Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY SPORTS
The end of 2016 is upon us; ten hours away, in fact, if you live in the centre of the universe. It’s been a roller-coaster year in a lot of ways, and if you’re a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, that coaster was amplified. Tanks, trades, kids, legends, and more took centre stage as Toronto approached and began its centennial season, so with that in mind, I’ve picked 16 moments to remember from the year that passed.
16. Nylander makes his first splash
I still remember how shocked I was that the Leafs drafted William Nylander in 2014. It wasn’t so much that he was an off-the-board pick, as much as it was that he didn’t line up at all with the blueprint that the team had been projecting publicly for the previous year and a half. It was a sign that hey, maybe there’d be a light at the end of that tunnel eventually.
But they did it. And they were patient with him, and they let him spend some extra time in Sweden. Then, when the time was right, they brought him to the Marlies. They let him dominate there for a while. The start of Nylander’s 2016, involving recovery for a concussion and appendicitis, wasn’t quite as planned, but come the trade deadline, he was called up to begin his NHL journey. In a season that was bad in the most boring way, seeing him and a selection of other kids begin to make their marks was a breath of fresh air. Now, his status as golden boy has been leapfrogged by Auston Matthews, but he still remains an incredibly important and extremely talented piece of the process, and the first to truly tease us.
15. Kapanen wins the Gold Medal
Kasperi Kapanen had a slow start to his career in the Leafs organization. That much is undeniable; for a while, people were wondering if the Leafs asked for the wrong prospects in the Kessel-to-Pittsburgh trade.
But after a less-than-great effort by Team Canada in the 2016 World Juniors, all eyes were on Kapanen and the Finns to give us something to rally around. Kapanen rose to the occasion, becoming the unlikely hero on a team loaded with top prospects when he scored the Gold Medal winning goal in overtime.
The rest of his season was still a little inconsistent, but you saw some degrees of confidence start to form after that play. Now, he’s one of the most important players on the Marlies, with the NHL in his sights as early as next year.
14. Frederik Andersen Awakens
Connor McDavid and Frederik Andersen have a moment while Morgan Rielly figures out what he wants to do with the puck pic.twitter.com/57x70RSFh1
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) November 30, 2016
Frederik Andersen promised us, amidst his struggles, that he’d return to his days of being “Fuck You Freddy”, a goaltender who simply didn’t care what his opponents had going for them and could calmly get the puck as far away from his net as possible.
After five games and a 0.851 save percentage, most thought he left the expletives in Anaheim. But in 24 starts since October 27th, Andersen has been one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, going 14-7-3 with a 0.939 save percentage and a shutout. The degree of consistency he’s shown has given the Leafs some flexibility to figure out their game in front of him, and now the skaters are delivering winning efforts as well.
For the first time in a long time, it looks like Toronto has some stability in the starting goaltenders role. Many people were curious about this trade when the Leafs made it, but between this and Horvat-for-Schneider, maybe it’s time to let Lou Lamoriello pick the puck stopper without too many raised eyebrows.
13. Leafs trade Phaneuf
The trade that sent Dion Phaneuf away from the Maple Leafs was almost as sudden and jarring as the one that brought him in. Out of nowhere, the Leafs and Senators PR accounts both throw this blockbuster out there: Phaneuf, Cody Donaghey, Casey Bailey, Ryan Rupert, and Matt Frattin were heading to the Senators, while Milan Michalek, Colin Greening, Jared Cowen, Tobias Lindberg, and a 2nd round pick were coming back to Toronto.
Also, the Leafs didn’t retain salary. Also, somehow, the Marlies retained Frattin. It was alarming, it was confusing, it was… a brilliant move of cap avoidance. Ottawa wanted a player of Dion’s calibre, and he’s been okay with them so far, but what Toronto got was a near-complete rising of the books by the end of this season, only holding onto $750,000 of Cowen’s (eventual, long debated) buyout next year. It was also a statement move, declaring that the Leafs were no longer Dion and Phil’s team, and were, well, just a team. So far, so good.
12. Nikita Zaitsev finally signs
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) May 2, 2016
It was a move many had been waiting on for a long time. In October 2015, we recieved word that Nikita Zaitsev, who had spoken with the Leafs on a couple of prior occasions, had no real interest in playing for any other team on earth, and would be signing with the Blue and White at his first opportunity.
That was great, but with months to go, we nervously watched to see how the rest of his KHL season went. As it turns out, he solidified his spot as the best defenceman in the whole league, and with Habs forward Alexander Radulov, carried CSKA Moscow to the Gagarin Cup Final and was their best player in that last round.
Since coming to the Leafs, a move that he put to paper on May 1st, he’s found himself a home on the first pair with Morgan Rielly and won the hearts of the fanbase.
11. Marlies beat the Devils in Game 7
You know the rebuild is real when the fanbase all tilts their heads down to the American Hockey League in time for the playoffs, which is exactly what happened with the Toronto Marlies last year. But their second round series appeared to breathe a competitive spirit back into Toronto’s most passionate of fans, and for good reason.
Until the Hershey Bears ran a hot Justin Peters into a conference final upset, the Albany Devils were thought to be the one fellow giant that stood in Toronto’s path. This was supposed to be a series of two very good teams, playing offensive hockey versus defensive hockey with one becoming victorious.
What we ended up getting was one of the single dirtiest hockey series of this decade, with many questionable hits leading to hurt bones, hurt brains, and hurt feelings. Toronto kept chugging away despite the violence, though and won the series in seven games thanks to a last-minute by Rich Clune, who was originally thought to be the series’ enforcer rather than the goal scoring hero.
Hindsight will likely reveal this series to be the one where parts of the Leafs’ core truly developed their thick skin.
10. Nazem Kadri’s coming out party
Fancy-stat types will tell you that it was only a matter of time before Nazem Kadri broke out into a legitimate, high minute NHL centre. His production numbers have always been good, his possession numbers have typically been good, he draws a ton of penalties, and he plays a modern game.
But this year, Kadri has emerged as a widely-accepted two-way presence, pumping up his production while playing against tough competition. No game was a better statement, though, than when he shadowed Connor McDavid on November 1st, making his life a living hell before outmuscling him to score the overtime winner.
9. The rise of Mitch Marner
Why is there so much concern about Mitch Marner bulking up for training camp? He’s been lifting weights for weeks. pic.twitter.com/gJUFuWAePo
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) May 30, 2016
For years, Mitch Marner was told he was too small, too defensively unaware, too weak, and a bunch of other negative “too” statements to become a great player.
In the calendar year 2016, Mitch Marner played in the World Juniors, won OHL, OHL Playoff, CHL, and Memorial Cup MVPs, led the OHL Playoffs in scoring, led the Memorial cup in scoring, won both of those championships with the London Knights, and basically did everything you could at his level of junior hockey from his position. People still debated whether he was ready for the NHL, so he’s responded by scoring at a 61 point pace for the Leafs through the first 35 games of the season.
Needless to say, people are asking significantly fewer questions about Marner these days.
8. Extension Day
Really nice defensive play by Morgan Rielly here to strip Ovechkin and send it over to Kadri. pic.twitter.com/NrFpN6uKd3
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) November 27, 2016
To give you an idea of how insane these two contracts were, my dad had passed away the day prior and I still spent significant parts of the morning thinking “holy crap, this is robbery”. So shoutout to Leafs management for giving me a coping distraction, but also, I still can’t believe they signed these two to these deals.
We talked about Kadri’s coming out party a few paragraphs back, but how perfect is it that it came just after he signed to a six-year contract? At $4.5 million per, he’s making “good third liner” money from ages 26-33, meaning that he won’t get in the way of the big three. In Rielly’s case, he is part of the defence corps top core, so to have your most relied upon defenceman locked up long term for $5 million is hilarious. Getting moves like this out of the way to support the stars of the future is key to a successful rebuild, and it’s already paying dividends now.
7. Livin on a Prayer
Fourth liners and goalies are fighting each other, and all Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner want to do is sing some Bon Jovi together pic.twitter.com/hSBFpoKLWm
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) November 6, 2016
November 5th is going to be a night we talk about for a very long time in Toronto. That’s the night when the Leafs and Canucks went super nuts on each other, with dirty hits, blatant spears, goalie fisticuffs, and everything in between. The sequel wasn’t as crazy as anticipated, but we’ll always have that 6-3 victory to talk about as an example of the Leafs filling the net while holding their own physically.
Most importantly, though, we’ll have the above clip of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, who seem to be in their own zone while Toronto and Vancouver’s depth players jump down each other’s throats.
6. Upsetting the Penguins
I can’t remember the last time the ACC was this loud for a regular season game. pic.twitter.com/5WB2ChJy43
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) December 18, 2016
This is a recent one, but I think we’ll look to this game as an example of the Leafs being able to hold their own with the big boys. After being taken to school by the Penguins a few weeks earlier, Toronto ensured that history wouldn’t repeat itself on December 17th.
They decidedly outshot and out-attempted the Penguins, the top defensive pairing stood on its head, Nikita Zaitsev scored his first goal, Phil Kessel’s stick broke, and that overtime? It’s been years since we’ve heard the ACC that loud for a Leafs game; between the 5-on-3 penalty kill late in regulation and Jake Gardiner’s OT winner, Toronto’s fans made the team feel appreciated.
5. A Perfect Home Opener
The Leafs kicked off their centennial season in style. Okay, losing to Ottawa in Ottawa kinda stung (more on that in a bit), but the retirement ceremony for all of Toronto’s greats was really touching, they mixed in some past with the future with their new game-day experience, and the game itself?
Well, they beat Boston 4-1 on home ice. Though the next couple weeks had some ups and downs, it was a performance that showed what this group was capable of; and soon. From the looks of it, soon is dangerously close to already. Like, maybe next week already.
4. Auston’s Arrival
This night might be remembered as one of the single greatest performances by a Leafs player in history. Not quite ten points by Sittler, but certainly up there; especially given that it came from a kid in his NHL Day #1. Auston Matthews didn’t make us wait long to see his first NHL goal. Or his second, or his third, or his fourth, becoming the first player to ever score so many goals in his debut.
In classic Leafs fashion, he was the only goal scorer and they lost 5-4, but we knew right then and there how special of a player he was going to be, and already is.
3. Keon Comes Home
Dave Keon’s relationship with the Leafs has long been a subject of debate, but there was never any doubt of him being one of the greatest players in Leafs history. Hellbent on mending the demons of the past, Brendan Shanahan and company set out to throw the Toronto legend an olive branch, opening the podium to him to see how they could make things better for himself and his family, how to properly honour himself and his former teammates, and how the team should act looking forward.
Keon was impressed by the sincerity of the organization, something that he hadn’t seen from previous regimes. He liked the rebuild plan. He saw a Leafs organization closer to the one that drew him in than the one that pushed him away, and the sides got to work.
It started small, with an honouring on legends row, but it evolved into community apperances, more mentions in references to team history, and ended up with his #14 joining the others in the rafters in October. While Keon himself isn’t the end-all, beat all of the last century, mending things with him was a gigantic statement as to how the Leafs would move forward.
2. A New Identity
Another gigantic statement? The rebranding of the franchise. After decades of using a logo introduced by Harold Ballard’s regime, that felt tacky and 70’s from a design perspective and looked a lot like years of losing from a historical one, the Leafs took advantage of their centennial to clean up and bring back a classic design that best represented the glory years.
Why do it that way? It’s the right way to have a fresh start while still looking to the past. It looks great on merchandise, it looks great on the players, it evokes better nostalgia, and it’s going to be attached to some fun, fun moments.
1. Luck of the Draw
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) May 1, 2016
Look, I don’t want to put too much pressure on the kid, but we’re likely going to look at draft lottery night as one of the most important moments for the Leafs not just this year, not just this decade, but in team history. Auston Matthews has been absolutely incredible from the very start for the team, immediately solidifying himself as their best player and one of the single best talents in the National Hockey League at the tender age of 19.
But this moment was more than that. It was confirmation for a fanbase looking for something to cheer about that good times were coming. It was confirmation that committing to a long-term plan, even if it involves suffering, can turn out okay as long as you do it right. Fans sat through a miserable season knowing that they’d have a good chance of getting another great prospect, but, with 1-in-5 odds to do so, were rewarded with something more.
Sure, there was some arguing as to what to do with it from the fringe minority of the fanbase, but knowing what we know now, nobody is upset with this timeline. Auston Matthews is a Toronto Maple Leaf, the Leafs are, for the first time in years, actually good, and there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel for all.