With 2019 around the corner, today marks a time for reflection.
We’re more than eight months removed from the end of the 2017-18 season, and almost halfway through the season at hand. The Leafs played a combined 81 regular season and 7 playoff games in 2018, and a lot has changed since we last flipped the calendar.
It’s time to take a trip down memory lane, and take a look at some of the things we’ve learned from our 2018 Toronto Maple Leafs.
1. Tie Doesn’t Always Go To The Veteran
Where to begin?
With Lou Lamoriello out as Leafs GM, and on May 11th, the Toronto Maple Leafs went young, naming Kyle Dubas as the team’s new general manager. The departure of 76-year old Lamoriello for Long Island was not a dismissal by the Leafs, but their move to promote the 32-year old Kyle Dubas over Assisant GM Mark Hunter was a clear indication of the direction the club was moving in.
Dubas made his mark early on, too, landing a certain Free Agent forward on a seven-year deal with his boyhood team.
That wasn’t all, however. After kicking 2018 off playing remarkably boring hockey and failing to get much going, the Leafs began a shift in philosophy, benching dependable veteran Matt Martin for much of the back half of the 2017-18 campaign in favor of an injection of youth, led by callups Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson.
The new injection of youth and speed into the Leafs’ fourth line was a welcome change of scenery after toughness reigned supreme in the bottom six in essentially every year prior.
2. The Playoffs Are A Different Animal
Before the 2017-18 playoffs, the Leafs had not suffered a loss by four goals or more all season long.
As it pains many Leafs fans to remember, the 2017-18 Leafs dropped two consecutive games by a four-goal margin to open their first-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins. Though the Leafs battled back, they were ultimately unable to surmount the deficit they’d carved for themselves, dropping the series in seven games.
Fatigue played a huge part. Frederik Andersen was unable to maintain the same calibre of play that drove much of the Leafs’ success during the regular season, putting up just an .896 save percentage through seven playoff games played. The performance demonstrated the ever-important need to rest the workhorse netminder down the stretch, if playoff success is desired.
3. Morgan Rielly is Really, Really Good
Was there ever really a doubt?
In a year where Brian Burke has risen to prominence on the airwaves, one of his best marks on the Leafs has really begun making a name for himself. After putting up a career-high 52 points in 76 games played last season, Morgan Rielly has exploded into the Norris conversation this season, already breezing past his career-high 9 goals in 2015-16 with 13 through 39 games this season, while his 44 points are already just 8 shy of the career high he established last campaign.
While his current pace remains hardly sustainable, make no doubt: Morgan Rielly is for real, and 2018 made us certain of that.
4. Tavares vs. Matthews is the Internal Scoring Race Of The Season
John Tavares may be scoring the easiest goals of his career in his first go-around with the Leafs, but Auston Matthews is giving him a run for his money.
Tavares remains on pace to score over 54 goals this season – well above his career high of 38. His 26 goals thus far trail only Alexander Ovechkin’s 29, as the Leafs’ second line center.
Enter Auston Matthews. Though he’s gone four-straight without a goal after a dominant start to the season that had some talking a personal 50-in-50 for the young superstar, Matthews remains just seven goals behind his teammate Tavares, with 19. Here’s the catch: he’s accomplished this feat in a remarkable 14 fewer games played.
If Matthews gets hot – as we know he can – it’s not impossible that he jumps back up to being neck-and-neck with Tavares, and knowing him, it may only take a couple of dominant performances to get it done.
5. Depth Players Made Their Mark
Leafs fans knew that Kasperi Kapanen would be a shoe-in on this season’s roster, but very few likely expected him to have made such a mark.
Kapanen made his presence known early on in the season, after an ill-fated early effort against Chicago led Mike Babcock to toss Kapanen up on the top line with Auston Matthews. The two meshed instantly, and Kapanen has never looked back.
After tallying just 7 goals through 38 games last season, Kapanen has stormed out with 14 in 39 thus far this season, putting him on pace for 29 through 82 games. A 30-goal campaign would certainly make the Leafs’ wallets a little lighter, but would also signal that Kapanen is quite intent on doing his best Phil Kessel impersonation for the Leafs.
Kapanen hasn’t been the only one lighting the lamp, either. After a disappointing beginning to the season, Andreas Johnsson has stepped up his game, with 8 goals through 34 games played this season, including his first career hat-trick against the Flyers last month.
2018 was, in many ways, a changing of the guard and another huge leap forward for the youth movement in Toronto. From the front office down, the Leafs have made it known that they’re going young, they’re going fast, and they’re going to light the lamp.
Whether that success will translate beyond the regular season is yet to be seen, but with leaps forward being made all around, it’s not out of the question that “playing into June” could be next.