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Started From The Bottom Now We’re In The Goddamn Playoffs

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How did this year’s Leafs surpass expectations?

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

At the start of this season, I tried to do a post looking at what happened to teams the year after they finished 30th. I ran through a number of precedents, differentiated some, took bits of others, and came to a final guess that the Leafs would finish with about 87 points. They’d be within shouting distance of a playoff spot, but would miss. A nice, respectable follow-up season.

Well, you all know how that worked out. On Saturday night, the Leafs collected their 95th point of the season and clinched a playoff spot. They have been definitively better than I expected.

You want to know the crazy thing? I still think the logic of the article holds up! I’ve been wrong about a ton of stuff in my blogging career. But this season featured some things for which there’s no real precedent. These Leafs had some extraordinary things going on.

Here’s how the Leafs made the leap.

1. Health Makes Wealth

Let’s get this out of the way: the Leafs did have luck on their side this year.

Not from a huge PDO spike, the way the Carlyle Leafs did for a time. Certainly not in shootouts, where the Leafs likely deserved better than they got. On the injured reserve list.

Looking at their entire top nine forwards and top four defence, the only player to miss more than five games was fourth defenceman Connor Carrick. Aside from Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly missing five games apiece, the Leafs have been a paragon of health. Some of this is from having a team that is by and large very young; some of it is pure, dumb, luck. If the Leafs had suffered the injury devastation of the Penguins or the Lightning, we wouldn’t be in a playoff spot.

Of course, those healthy players had to do a lot more than show up to get us here. As follows:

2. Frederik Andersen Did Work

People have noted down the stretch that Andersen, Jonathan Bernier, and James Reimer all have very similar all-situations save percentages this year—.918, .917 and .917. I think Jonathan Bernier is better than other people seem to, and I think the Frederik Andersen deal had some risk to it (still does.)

Credit where it’s due: Frederik Andersen has been a quality starting goaltender For the first thing, he’s been a workhorse: 66 GP is more than most of us expected he’d have to play. Partly this was due to the team’s backup goalie struggles; Jhonas Enroth wasn’t able to get the job done, and the team leaned on Andersen heavily until Curtis McElhinney took over the second string job. Andersen had never played anything like that many games in an NHL season before (his previous high was 54). That he handled the workload is in itself impressive.

But beyond that, the Leafs’ evolving defence group gave up high danger chances in bunches, and it meant Andersen was playing at an elevated degree of difficulty. If you take the raw number for “goals saved above average”, which adjusts for shot difficulty, Frederik Andersen is a top-ten goalie in the NHL. Hat tip to him, and to Lou for getting him; with a lesser goalie, the Leafs aren’t close to the playoffs.

3. The Fully Evolved Nazem Kadri

Remember this?

For a time it seemed everyone was ready to declare Kadri a disappointment, a slacker or an underachiever. Even as he matured somewhat with age, he didn’t generate as much excitement as the touted rookies. His work leading the skeleton-crew Leafs of 2015-2016 in scoring went underappreciated. Probably because not many people were bothering to watch.

Nazem Kadri just set a career high in goals and points as a shutdown centre.

Hold that thought. Kadri was the tough minutes centre on the Leafs this year. He played with running mate Leo Komarov, who is tough as nails but is not famed for his offence, and (usually) with workmanlike RW Connor Brown. And he’s cleared 30 goals and 60 points while facing brutal competition. He’s been legitimately a good two-way player this year while being a top-20 scoring threat. We all expected him to recover from last year’s shooting percentage slump—but what a performance.

4. The Defence Helped The Team Generate

The Leafs’ defence group was not, to put it lightly, rock-solid in its own end. Jake Gardiner is a Corsi superhero with the occasional boneheaded moment. Morgan Rielly bleeds chances against. Nikita Zaitsev has simultaneously been the Leafs’ best RHD and has had his struggles against tough competition.

Yet those three all produced points at a top-pair rate. Hell, even the much-maligned (sometimes by me) Matt Hunwick has produced an impressive number of even-strength points—in the top 65 in the NHL for defenders.

The Leafs do not have great defence, but they have an effective defence group, because they push like hell to generate chances. As part of the Leafs being the highest-event team in the NHL, Mike Babcock has coached his defence towards more aggressive pinches and less conservative play. In recent months, even the historically very conservative Roman Polak has been seen charging into the opposing zone to maintain possession. It’s not always pretty; sometimes it leads to rushes against, and we’d all like the Leafs to clean up in their own zone. But it’s allowed the Leafs to function with surprising effectiveness despite lacking a conventional 1D.

5. Mike Babcock Is Worth Every Penny

Mike Babcock is famously one of the best possession coaches in the NHL, and he has continued to be so. He led a team still establishing itself to a top-ten adjusted CF%—the Leafs actually have edged out the famed Chicago Blackhawks, at time of writing—while also coaching a good-enough penalty kill and a spectacular power play. And while the power play is obviously being driven by some pretty key personnel, remember that last year, with very few offensive threats, the Leafs generated a ton of shots 5 v 4. Some of it is systems.

More than anything: Mike Babcock trusted his rookies. Leaving Detroit, the muttering was that Babcock put too much faith in his veterans, that the Leafs would leave their kids to wait their turn Detroit-model style.

Well, Mike Babcock has run a top line composed entirely of rookies. He has two further rookies in his top nine, and a couple others have been 4RWs. His top RHD is new from Russia, and his second RHD was only narrowly past rookie status. Babcock trusted them all, and he made it work. In addition to being a great systems coach, he’s shown—with the rookies, with Kadri, and with the defence—that he’s a quality developmental coach, too. The foundation he’s laid for this franchise is enormous.

All right, I know, I’ve been holding back the big one.

6. The Greatest Crop Of Rookies In History

There, I said it.

The biggest difference between what we expected and what happened is simply that the Leafs’ rookies have been way, way better than we had any right to expect. Going into the year, I took Jack Eichel’s rookie season (24 goals, 32 assists, 56 points) as a quality benchmark for what Matthews might do as a similarly touted rookie, and I scaled my expectations for the others down from there.

All of Matthews, Nylander, and Marner have easily zoomed past Eichel’s rookie totals. They’re the second trio of rookies in history to clear 60 points for one team. The first group—the 1980-81 Quebec Nordiques—played before the invention of goaltending and featured one rookie (Peter Stastny) who was 24. All of the Leafs’ big three are younger than 21.

William Nylander and Mitch Marner have both awed. Nylander almost singlehandedly runs a powerplay unit for the Leafs and has produced spectacularly while there—with zone entries, with needle-thread passing, with a sniper’s shot. Marner has been a sparkplug offensive generator and playmaker, leading Tyler Bozak to a career high in points and James van Riemsdyk very close to one.

And don’t forget the less heralded rookies. Zach Hyman has four shorthanded goals and has been found money. Connor Brown has quietly grinded his way to a 20-goal season and looks like the best Leafs sixth-round pick in recent memory. Even if Nikita Zaitsev is a rookie in name only, him coming over and slotting right into the top four like he has was no sure thing. Essentially, everything has worked out as well as we could have hoped.

More than anything, Auston Matthews. There was no precedent for Auston Matthews. Look for a teenaged rookie who scored 40 goals, and you’ll find yourself looking back to Mario Lemieux. At time of writing, he is second in the Rocket Richard race, behind only Sidney Crosby. He is the only player in the league this year to register a shot in every single game. If I went back in time and tried to explain to myself how good Matthews has been, I wouldn’t believe me. That’s the bottom line: Matthews has been unbelievable.

***

Who knows how the playoffs will go—Frederik Andersen’s health is iffy right now, and it’s possible the Leafs will wind up in a tough draw against the Cup favourite Washington Capitals. But whatever happens, this season has been an unqualified success.