With a young core leading the charge, the Toronto Maple Leafs have a chance to be Stanley Cup Champions.
The Leafs made a surprise playoff appearance last season, and they have started the 2017-18 NHL season at 25-17-3, and are on the path to becoming the league’s next model franchise.
The Leafs have the potential to build something special with Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner leading the charge.
The team has strong depth and top prospects developing with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies or with their respective college and junior teams.
The Leafs had been one of the league’s most consistent teams from the 1980-81 season until the 2003-04 season, missing the playoffs just eight times in 24 years.
Although following the lockout which canceled the 2004-05 season, the team fell into a decade of futility, from botched draft picks to being unable to decide between retooling or rebuilding, to bad personnel decisions.
The Leafs missed the playoffs 11 of the following 12 years. In addition, from 2003 to 2015, they went through four general managers, including John Ferguson Jr., Cliff Fletcher, Brian Burke and Dave Nonis.
After Hall-of-Famer Brendan Shanahan became the team’s president in April 2014, the Leafs decided on a full rebuild.
Over the next two and a half years, the Leafs changed the face of their franchise: drafting Nylander eighth overall in 2014, Marner fourth overall in 2015 and Matthews first overall in 2016, while trading franchise player Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh and their captain, Dion Phanuef to Ottawa.
As rookies last year, Matthews, Marner, and Nylander combined for 191 points, a franchise record for points between rookies.
Matthews had the best season of them all, scoring 40 goals and adding 29 assists for 69 points to win the Calder trophy. Marner and Nylander had 61 points each. With each of them under the age of 22, the trio has a chance at staying together for a long time.
Matthews, Marner, and Nylander remind the hockey world of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ youthful core, which included Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, or the Chicago Blackhawks with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.
Both of those teams have won three Stanley Cups in the last nine years. This gives Leafs fans hope.
The Blackhawks have struggled in recent years as they attempt to stay under the salary cap and maintain a competitive team. The Penguins have won back-to-back cups employing a tactic the Leafs have taken a step further: depth.
In addition to Matthews, Marner, and Nylander, the Leafs have veterans like James Van-Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, and Patrick Marleau. All have scored 30 goals in a season before: a milestone that was only reached by 26 players in the NHL last season.
The Leafs also had five players who scored 20 goals last season. Two just narrowly missed the mark: Marner and Tyler Bozak scored 19 and 18 goals, respectively.
In a league where goals are hard to come by (just 2.77 per team per game in 2016-17), having multiple players capable of putting the puck in the net as the months grow longer and the competition gets tougher, is vital in order to succeed in both the regular season and playoffs.
But the Leafs are built to last. Much like the Penguins, the Leafs have a number of young, talented players on inexpensive contracts, something which will be much needed as their core players sign lucrative contracts and the salary cap becomes a concern.
The Penguins have won back-to-back cups by utilizing young, fast and talented players like Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust in addition to their top-level talent in Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Kessel.
The Leafs have followed this path, acquiring young, talented players like Kasperi Kapanen, Jeremy Bracco, Travis Dermott and Timothy Liljegren through drafting and trades.
Continuing to draft, trade for, develop and keep young talent is vital to any team’s success. It could be the determining factor in how successful the current Leafs era can be.
If the Leafs continue to stay their course, they have the potential to be the NHL’s next modern-day dynasty.