The CN Tower rises majestically from the Toronto skyline, nestled along the shore of Lake Ontario.
This grand old city has seen many wonderful sporting events in its time… multiple Stanley Cups by the Toronto Maple Leafs, multiple World Series wins by the Toronto Blue Jays, and several Grey Cup wins from its CFL team, the Toronto Argonauts.
In recent times, the NBA’s Toronto Raptors have thrilled the local basketball scene, while Toronto FC has given soccer fans their MLS fix.
But in a city whose first love is hockey, the pain of the Maple Leafs’ recent failures has punctured the Toronto sporting world like a pin pricking a balloon.
Leaf fans have been treated to several tantalizingly near misses…he playoff run of 1993 was arguably the most exciting in Maple Leafs’ history without them actually winning the Stanley Cup.
Leaf fans remember the heroics of Doug Gilmour and Felix Potvin as they went on an unlikely tear, eliminating the highly favored Detroit Red Wings in seven games.
They followed that up with another thrilling seven game victory against the St. Louis Blues, and finally bowing out to the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings in seven games.
After years of futility throughout the 80’s and early 90’s, the Toronto Maple Leafs were back… or so they thought.
After another run to the Conference Semifinals in 1994, the Leafs continued to make the playoffs, without much success. While they could usually be counted on to make the playoffs, they could never find that extra gear to propel themselves to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Eventually, the window closed…and the Leafs began another slide into mediocrity. From 2006 until 2012, the Leafs never qualified for the Stanley Cup dance, languishing around the foot of the NHL standings.
In 2013, the Leafs qualified for the playoffs, only to face the powerful Boston Bruins in the first round. The Leafs battled hard, taking it to the Bruins and finding themselves up 4-1 halfway through the third period of Game 7.
What happened was a collapse of stunning proportions.
The Bruins scored three times in the dying minutes of the third to force the game to overtime, and then drove the dagger into the heart of the Maple Leafs and their fans, eliminating the Leafs early in OT.
Yet another promising season had turned into bitter disappointment for the Leafs and their fans.
The future is now
After two more seasons of futility, Maple Leaf fans have reason to be optimistic. The future, which had been promised by Toronto management for so many years, has arrived. The 2016-17 season marked the arrival of highly touted prospects Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander.
These three, along with an infusion of young, solid rookies coming up through the ranks, injected a much-needed dose of excitement into the Leafs’ game. The result was a first round playoff date with the NHL-leading Washington Capitals as the Leafs qualified for the post season for the first time in three seasons.
It was a match up that seemed like a mere formality for the Capitals. In fact, many experts predicted this series to be a warm-up of sorts for Washington, a quick tune-up before facing more serious Eastern Conference foes.
Someone forgot to tell the Maple Leafs.
The youthful Leafs proved to be all the Capitals could handle. Each game was decided by a single goal. While the Capitals did eliminate the Leafs in six games, the sense of doom was replaced by a feeling of optimism.
Matthews proved he could handle the playoff spotlight. Marner and Nylander played huge roles. The Leafs’ youthful defense learned on the fly. The goaltending was solid for the most part.
Leaf fans finally had something to celebrate. After years of being promised a rebuild, which usually ended with previous general managers jumping the gun and trading all their prospects away for a quick fix, the Leafs management had delivered.
This is a team the fans of the Maple Leafs can get excited about. The amazing thing is, the rebuild isn’t done.
There are many reasons to watch the Maple Leafs this season. For the first time in decades, this looks like a team that the fans can believe in. Matthews will continue his climb towards the top echelon of centers after winning the Calder Trophy last season, buoyed by his 40-goal season.
Marner and Nylander will only get better. All three have been exposed to the rigors of an NHL season and will be stronger and more prepared.
Add veterans like Patrick Marleau and Nazem Kadri to the mix. These two veterans… and others on the Leafs… are hungry for playoff glory. Marleau lost in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final while with the San Jose Sharks, so he will be eager to prove his worth after being signed as a free agent this past offseason.
The Maple Leaf defense will be led by 23-year old Morgan Reilly. Reilly has established himself as one of the premier offensive defensemen in the game. He was will be joined by newcomer Ron Hainsey, a 36-year old veteran coming off his first Stanley Cup win with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Carrick, and Martin Marincin round out the defense corps at the time of writing. As every fan knows, rosters are fluid and ever-changing.
The biggest question mark will be in goal. Frederik Andersen will come into camp as the number one goaltender, backed up by journeyman Curtis McElhinney.
Andersen had flashes of brilliance, especially in the playoffs, but also dismal stretches of play where he looked more like a feral cat chasing a mouse than a goaltender tracking the puck. In his 66 games played with the Leafs last season, Andersen notched a 33-16-14 record with a .918 SV%.
If Andersen can keep his form, the Leafs are in very good shape between the pipes. McElhinney has proven to be a capable backup, able to spell Andersen when the workload may get to be too much.
Maple Leaf prediction
The Maple Leafs will continue their rise up the Eastern Conference standings. The best thing that could have happened to the Leafs happened when they drew the Capitals in the first round last season.
They got to taste playoff action and play against a team that is a traditional powerhouse. This experience can only aid the Leafs as they attempt to claim their first Stanley Cup since 1967.
Add coach Mike Babcock behind the bench, and there are all the ingredients for a very successful season. Babcock knows how to win… and he won’t let the Leafs slide backward without a fight.
Prediction: Leafs finish in the top four Eastern Conference teams this season.
They’ll win a round or two in the playoffs, and learn how to win after a disappointing playoff run.
The sky is the limit for this proud franchise.
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