Hockey

Why The Maple Leafs Can Win A Stanley Cup In 2018

Source: Sportsnet

Source: Sportsnet

First it was the Toronto Wolfpack.

Then it was the Toronto Argonauts.

Most recently, it was Toronto FC.

Will the Maple Leafs complete the year of Toronto sports domination? If they make the right moves and decisions, and have a little bit of lady luck on their side, there's no reason to suggest that the Leafs can't finally lift Lord Stanley in 2018.

Source: TSN

Source: TSN

The Core

This team finally has a core to build around for the foreseeable future. You have the deadly trio of Matthews, Marner and Nylander that are playing well beyond their years. It's incredible to think that these guys are all only on their rookie contracts, which makes the next year to two even more important to capitalize on this. Matthews is currently leading the team in points (26 pts through 26 games), Marner is leading the Leafs in assists with 17, and Nylander is only one behind Marner with 16.

If you take a look at the back end, it's not as dire as most fans may think. Morgan Rielly is playing like a stud, and embracing the number one role in Toronto quite well. For all the criticism Jake Gardiner gets, he's really responded well to head coach Mike Babcock's style of play, and has limited the risk factor when on the ice. Zaitsev turned that -22 that all the haters were complaining about into a solid +11 at the quarter mark of the season.

Let's not forget about the Maple Leafs MVP this season, Freddy Anderson.  This guy has single handily won the Leafs games this year that they had no business winning. Anderson has faced the most shots in the league by any goaltender, and boasts a record of 17-8-1 with a 2.67 GAA and a .922 save percentage (6th highest save percentage in the league). This after having a horrendous October which saw the GAA around 3.50 and the save percentage under .900. He has firmly placed himself in the early Veznia conversation.

Whether you believe it or not, I believe this is Canada’s team, and we need to put Canada’s team back on the map
— Mike Babcock, 2015

Complementary Pieces and Depth

It's probably a good thing if we are calling James van Riemsdyk a complementary piece. He leads the Leafs in goals (14) and also leads the squad in powerplay points (8). A free agent at the end of the season, he has been vital to one of the leagues most potent offenses. Nazem Kadri has been incredibly vital to this Leafs squad as well. Second in goals (13) and points (23), Kadri has proven that he belongs in this league, and has cemented himself as a true top six forward. I would be remised if I didn't talk about Patrick Marleau. The "dad" of the team has put up stellar numbers, shown versatility by playing centre and wing throughout the year, as well as displayed speed that matches the youth movement in this league. Other players like Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, and Matt Martin embraced their roles and have exceeded expectations that others have set upon them so far this year.

Looking at the defensive side, the Ron Hainsey signing appears to be the frontrunner as "biggest free agent steal" of 2017. Not only are Hainsey and Zaitsev the "go-to" shutdown PK unit, but Hainsey is on pace for 34 points this season, a mark he's only reached twice in his career, and hasn't reach since his 2008-09 season with the Atlanta Thrashers, when he got 39 points. Andreas Borgman has been a pain for skaters to deal with. Not only can this guy lay out the body, but he's got a cannon of a shot. He's been a great addition to the third pairing.

In between the pipes, Curtis McElhinney has been a solid backup for the Leafs. In five starts, he's gone 3-2-0 with a 2.44 GAA and a .925 save percentage. Can't ask much more from a backup, especially after his last performance against the Oilers, which was a 41 save shutout. With Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard dominating for the Marlies, the depth in goaltending is something the Leafs haven't had in a very long time.

Source: Jared Silber/Getty

Source: Jared Silber/Getty

Additions That The Leafs Should Consider

Adding an Elite Defenseman

I think you know where I'm heading with this based off the picture above. Nobody is as elite in the league on the blue line as Erik Karlsson is. Considering the Sens dumpster fire that's currently ablaze, the Leafs should definitely be all over this (as long as the Leafs aren't on his 10 team no-trade list).

Karlsson has an average cap hit of $6.5 million for this season and the next. If the Leafs really want to take advantage of rookie contracts and an underpaid defenseman, this is a golden opportunity. I don't think Karlsson's pending free agency should be a factor in this, especially when the Leafs have a window of opportunity to win now and in the foreseeable future. If Karlsson fits into those plans down the road, that would be great. He would also be a great mentor to Leafs 1st round prospect Timothy Liljegren, who's game has been compared to Karlsson's.

Adding a Depth Forward

You can never have too much depth. An injury or trade frees up some spaces, so the depth in forwards is always an asset. I'm not a Bozak fan, and I believe that the Leafs will look to ship him away. With so much versatility in Leafs forwards and their ability to shift from wing to center, there's no real positional need as much as a depth need.

The Leafs should be looking for a bottom six, veteran depth forward that can bolster a third or fourth line. A playoff vet like Justin Williams or a sniper like Radim Vrbata might be fits if their respective teams decide to sell.

I didn’t come here to (just) make the playoffs
— Mike Babcock, 2015

When Babcock was introduced as the Leafs newest head coach, he preached patience, and building a contender the right way. Developing youth, building a safe and thriving culture, and attracting good players to want to play for the Maple Leafs. He also preached years of pain and suffering. It appears as though those years are over, and it's being recognized more and more as the year progresses. Before the 2017-18 season began, the Leafs were +1400 betting odds to win the Stanley Cup (which I jumped all over on). Now, they are +800 betting odds to win the Stanley Cup according to Bodog, which puts them second behind the Tampa Bay Lighting in terms of favourites to win Lord Stanley. The recent run the Leafs are on sure helps as well, comprising a record of 12-3-1 over their last 16 games, and they are on pace for 108 points this season.

The league, and its bettors, are on notice, and this just might be the year that the Toronto Maple Leafs can finally plan the parade route.

Five Offseason Targets the Leafs Should Pursue

Source: CBS Sports

Source: CBS Sports

Can you believe it's been almost a month since the Leafs lost in the most thrilling first round of the playoffs to the Washington Capitals? The Leafs were eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday April 23. I had to triple check my calendar just to make sure.

Regardless, we are approaching the Stanley Cup Final matchup and at this point it's anyone's Cup to win. The injury to Ryan Johansen really puts a dent into the Predators hopes, and if Pittsburgh can't get healthy in time we could end up seeing a 2007 Stanley Cup Final rematch between the Ducks and Senators. Can someone say #boring? Snooze fest. (Sorry Sens fans, your team really is boring).

Something to notice during these playoffs is the commonality that all four remaining teams possess...defence. They are built from the blue line out, and Pittsburgh is suffering because of their depleted blue line. Players like Karlsson, Josi, Subban, Ellis, Schultz, Fowler and many more are catalysts for these teams and their success. The balance of offensive productivity and defensive presence is something to marvel at.

The Leafs have the necessary offensive weapons. They have the goalie that can steal some games for them and has plenty of playoff experience for a player of his age. The one glaring need for this team is defence, but this doesn't come as a surprise to anyone following this team. With that in mind, let's take a look at some free agents and potential trade targets that the Leafs front office should have some serious conversations about (in no particular order):

We have to get better. It’s obvious certain areas we need (help).
— Lou Lamoriello
Source: Russian Machine Never Breaks

Source: Russian Machine Never Breaks

1) Karl Alzner

No, it's not just because I happen to share the same birthday as Karl Alzner (it's September 24th in case anybody wants to plan ahead for gifts). The Leafs have young defense core that is comprised of Rielly, Gardiner and Zaitsev for the foreseeable future. Alzner would be the perfect fit to slide into that top four. A big, physical body who brings grit and is a great stay at home defenseman who is in his prime is the exact type of player that the Leafs are looking for right now, as is just about every other team in the league. He was sorely missed by the Capitals when he went down with injury during the playoffs, and the Leafs were able to penetrate the zone a lot better without him looming. He will be overpaid, but what decent free agent isn't these days? It would be a smart pursuit for the Leafs.

Priority: HIGH

Source: Sporting News

Source: Sporting News

2) Sami Vatanen

It's no secret that Leafs bench boss Mike Babcock and GM Lou Lamoriello were spotted together in Nashville catching some of the Nashville vs Anaheim series. While it is entirely possible that they happened to be in the same vacation spot together, one would reason that they are scouting the blue lines of either Nashville, Anaheim, or both. While I'm intrigued by the possibility of a trade with someone like Ellis, I believe the more likely scenario would come from Anaheim in the form of Vatanen. Coming off the worst of his three years, and signed to a contract of three more years with an AAV of $4.875 million, he is an attractive piece for many teams coveting a right hand shot defenseman. Anaheim could use more young offensive talent, and Toronto definitely has a massive surplus of that commodity. Look for Toronto to pounce on the opportunity to get great value for a young defenseman on a great contract.

Priority: HIGH

You do whatever you can to get better. But you don’t do things for the sake of doing things.
— Lou Lamoriello
Source: ESPN

Source: ESPN

3) Justin Williams

Yep, Mr. Game 7 himself. "But you said the Leafs have a surplus of offence why would you recom-" Stop. If a guy of this experience and caliber becomes available on the market for a reasonable term and dollar value, all 31 teams will jump on it. Father Time may not be on his side (will be 36 by the 2017 season), but he has played arguably his best hockey since joining the Capitals, posting an average of 50 points over 81 games per year. Not to mention he becomes a beast in the playoffs, especially clutch situations. In 15 game 7's, Williams has 7 goals and 7 assists. That's incredible. Who better to teach the meaning of clutch to this young group of Leafs forwards than Mr. Game 7?

Priority: MEDIUM

Source: Tip of the Tower

Source: Tip of the Tower

4) Brian Boyle

Not all targets have to be new faces. Boyle was acquired at the trade deadline and did a fine job slotting into that fourth line with Martin and the rookie carousel as the other winger. When Kapanen was slotted into the final wing position come playoff time, that fourth line did some damage, and even came up clutch in double OT. That was arguably the greatest moment in the Leafs season, and was set up with a filthy assist from Boyle. (Side note: #BringBowenBack, that guy has the best Leafs broadcasting voice). He brings a physicality and leadership that shouldn't be overlooked. Boyle said he was willing to resign in Toronto, so make it happen Lamoriello and Co.

Priority: MEDIUM

Source: The Hockey Writers

Source: The Hockey Writers

5) Michael Del Zotto

If the Leafs find themselves penny pinching and want to invest in a player who might have a bounce-back campaign, it's Del Zotto. I'll be the first to admit that this isn't a "sexy" option, but it could be worth exploring if the price is right. Del Zotto will only be 27 years of age come the 2017-18 season, and we have seen defensemen take a long time to mature and develop into the top four guys they were projected to be. Would only sign on a one or two year contract, and go from there.

Priority: LOW

You can’t be satisfied. Once you get satisfied, complacency sets in. Once complacency sets in, you’re in trouble. You’re going a different direction.
— Lou Lamoriello

There are some big names I left off my list. I initially wanted the Leafs to pursue Shattenkirk, but when I saw he couldn't hit the net if his life depended on it in the playoffs, it turned me off. Radulov will go back to the Canadiens. Oshie will command too much money for the Leafs to fit in their cap with the contracts of the big three due for renewal soon (Matthews, Marner, Nylander). Thorton is too slow and old to keep up with the speedy Leafs. So on and so forth.

Lou said changes are coming. This management group has proven over the past few years how brilliant and creative they are. Let's hope they can pull out another bunny from the magic hat this offseason.

Toronto, PLEASE Don't Turn Into New York

Source: Cogeco

Source: Cogeco

Dear Toronto sports fans,

As a city, we are collectively in a situation that has never been experienced before. We are finally beginning to breed success with all three major sports teams. The beloved Maple Leafs finally appear to have a promising future ahead with all star rookies and arguably the league's brightest coaching staff and front office. The Blue Jays have made it to two consecutive ALCS series, lead by an American League MVP and a fantastic starting rotation. The Raptors have made it to the postseason for the fourth year in a row, and Ujiri has single handily turned around a franchise that was the laughing stock of the NBA (excluding the Kings, they will always be trash). Hell, even TFC has managed to capture the hearts of all sports fans across this wonderful city.

Rolling Stone recently wrote an article explaining why Toronto looks to become the next sports mecca in North America, which can be viewed here. Reading this article made me think of other sports cities and meccas across North America. Cities such as Boston and Los Angeles come to mind, but arguably the highest profile of them all is New York. When New York teams are successful, sports media can't get enough coverage of them, players flock to the city practically begging to play for their teams and fans will lay roses at the feet of anything and anyone associated with sport success. We are currently in an era where New York sports have taken a turn for the worse. Let's take the Knicks for example. Media still cover them, but every piece that comes from them seems to revolve around negativity. Players and their agents claim to be avoiding the sinking ship and its captain James Dolan. Which leads me to the fans...they will not hesitate to pick up the roses they laid on the ground and use the thorns to stab everyone they deem to be "a disgrace to the city", which on a failing New York sports team is literally everyone.

The city of New York is used to seeing championships. The fans expect nothing less than championship calibre teams year after year. As quickly as they praise athletes is as quickly as they shun them. I see the same behaviour in Toronto whenever a team is on a losing streak or doesn't start the year off quite like it hoped (we are all looking at you Blue Jays). Toronto sports fans can't be like this, and I am here to explain why.

1) We are Canadians. It is literally unpatriotic to be rude or impolite to anybody, especially our sports teams. I have never heard anyone say they love people from New York more than people from Toronto, so let's not go down to their level.
2) They have seen a lot of championships in the past few decades. Toronto fans haven't stood in a parade route for almost 25 years. I get it, I'm hungry for a championship too, but let's take success where we can.
3) People will begin to view Toronto and Canada in a different light if they see us running players and executives out of town. While an extreme example, Vancouver has left its reputation tarnished forever with these riots from losing the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
4) Speaking of negative perceptions, Toronto needs to act like it's been there before. Throwing beer cans on the field during the playoffs and being labelled as "the most despised fan base in baseball" doesn't help distinguish us as the polite Canadians that we are... 
5) There's a difference between critical analysis and plain stupidity. It's okay to have an opinion and have healthy debate, but saying outlandish things such as suggesting trading former AL MVP Donaldson because he is hurt doesn't give us true fans a good profile.

People in general seem to like and respect Toronto. For some sports, Toronto represents not only a city, but a nation. We as Toronto sports fans need to understand this, accept it and embrace it. Let's enjoy the ride, and let's enjoy the processes and changes that come along with it. When the mighty Toronto teams fall, and they inevitably will, we need to hold our heads high and know that this generation of Toronto sports has firmly placed our city as a premier North American sports city.