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Expectations ran high in Hogtown on the heels of a massive free agent signing in John Tavares to the point where some even had the Toronto Maple Leafs as Stanley Cup favorites for this season. They exploded out of the gate, scoring goals in bunches especially on the power play which started out as unstoppable. Then whenever they got to overtime and played 3-on-3, they dominated that too. Tavares, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and Morgan Rielly were all off to career-best starts and lighting it up on a powerful power play unit that literally buried teams by themselves. They scored so much that the 2nd unit barely got out there and seemed to be non-existent and unneeded if you could believe it. They even lost Matthews for a month from late October to late November and after starting at 8-3, they went 9-5 without him they would win 3 more when he came back for a total record of 20-8 at the one-third mark of the season.
All the while the Leafs were doing this without one of their best players, right winger William Nylander who had been in a restricted free agency contract dispute. The deadline to sign these players was 5:00 PM on December 1st, and after speculation of if he would be signed, traded or sit out the entire year cooler heads prevailed and he signed his deal right before that deadline (see more details in my column – William Nylander: Good Deal or Bad Deal?). The one player this fiasco benefited the most was fellow right-winger Kasperi Kapanen, who in the absence of Nylander gave him an opportunity for a lot more ice time and he made the most of it, scoring 21 points in the 1st 29 games without #29 in uniform.
Since the return of Nylander and Matthews making the team fully healthy (minus winger Tyler Ennis, who was having a decent year for a 4th-liner with 11 points in 33 games) the team has taken a step back and have stumbled into the All-Star break, going a mediocre 10-9-2 with a struggling Nylander producing just 4 points in his 1st 20 games. Also, this streak has seen Matthews go through the longest slump of his young career, going pointless in 5 out of 7 games before finally scoring a goal against the Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals in a 6-3 win. There is no question Nylander will need time to get up to speed so expect him and Matthews to be back to their normal selves production-wise down the stretch. After all, you would rather see them go through something like this and get it out of the way in January or February rather than in March or April and you want to be playing your best hockey when it means the most.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs hit the ice again they will be just a few weeks away from the February 25th trade deadline. Now, what does this mean for this team? As we all know, the defense is the weakest point of the team, particularly on the right side. 1st-year General Manager Kyle Dubas is going to have to figure out what his priorities are and what he wants to do, as an upgrade could be in the works between now and then. He has said publicly that trading future and high picks for rentals are not an option at this point, but with their young stars Matthews and Marner playing in the final years of their entry-level contracts and going to be making big bucks next season, the Leafs need to decide if this is a year to load up or continue their gradual ascent.
UPDATE: Not so fast! At the time of writing this article Dubas has made his 1st big move, acquiring 6-foot-3 defenceman Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings who has 50 games of playoff experience and a Stanley Cup ring with the Kings, giving the Leafs that physical presence on the back end they have been looking for. The price was not cheap however, giving up their 1st Round pick in this year’s 2019 NHL Draft along with 2 prospects – minor league left winger Carl Grundstrom, who was taken in the 2nd Round (57th overall) in 2016 and junior defenceman Sean Durzi, also drafted in the 2nd Round (52nd overall) just last year in the 2018 draft. On one hand, they gave up 3 decent pieces for a good Top-4 defenceman that will never win a Norris trophy, but on the other hand they got a solid, physical veteran d-man that fits the team’s needs and is signed through next year at a very affordable cap number. Dubas made this deal without giving up either of their last 2 1st Round picks, defencemen Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin as well as not parting with anyone on the current roster. Keep in mind of what I mentioned earlier about the unique position they are in just for this season, and it looks like they have taken advantage of that.
It should be an interesting 2nd half of the season as the Leafs are loading up for what should be the first of several shots at a long playoff run. They have the depth up front, the netminder to steal games, and now seem to be working on the blue line. Exciting times in Leaf land as we near closer to the home stretch of the season