Maple Leafs: With Youth Movement Underway, Are We in for Another Rough Season?

Oct 12, 2016; Ottawa, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (34) scores a natural hat trick in the second period against the Ottawa Senators at the Canadian Tire Centre. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 12, 2016; Ottawa, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (34) scores a natural hat trick in the second period against the Ottawa Senators at the Canadian Tire Centre. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports /

As we begin the 2016-17 NHL campaign with a roster loaded with youth and inexperience, all indicators are pointing to another rough Maple Leafs season but I contend that this year will be much different than last season.

This year will be all about rookies and there are so many question marks that come with each individual rookie entering the NHL: can they be effective at this level, or will they hold up to the rigors of an 82 game schedule and so on.

When more than one or two rookies become regulars on an NHL team, there are almost always growing pains as the newbies adjust to the intensity of life in the big leagues. Aside from the challenges off of the ice, they must learn to play together and compete in the best hockey league in the world.

At the beginning of this season, the Toronto Maple Leafs will be featuring no less than six players that qualify by Calder Memorial Trophy rules as league rookies;

  • Auston Matthews
  • Nikita Zaitsev
  • Zach Hyman
  • Mitch Marner
  • William Nylander
  • Connor Brown

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Somewhere in the upcoming weeks we can also expect to see Nikita Soshnikov make an appearance with the Leafs, bringing the tally to seven rookies that could be in the line up on any given night. Additionally, the Leafs will rely on several players in key positions with just enough NHL experience or tenure, to no longer be classified as rookies. They include Josh Leivo, Connor Carrick, Frankie Corrado and recently acquired Seth Griffith.

That’s ten unseasoned greenhorns attempting to compete in a league where no other team is as collectively inexperienced, eleven when Soshnikov returns to the team….Yikes!

Are the Maple Leafs faithful in for another rough season? . . . How can we not be, at least to some extent? Especially if the goaltending doesn’t tighten up as expected.

I define rough in this context as “a rough ride of highs and lows.”

This team and its newly acquired goaltending tandem looks great on paper and I have no doubt that it will be a good team on the ice in time, but how much time?

Where it is impossible to accurately predict how long it will take a team of so many new faces to gel, this issue is exacerbated when so many of the players are so inexperienced. They are not only learning the foibles of line mates or defense partners, while continuing their own development, they are learning the league and adjusting to the speed and pace of NHL games.

We have no choice but to be patient and let the chips fall where they may.

It is inevitable that there will be a number of points in the standings lost to inexperience and growing pains, but having said that, an unavoidable rough Leafs season will also bring with it enormous entertainment value. This team is simply fun to watch, “intriguing” and “exciting” may be better words.

The phenomena of deriving some enjoyment from the efforts of an abysmal group going nowhere was specific to last season. It was somehow easy to accept the shortcomings of such a lousy team when a previously unseen structure and level of effort crept into the play of that woefully out-classed roster. With the transient nature of last year’s rag-tag team now disappearing in the rear view mirror, so too is the sense of futility it fostered.

The plan is different this year, we are not being subjected to a masterfully orchestrated bottom feeding strategy invoked for the purposes of garnering additional draft picks and a last place finish in the standings. That was then, this is now.

Most members of this year’s Leafs squad will be here for a while, with presumably very few, select and astute hockey trades or injury call ups being the only paths to changes in personnel.  The biggest difference from last season being the reality that virtually every player on this team, with very few exceptions has a long and bright future in the NHL.

Goaltending may frustrate us, missed opportunities to make up points in the standings may have us shedding a tear or two as well, but the overwhelming sense of despair that ruined many a hockey season of the past is likely going to become a distant and fading memory. Last season is already all but forgotten.

As an example of the highs and lows mentioned earlier, we need look no further than the season opener against against the Ottawa Senators where Auston Matthews made league history with a four goal NHL debut in what turned out to be a losing effort.

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Tighter defensive play, with a bit better goaltending, and we would be speaking of how Matthews single-handedly defeated the Senators at the dawn of a new Leafs era. Instead, we were forced to accept having this extremely rare historical and euphoric moment dampened by suffering the bitter taste of defeat at the hands of our provincial rivals.

If this is an example of a rough Maple Leafs season however, I’ll take this anytime over the alternatives … Your Thoughts?