Even the biggest Leafs fan would have to admit that the Leafs got lucky this year.
Let’s just appreciate for a minute just how lucky the Leafs were: everything that needed to go right, did.
It’s not that the Leafs made so many big gambles this season; in fact, most of their moves were no-brainers – good moves. And a lot of things that went right weren’t even the result of ‘moves’ per se, but rather just an improvement from within that went better than expected. Or maybe more accurately, the improvement landed in the upper percentile in about 10 different cases. That, really, is luck.
So what made the Leafs lucky? It wasn’t any one single thing, but rather that a lot of things went right all at once.
1. They won the draft lottery, and Auston Matthews really was that good.
OK, so they came in last and had the best chance of drafting first overall. They were still more likely than not to draft later. More than that, there was a whole lot of talk about whether or not to draft Patrik Laine first overall, and they stuck with Matthews, and for now, it appears that they made the right choice. Then, not only did Matthews match Jack Eichel’s rookie numbers, he outstripped them easily. He scored 40 goals. FORTY GOALS. Oh, and he lead the team in points. Yeah, he surpassed expectations.
2. Mitch Marner really wasn’t too small, for crying out loud.
Yeah, he was fine. Remember all that talk about how Marner just wouldn’t be able to do the things at the NHL level that he did in junior? He did them. He did all of them, and then sang Bon Jovi.
3. William Nylander took exactly the step forward the Leafs hoped he would.
We all expected Nylander to be good this year, but he was fantastic. He definitely exceeded fans’ already-high expectations. Not only did the guy notch 61 points, he did so with fantastic possession numbers, and he only looked better as the season wore on. Against the Caps in the playoffs, he was often the Leafs’ best player. I don’t know if you’d call this ‘lucky’, but you’d have to admit that it was one more thing that worked out about as well as it could have for Toronto.
4. Nikita Zaitsev was serviceable.
We knew that Zaitsev played top minutes in the KHL and was given a lot of responsibility, but we really didn’t know how that would translate to the NHL. As it turns out, Zaitsev is an above-average skater with the puck, and while he isn’t superb defensively, has turned out to be something like a top-four defenceman overall in terms of possession, which is fantastic news for a team desperate to prevent goals. All this being said, it would probably be smart if the Leafs didn’t sign him for seven years.
5. Frederik Andersen was just as good as the Leafs gambled he would be.
I don’t mind saying that I was very critical of the trade-and-sign move the Leafs made to acquire Andersen. I stand by my opinion that it was a bad gamble at the time, but the thing is, it’s just worked out. The Leafs rode Anderson like a mule all season and he performed admirably. But there really was no way of knowing that he would do that before this season because he’d never done it before, and his existing body of work was too small to pretend to be confident about it. The Leafs rolled the dice on Andersen and appear to have hit the jackpot. Win.
Important disclaimer: variance can be a real jerk, and Andersen could be substantially worse next season – who knows? This deal could still turn out to look ugly, at least in stretches.
6. Connor Carrick’s play in the Marlies’ playoff run wasn’t a fluke.
Carrick looked okay in his brief stint with the Leafs in 2015-16, but what really earned him his contract was his stellar play with the Marlies in their playoffs, where he put up 18 points in 15 games. Sure, he wasn’t lighting the lamp like crazy in a Leaf uniform, but he certainly proved that he belonged in the NHL – his offensive possession numbers are fantastic.
7. Some other teams just plain fell apart.
There was no way the Leafs were going to make the playoffs without implosions in both Florida and Tampa, but that’s exactly what happened. Steven Stamkos got injured, and then things just went to hell in a handbasket. There were more injuries in Florida, and then the Panthers wound up getting driven from playoff contention as well. The Leafs probably won’t be so lucky next season with these two division foes.
8. Curtis McElhinney was pretty good.
No sensible person would have put their first bet on MacIlhenney putting up a .914 with the Leafs, even if it was only over 14 games. It’s not that it was a jaw-dropping occurrence—we know goalies see a lot of variance in their performances—but it was just one more thing that went right that was unlikely. Odds were much stronger that McElhinney would provide something closer to his .905 career average and lost the Leafs a couple more games, and maybe even a playoff spot. If Leafs’ fans are really lucky, the team will recognize this and won’t re-sign him in the summer.
9. Tyler Bozak hit a career high in points.
If you told us three years ago that Tyler Bozak would still be playing with the Leafs, would no longer have Phil Kessel on his wing, would no longer be playing top-line minutes, but would still somehow surpass all his previous offensive totals... We would have thought you were drunk. But here we are. Bozak played in a more appropriate place in the lineup (something like a third line centre) and still provided the Leafs with an offensive threat. Sure, sure, playing with Marner and van Riemsdyk is playing with two guys who produce at a first-line rate, but still. Bozak’s offensive production was a thing that went right for the Leafs. It might not have. In previous years, he played with van Riemsdyk and Kessel and scored less.
10. None of the Leafs’ best players missed much time due to injury.
This one is pretty self-explanatory, but was a big part of the Leafs’ success in 2016-17. The Leafs can’t reasonably expect to be this healthy every year, or any other year, really. If the Leafs’ best players were all this healthy a second time, it would be at least somewhat remarkable.
The real question that all of this luck raises is: how much of it can the Leafs and their fans expect to happen again? Certainly, there is no reason to expect any specific players will get injured, but it seems likely that at least one of them will at some point next season. There’s no reason to think that Andersen’s play will drop off next season either, but some variance wouldn’t be unusual. It’s probable that the Leafs’ rookies will all take a step forward next season in their development, but how big a step is anyone’s guess, and of course the possibility exists that they don’t at all.
The point I’m making is this: next year, it’s doubtful that all 10 of these things will go as well as they did this season. Of course, maybe I’ve just been a Leafs’ fan for too long. Maybe the Leafs will improve in other regards so much that it won’t matter that Bozak’s scoring falls off, Matthews gets seriously injured and the Florida Panthers, and Tampa Bay Lightning wind up being much more competitive. But then, maybe it will matter.