It all started back in April 2016, when the Toronto Maple Leafs won the NHL Draft Lottery to obtain the first overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
Fast forward to June, the Leafs select Auston Matthews from the Zurich Lions in hopes of seeing him become the #1 guy the team has been looking for since Mats Sundin.
When the season started, I don’t think a single Leafs fan could have imagined the magnitude of Matthews’ impact in his rookie campaign.
He gave everyone in the hockey world a glimpse of his greatness during his very first game, when he became the first player in the modern era of the NHL to score four goals in his debut. The Calder Memorial Trophy talk has been back and forth between Matthews and Laine all season, but it’s almost impossible to argue Matthews as the clear cut winner now. A 19-year-old from Scottsdale, Arizona led a last place team that managed only 29 wins last year to a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Matthews also became the first rookie since Alexander Ovechkin to put up 40 or more goals in a season.
All these accolades are impressive, but let’s not forget the other key players who contributed to the success.
Starting with Frederik Andersen.
On June 20, Andersen was traded from the Anaheim Ducks to Toronto in exchange for a 1st round pick (from Pittsburgh from the Phil Kessel trade – Anaheim drafted Sam Steel) and a 2nd round pick in this years draft.
While Anaheim may have drafted a future stud in Sam Steel, the importance of Andersen in the Leafs success is immeasurable. Despite having sub-par statistics at the start of the season, Andersen has been nothing short of incredible down the stretch, ranking eighth in wins with 33 and second behind Cam Talbot for starts with 66.
Mitch Marner and William Nylander both had amazing rookie years, each posting 61 points. The speed and creativity of Marner and the playmaking ability of Nylander were welcomed with open arms into the Leafs’ top-6, allowing for exciting hockey and helping players like Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri reach new career highs in points. Kadri also hit the 30-goal plateau for the first time in his career while James van Riemsdyk tallied 29 goals on the season.
Connor Brown and Zach Hyman were also big factors. Hyman ranked second in shorthanded time on ice among rookies behind only Ivan Provorov of the Philadelphia Flyers. He was also tied for second in the NHL for most shorthanded goals with four.
The efforts of Russian defender Nikita Zaitsev cannot be overlooked either. Playing an average of 22 minutes a game, he ranks first among rookies and will have earned himself a nice seven year deal at the end of the season.
As was reported earlier by @TSNBobMcKenzie, Nikita Zaitsev is closing on seven-year extension with TOR. AAV would be $4.5, from what I hear
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) March 31, 2017
The Leafs will face Washington in the first round of the playoffs.
The future is bright in Toronto.