When the Toronto Maple Leafs hired Mike Babcock as their high-priced, high-profile head coach in 2015, he warned that there was going to be some pain before the Leafs worked their way back to respectability.
And indeed, his first season behind the bench resulted in a last-place finish as the team unloaded veterans and contracts and loaded up on draft picks, ultimately landing the top pick in the draft courtesy of the lottery. The Leafs drafted much-touted Auston Matthews last June and while he was expected to make the team, not many expected the club to do much this season. Leaf fans were prepared for another year without a postseason appearance; after all, the team had missed the playoffs 10 out of the previous 11 seasons. The one playoff series was in 2013, a heartbreaking seven-game loss to the Bruins.
But Matthews and his merry gang of rookies (including William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Nikita Zaitsev) confounded all expectations and led the Leafs to the second wild card spot in the East. For his part, Matthews appears to have sealed up the Calder Trophy with his strong finish, ending up with 40 goals and 69 points. But he wasn’t the only weapon: Toronto had five players with at least 20 goals and five with 60 points or more. The special teams were strong and Frederik Andersen provided excellent goaltending.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. The defense can be sloppy at times and the Leafs had a tendency to cough up leads, although that seemed to have been remedied in the last few weeks of the season (until game 82, anyway). That last blown lead was painful, because the Leafs were up 2-0 vs. Columbus in their final game of the season and one point would have secured a higher seed and a first-round playoff series with Ottawa instead of powerhouse Washington.
So now the Leafs head to DC Thursday night to take on Alex Ovechkin and the Caps, who rolled to a league-leading 118 points and are looking to finally get that Stanley Cup that keeps eluding them. The Leafs, who finished with 95 points, are considered major underdogs against one of the best defensive teams in the league. Babcock noted Sunday night that all the pressure is on Washington, and he’s right. Toronto’s expected to lose, but don’t tell the Leafs that. Matthews and the kids are just having a blast and the few veterans (James Van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Brian Boyle, Leo Komarov, Tyler Bozak) are gearing up for a battle. They’re young, but it would be foolish to look past the Leafs. Because someday soon, it’ll be their time.