Columnists, Sports

Dropping the Gloves: Toronto is back in the game, but will they make real progress?

Center Auston Matthews has been an important player for the Toronto Maple Leafs. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The Toronto Maple Leafs might not have the best chance to win the Stanley Cup this year, but the team should be thrilled at the progress it has made over the last 10 years of inadequate play.

Toronto is an iconic Original Six team, but the Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967. And they haven’t made back-to-back playoff appearances since 2004. Toronto had a one-time stint in 2013, but a couple of rebuilds weren’t able to help the team gain traction in the playoffs.

The rebuild process seems so simple — get new talent, make some changes and then you’ll be good, right? Not necessarily. Teams like the Buffalo Sabres and the Arizona Coyotes have been on the bottom for years, with no indication of a playoff run in the near future.

The Auston Matthews effect

Since he was drafted in 2016, it was clear that Toronto had to make a comeback. But it wasn’t a secure plan. The Edmonton Oilers had been picking first round draft picks for years, including star Connor McDavid, and kept coming up short.

Matthews has proved to be the missing piece in the organization, and the Maple Leafs have been able to make major progress. He’s brought energy, power and a new look to Toronto, something it desperately needed.

Andersen in net

Frederik Andersen has been a key member of the team since his arrival from Anaheim in 2016. He’s a top five goaltender in terms of wins and shutouts, but has been outshone by his division rival Andrei Vasilevskiy from the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Andersen is consistent, and he’s playing the best hockey of his career. With 37 wins, he’s now past his career high for the season. If Andersen continues his dominance in net, the Maple Leafs will be able to make some progress in the playoffs this year.

Atlantic competition

Toronto has already hit 100 points this season, but is trailing as third in the Atlantic Division. It’s mirroring the Central Division of years past, with some of the tightest competition in the whole league.

The first few rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs will be tough for every Eastern Conference team because of the impressive talent that is on every team. If the Maple Leafs want to move past the first round, they’re going to have to buckle down to show that they’re cup contenders.

It’s all about the hot streak

Any team running hot going into the playoffs is always better off, and Toronto can attribute a lot of their recent success to James Van Riemsdyk.

With three goals and two assists in the last six games, these points have made up a significant percent of his 36 goals and 18 assists on the season. He also recently scored his 200th NHL goal, a milestone that will definitely boost morale.

What are the odds?

It’s unlikely that Toronto will make it past the second round. Yes, the team has made a lot of progress, but its lack of playoff experience will most likely be its downfall. It’s a relatively young team, but even its veteran players don’t have the experience necessary to see a Stanley Cup Finals.

And even if they were able to make it far, there’s a lot of tough competition ahead of them. The Eastern Conference will be a challenge to get past, but the Western Conference elite are an unfamiliar beast for the Maple Leafs.

They’ve only played the Vegas Golden Knights and the Winnipeg Jets twice, and the Pittsburgh Penguins three times. Each of those squads will be without a doubt successful in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Maple Leafs don’t know them as well if they’re going to be facing one of them in the Finals.

A 3-1 loss at the tail end of the season against the Jets doesn’t bode well if Toronto could go up against them in the Finals.

It’s bound to be an exciting playoff season, but don’t be surprised if the Maple Leafs come up short. That being said, look out for Toronto a few years down the road.

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