When it comes to popularity, brand recognition and history, the Toronto Maple Leafs are the New York Yankees of the NHL. And like the Yankees, the Leafs are desperate for a championship. Every spring, there is palpable anxiety around Ontario. And every summer, there is palpable disappointment.
And much like the Yankees, the Leafs regularly have some of the best players in the game. The club has produced Hall of Famers and heroes like Doug Gilmour and attracted hometown heroes like John Tavares.
Excellence is not just expected by fans and supporters of iconic teams, but demanded.
But unlike the Yankees, the Maple Leafs haven't won a championship since 1967.
That could change this season, as the team that represents the hockey capital of the world is in first place in the league's all-Canadian division. Toronto is 18-6-2 with 38 points, six more than the second-place Edmonton Oilers and seven more than the third-place Winnipeg Jets.
The Maple Leafs are good, but are they for real? The answer appears to be yes, but like everything else in 2021, it's complicated by pandemic-related factors.
Locking It Down
One could reasonably make the argument that the Leafs' biggest hindrance over the last few years was their defense. Sure, dominant forwards like Tavares and Auston Matthews can beat any goalie in a myriad of ways, but their own goalies were getting crushed.
From 2017 to '20 (three seasons), the Leafs allowed more than 30 shots per game (33.0). Last season, they allowed 31.9, an improvement under coach Sheldon Keefe, and that number has continued to improve. Right now, Toronto is limiting teams to 28.7 shots on goal each night. The Leafs have significantly limited opponents' chances, with scoring chances tilted in their favor 342-208.
A powerful lineup like this has always been adept at creating scoring chances and getting into the dirty areas for high-danger chances, but the Leafs are now better able to cash in on high-danger chances. They can commit more blueliners to the offensive zone with skaters being able to get back and shut things down if the chances don't pan out.
The Leafs defense is driven by the same guys driving their offense. Matthews, Tavares, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander are all playing much better in their own end. This team has been much better defensively since Keefe took over behind the bench for Mike Babcock in November 2019. The shot total and scoring chances have gone down, allowing the Leafs to spend more time in the offensive zone.
It might be a tired sports cliche, but they say offense wins games and defense wins championships. The Maple Leafs have been hurt by their defensive shortcomings in recent postseason appearances, so they are trending in the right direction.
Stars Playing Like Stars
A star-laden team like this one is favored to win nearly every game. But even the best players in the world have bad nights because athletes are humans and humans are prone to errors and bad luck. And playing for a team like this means playing under a microscope, no matter the stature of the player.
Big things were expected for forward Ilya Mikheyev this season. He may not be a household name, but when you play in Toronto there is a certain expectation that you will play your way to that status. So far, he's produced only three goals and five assists. But the Leafs are getting quality play from Mikheyev, even if it's not showing up on the scoresheet. He's doing a lot of little things right, as Justin Bourne of Sportsnet pointed out in this video, and he's drawing some tough assignments.
Justin Bourne @jtbourne
My piece on Mikheyev from earlier included these clips, which are just examples of "the little things" he does so well. Getting above guys and using his stick to disrupt and free pucks. Good to see him get one, more will come if he keeps doing these "little" things. https://t.co/cQRduyJtuU
The reality is Mikheyev is only a second-year North American pro and he doesn't need to be a star. Neither does veteran center Jason Spezza or defenseman Jake Muzzin. The Leafs' elite players are doing their jobs effectively and giving the team a chance to win each night, which allows these role players to play to their own strengths and complement the top talent.
Marner has 34 points, Matthews has 31, Tavares has 22 and Nylander has 20. Matthews is currently mired in a five-game scoreless drought with a wrist injury affecting his shot, but he leads the league with 18 goals. The Leafs have the right blend of superior talent and strong supporting cast members.
The Trouble with the North Division
The problem with determining how good a team is this season is the divisional format. Due to the strange circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, the league adjusted the divisions for the abbreviated 2021 season.
It was necessary to cut down on the travel, but playing against the same six or seven teams makes it tough to gauge the level of play at times. It's easy to determine the bad ones, like the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres, but it's tough to know whether some of the teams at the top are truly elite or if they just know how to play the scouting reports.
The Vancouver Canucks are in the midst of a disappointing season, the Oilers have been inconsistent and the Jets have had a few ugly losses as of late.
Two clubs in the North Division have already made coaching changes. The Montreal Canadiens promoted assistant coach Dominique Ducharme to interim head coach after firing Claude Julien, and the Calgary Flames brought back former coach Darryl Sutter after firing Geoff Ward.
The Sutter hire in particular is strange since he typically employed an outdated style of play. Defenses have learned to stop the endless puck cycling Sutter-coached teams are known for, and while big, heavy teams haven't exactly gone by the wayside, the game is now dominated by speed and skill.
Sutter won two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings, but the game appeared to pass him by in his later years in the Southland. The Kings fired Sutter in April 2017 an he retired to his cattle farm in Viking, Alberta. He returned to hockey in an advisory role with the Anaheim Ducks in 2019, so he has been a part of the rebuilding process for a team that was also playing an outdated style, but it's yet to be seen if he can adapt to a faster game.
The Flames are 0-1-1 with Sutter at the helm, though it's still early in his second tenure with the team. Maybe the coaching changes will work out and the Habs and Flames will push the Leafs.
As of now, it would appear that yes, the Maple Leafs are true Stanley Cup contenders. The defense has improved to the point where it allows the offense to shine and goalies Frederik Andersen, Michael Hutchinson and Jack Campbell to handle a manageable workload. They have the high-end talent to go deep into the playoffs.
But it's tough to know how good they really are until they face a team outside of the North Division, which would happen if they make it to the semifinals of the playoffs. Keeping with the theme of the last year, these uncertain times are affecting all, and the best teams in sports aren't exempt.