielly (13 points), Mitch Marner (11 points) & John Tavaras (11 points) all were top 5 in points. Youngster Kasperi Kapanen, had been trying to prove to Mike Babcock that he was a top 6 forward and he got his chance with no William Nylander. Kapanen didn’t look back putting together 8 points in 7 games. The team looked like it was destined to be a high scoring juggernaught with good goaltending and mediocre defence.
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Now before anyone says the typical hockey phrase “You can’t win in the playoffs without defence”, let me tell you that it’s not true. Just ask the Washington Capitals and The Pittsburgh Penguins. Now each one of those teams had their defensive anchor, Washington has John Carlson and Pittsburgh has Kris Letang. But after that it’s a lot of depth, Washington has Michal Kempny, Brooks Orpik, Dmitriy Orlov, Madison Bowey (will be a stud), Matt Niskanen and Christian Djoos. While Pittsburgh defence from their Stanley Cup run was even less then that, Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, Ron Hainsey, Mark Streit, Trevor Daley and Ian Cole and Justin Schultz. In fact Pittsburgh played most of both Stanley Cup wins without Kris Letang. Meanwhile other teams such as the Los Angeles Kings have Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez and Dion Phaneuf in their top 4, or St. Louis with Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Jay Bouwmeester, Vince Dunn and Joel Edmundson are struggling to keep their heads above water and maybe the most insane of all San Jose with Brent Burns, Justin Braun, Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic sitting at 4-3-1. Today’s game is much different, Los Angeles used to win by playing the style they’re playing now they’ve had to forfeit some defence for offence in the form of Ilya Kovalchuk.
Back to what I was saying about the Maple Leafs. Toronto were displaying the high-octane offence through 7 games. There was no game they were out of and no problem they couldn’t score there way out of. But Game 8 rolled around the Leafs were playing the Pittsburgh Penguins in Toronto. Toronto fired 38 shots at Penguins goaltender Matt Murray and he stood tall to every shot. Toronto played a good game but made one mistake and ran into a hot goaltender. Leaf Nation had no reason to worry, well that was until Saturday Night at the St. Louis Blues. The offence was flat, they stayed on the perimeter and by the time the 3rd had comes around it was 3-0 St. Louis and the Leafs had mustered a whopping 8 shots. Morgan Rielly scored in the 3rd but it was the only glimpse of offence and it lasted all of a minute.
So, the question lies who are the real Toronto Maple Leafs? Is this a team who will be inconsistent offensively all season long? Or will they continue to outscore all their defensive problems?
I think the honest is a little of both. Toronto has too many offensive weapons to completely drop off offensively, but they will have games where the scoring touch is gone, where they become the Alexei Kovalev or Alexander Semin’s of the NHL. If you don’t get that analogy Kovalev was widely consider one of the most talented but inconsistent players in the NHL and Semin could score on a dime but battled inconsistency his whole career, was scared of the corners and the traffic. The defence is young with the exception of Ron Hainsey, who in his late 30’s is playing over 23 minutes a game. Morgan Rielly’s game has involved a lot and brings everything expected of him. Igor Ozhiganov and Travis Dermott have looked good this year and will continue to mature as the season goes on. Jake Gardiner’s game started the season slow but he has looked more like himself in the last few games, while Nikita Zaitsev’s game looks like it’s forming back into what it was in his rookie season. The defence is a work in progress right now but let them develop. Travis Dermott is looking like a top 4 defencemen, in fact the times that Babcock has moved him with Morgan Rielly he hasn’t looked out of place at all. The Leafs will average 4 goals a game and boast one of/if not the top powerplays in the league. I think the defence will tighten up over the season. But some games they will look like they did against St. Louis last night, an AHL team.
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Some will scream for William Nylander, I’d say that it would be an enormous mistake for the Leafs to pay him anything more than he’s worth and Nylander isn’t worth 8.5 million a season for the next 7 years. Kapanen hasn’t looked out of place with Matthews. He’s insanely fast, plays a solid 2-way game and is not afraid to do the dirty work in the corners. I’d say we have a trading chip with Nylander and we need defence, it’s time the Maple Leafs use that to their advantage.
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