Toronto Maple Leafs: Five Trending Storylines From the Season So Far

Dec 7, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock during a break in the ation against the Minnesota Wild at the Air Canada Centre. Minnesota defeated Toronto 3-2. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 7, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock during a break in the ation against the Minnesota Wild at the Air Canada Centre. Minnesota defeated Toronto 3-2. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /
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Toronto Maple Leafs
Nov 29, 2016; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Toronto Maple Leaks forward Auston Matthews (34) skates against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports /

Impressive Play from the Rookies

It has been said many times, the young players are stealing the spotlight in Toronto and they deserve all the attention that they are getting. It is the reason why Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, Colin Greening, and Joffrey Lupul (although injured) do not have a spot with the Leafs this season. Management and the coaching staff are comfortable with the team’s success and failure relying on the young players, which is the right move.

When the Leafs start to contend for the Stanley Cup, these are the players that are expected to lead them there. They need to experience the highs and lows so that they can be ready for a grueling championship run.

Auston Matthews

The crown jewel of the Leafs roster, the first overall pick from the 2016 draft did not waste time making an impact scoring four goals in his regular season debut. In 25 games he has 11 goals and eight assists for 19 points, which puts him on pace for 36 goals, 26 assists and 62 points. He even went through a slump where he could not buy a goal but despite that he continued to be a factor in other areas. His size, skating, puck handling, shot and attention to detail is impressive. Mike Babcock believes that he will be a dominant player by Christmas time.

Babcock usually prefers to have rookies start off on the wing before playing them at centre. However, he had a good chance to see Matthews play centre at the World Championship and believed that he could do it at the NHL level. He has mostly played with Zach Hyman and William Nylander, but recently Connor Brown was moved to his line.

It will be interesting to see if Nylander gets moved back to the wing with Matthews, but for the time being it seems like Babcock likes the way Brown has played and wants Nylander to be with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov. Matthews’ game could take off in the new year, but from what we have seen so far it has been promising despite those who want to compare him to Patrik Laine.

Toronto Maple Leafs
Nov 1, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitchell Marner (16) tries to impede Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl (29) during the first period at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /

Mitch Marner

Considering the number of question marks about Marner heading into this season he has exceeded expectations. People knew he was going to make the NHL but were unsure of the impact that he would have, how many games he would play, and what his role would be on the team. It is safe to say that Marner has cemented his status as a player with elite skill.

“I’ve never coached a kid that young that good,” Mike Babcock said of the 19-year-old. “When you’ve got elite skill, you can float around a little bit and still play in the league. You’re not going to be good but you’re still going to be in the league. He’s that competitive, he’s on the puck, he’s smart, easy to talk to, loves the game, wants to get better.”

No one dares to bring up the issue of Marner’s size because it has not been a problem for him. He blocks shots, is relentless on the forecheck, can create space for himself and makes players around him better. The line of Marner, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak has — for the most part — been left untouched because of their great chemistry offensively even though the trio could use some work on their defensive play. Expect Marner to continue to put up points this season and it would not be surprising to see him finish in the top five in rookie scoring and be in the conversation for the Calder Trophy.

William Nylander 

Unlike Matthews and Marner, Nylander has had experience at the NHL level before this season playing 22 games last season. He has had his flashes of brilliance especially when he and Matthews were on a tear offensively to start the season. Things have also been tough for Nylander as he has spent time on the fourth line as a centre, on the wing with Kadri and Komarov and with Matthews and Hyman. Babcock sees him as a moving piece especially with a player like Nikita Soshnikov who has impressed Babcock.

Babcock has not been shy in saying that Nylander has work to do defensively but sees the elite skill that he possesses along with Matthews and Marner. Nylander’s time as a fourth line centre was not a demotion per se, as Babcock has noted, rather it was a situation where somebody else has played well and Nylander was caught in a shuffle of players.

Nylander’s ice time does not suggest that he is being deployed as a fourth liner. It certainly has not been an easy adjustment for Nylander but he continues to play like he is capable of. Sure, he could stand to be better defensively when he plays centre, but what he provides offensively makes up for that and he will continue to grow and get better defensively.