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The Countdown: 3 Maple Leafs who are exceeding expectations this season
By Shane Seney1 month ago
The Toronto Maple Leafs kick off their 2024 schedule against the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night. The Leafs sit with a 17-10-7 record, good for third in the Atlantic Division.
While there’s been a number of Maple Leafs who haven’t lived up to their own expectations, there has been a few players who continue to deliver when the team needs them the most. For this edition of The Countdown, here’s three Maple Leafs who have exceeded expectations so far during the 2023-24 season:
Is 29 goals in 33 games good? It seems good. It’s also crazy to think there’s been two four-game stretches where Matthews hasn’t scored. So it’s essentially been 29 goals in 25 appearances this season for the Leafs superstar.
Matthews continues to be the catalyst for Toronto and has the ability to take over the game at any moment, regardless of how well he’s been playing that night. While he’d love to add onto his 15 assists this season, it truly doesn’t matter as long as he’s putting the puck in the net and carrying the team when he needs to offensively. On the defensive side of the puck, he will get some Selke votes this season and continues to be an effective 200-foot player. Head coach Sheldon Keefe has been using him on the penalty kill and while it hasn’t necessarily been a perfect fit, the Arizona boy has been effective and this set up will continue into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Leafs star did take his first penalty recently, which is actually kind of surprising considering how engaged Matthews gets on both sides of the puck and how often he uses his stick-lift to gain puck possession. You’d think he’d get more hooking calls but he doesn’t.
Look for Matthews to continue his scoring ways into the unofficial second-half of the season. His chemistry gained this season with Matthew Knies has been fun to watch, and with one of Mitch Marner or William Nylander on his wing, the goals should continue to pile up.
Speaking of Nylander, since day one this season, has been on a tear. He looks way more engaged than he’s ever looked, he hasn’t shied away from contact and he’s put some of his horrible floating shifts behind him. To think it wasn’t that long ago Leafs fans were calling for Nylander to be traded is kind of wild.
Nylander is taking advantage of his contract season so far, registering a team-leading 48 points in 34 games. He currently sits 5th in NHL scoring and is certainly going to be cashing in sooner than later on his next deal. Nylander wants to remain a Maple Leaf and has made it very loud and clear to GM Brad Treliving he’s open to getting an extension done.
The biggest jump for Nylander this season has been on the defensive side of the puck. Like Matthews, he’s been killing a ton of penalties and even has two short-handed goals on the season, which leads the Maple Leafs. It’s likely you didn’t have that on your ‘Leafs Bingo Card’ for this season. Of course, it all comes down to getting results in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, however, it’s important to appreciate the regular season success and so far Matthews and Nylander have been leading the way.
It seems like Rielly is always the forgotten piece of the Leafs core, but this season, that shouldn’t be the case at all. The 29-year-old is in the second season of his eight-year $60 million contract and Rielly has done absolutely everything in his power to quiet the critics who said he was overpaid. The B.C native has recorded 27 points in 34 games this season, good for 17 more than any other Leafs blueliner. Rielly’s been the only one generating offense from the back end, which is actually a bit of an issue for the Leafs. Treliving tried addressing this with the signing of John Klingberg this offseason, and we all know how that went.
Rielly sits 12th in the NHL when it comes to production from blueliners and should be able to sneak into the top-10 by the end of the season. He’s played mostly with TJ Brodie this season, however if Treliving acquires a couple of d-men as expected, things could shake up a little, which won’t be an issue for Rielly. Because of the way he can rely on his skating, his smarts and his puck-handling abilities, Rielly’s becoming a true #1 defensemen and is the type of d-partner many would love to jump over the boards with every shift.
While the likes of Nick Robertson, Ilya Samsonov and Timothy Liljegren need to step up their games in early 2024, Matthews, Nylander and Rielly have been Toronto’s best three players and continue to lead the way.
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