2016 was a .... turbulent year across the world. But it’s been a positive one for cursed sports franchises. The Cleveland Cavaliers overcame a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to win the title (people forget that). The Chicago Cubs overcame a century of heartbreak to win a World Series. And the Leafs ... well, we didn’t finish first, or particularly close to it. But it was a positive year for the blue and white, and to end the year off on a positive note, we’re counting down the five best moments for the Leafs in 2016.
- Kadri and Rielly sign long term deals to stay in Toronto
- Nylander lights up his ‘hometown’ Flames
- The birth of “Nazem Kadri, shutdown centre”
- All the rookies. All of them. Even Hyman.
5. The hometown boy in the home-opener
As Leafs fans, I’m sure at some point, we’ve all dreamed about playing for the team. Obviously, very few get to live out that dream. But we can live vicariously through Mitch Marner as he lives out his.
Coming into the season, there was a small subset of fans and media who felt the winger’s size may prevent him from imposing his skillset on the NHL this season. Marner promptly made them look foolish in the preseason, and continued his high level of play when the games started to matter.
In the Leafs home opener against Boston, he got his first NHL goal, in a play that encapsulates the Mitch Marner experience like few others.
The beautiful reception of the pass, the speed, the shot - his skillset is on full display here. And so is his infectious enthusiasm, which has already made him a huge fan favourite. It also led to an adorable story about his mom missing the goal while at the game because she was in the restroom.
As you’ll shortly see, adorable parent celebrations are a bit of a theme here. But let’s not skip ahead too soon.
good ol' Skipping Mitch Marner. pic.twitter.com/gkL1Ku73dJ— Blinn and Juice (@NHLBlinn) November 12, 2016
4. WHOOAAA! LIVIN’ ON A PRAAAYYER
Sticking with the Marner theme, this light-hearted moment in the midst of a tense game against the Canucks reminded us that 19 year old hockey superstars are still just 19 years old.
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
What’s not to like here? You have the future stars of the Leafs organization jamming out to some dad rock. Presumably, William Nylander was offscreen doing the same thing.
3. The Phaneuf Trade
Most of the best 2016 Leafs moments are be from the 2016/2017 season. After all, it’s hard for positive moments to be associated with losing. But while last season was frustrating at times on the ice, the front office did a masterful job of collecting young assets and moving long-term harmful deals (Phil Kessel trade aside).
The most impressive of these moves was the trade of Dion Phaneuf to Ottawa on February 9th. The full trade was Phaneuf, along with Matt Frattin, Casey Bailey, Ryan Rupert, and Cody Donaghey to the Senators for Jared Cowen, Colin Greening, Milan Michalek, Tobias Lindberg, and a 2017 2nd round pick. Cowen has since been bought out, while the remaining players now play for the Marlies, and Lindberg aside, do not look to have much of a future with the Leafs past this season.
This was (and remains) a coup for the Leafs, who took advantage of the Sens desire to shed short-term money and unloaded a toxic contract owed to a declining player, and getting legitimate assets back for doing so, in the form of Lindberg and a pick. While the trade results in a little bit of a cap bind this season (depending on the bonuses of the Leafs’ rookies), it frees up enormous amounts of money in later years, when the Leafs are more likely to contend. It is, in my opinion, the single best move this front office has made.
Like many deals under the Shanahan regime, it just happened out of the blue. There were very vague rumblings that morning of a trade, but literally nothing leaked out prior to that. As a result, the shock and glee that ensued from this trade makes this one of the best Leafs moments of the year.
2. The Lottery
Leafs fans went into the lottery expecting the worst. Thanks to an intrepid tanking effort, Toronto went into the lottery with the best odds of the first overall selection. But the NHL’s new lottery structure meant that for the first time, the worst overall team wasn’t guaranteed a top two pick. In fact, the Leafs had an almost 50% chance of dropping three places (the most possible) and picking fourth. In a draft with a perceived drop-off after the third player (presumed to be Jesse Puljujarvi), the most Leafy outcome was staring us in the face.
Then the lottery happened. And from slots 14 to four, the Leafs logo never showed up. The ping pong balls hadn’t been cruel to the Leafs this time. They made it to the top three. Honestly, this was more than most Leafs fan expected. But we all know that there was one grand prize in this lottery, and for a team that has been starved of an elite centre since the days of Sundin, the only person we’d be truly satisfied with is Auston Matthews. We know what happened from here, and it remains one of the most impactful moments of the year for Leafs fans. If all goes well, it’ll go down as one of the most impactful moments in Leafs history.
1. The Debut
What else can it be? After all the hype and discussion about Matthews, after all the analysis of what would be a reasonable rookie year for him... he comes out and does this:
This was beyond insane. The hype that Matthews received before playing a single NHL game was nuts. He was all but inaugurated as the Leafs future captain. He was named to Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey, over established NHLers like Max Domi. Leafs fans were already pencilling him in for a spot on Legends Row.
To come into the NHL in your first game, and not only justify that hype, but vastly exceed it was phenomenal, and shocking. No one could have predicted this. Even his parents were in disbelief.
And watching it play out in real time was the most fun I’ve had as a Leafs fan in about a decade or so. This was always going to be #1. Nothing else comes close. The draft lottery is obviously the more impactful moment long-term, but I don’t think anything beats the insanity of his debut. Regardless, the top two moments on this list belong to Matthews, and thanks to him, we’re going to have a lot of great memories for future lists like these.
Let me know what you guys think. Would you have any other moments on the list? What do you think should be number one?