From miseries to luxuries, built-in excuses to unhinged expectations, the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fanbase, now entering their the fourth season in the Mike Babcock, are free to dream.
Even before handing out the most significant free-agent contract the NHL has seen in many, many years with the addition of John Tavares, the Maple Leafs were included in the NHL’s handful of truly elite teams. Anything short of lengthy playoff run this season would be considered a massive disappointment.
With that, let’s examine their “Brightest Timeline, Darkest Timeline” potential.
It’s the Stanley Cup, right? From a pure talent perspective, there might not be another franchise able to match the potential at Babcock’s disposal, and it’s on him to come up with the right mix.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that everything wouldn’t have to fall just so for the Maple Leafs to not just win their first playoff round in 15 seasons, but string together four. So what, aside from playoff bounces, has to happen for the Maple Leafs to achieve this best-case scenario?
Beginning with the forwards, Auston Matthews needs to stay healthy, William Nylander needs a contract, Patrick Marleau needs to continue resisting Father Time, and the combination of Tavares and Mitch Marner needs to be at least half as lethal as expected for the Maple Leafs to score with the top tier of NHL teams. If either Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson could provide 20-25 goals from a depth position in the lineup, it would be a considerable boon. Further, should Par Lindholm convince Babcock that a veteran centre add isn’t required at the deadline, you know the Leafs are in a strong place.
Things are, of course, a little less certain on the backend. A return to form for Nikita Zaitsev is of utmost importance for the overall health of the top four. And from a bigger-picture standpoint, the hope has to be that organization depth that the Maple Leafs have achieved under Kyle Dubas will lift the entire core. No setbacks from Travis Dermott and an immediate impact from Igor Ozhiganov are key to this, as well as limiting the reliance on a somewhat-fading Ron Hainsey.
Finally, a repeat season for Freddie Andersen would suffice. Finishing fourth in Vezina Trophy voting and establishing franchise records in the process, the Maple Leafs can actually afford to see him take a slight step back.
It would be the failure to make progress.
You can’t say for certain that the Maple Leafs won’t miss the playoffs, but one has to believe that despite the adversity they will encounter, talent will shine through over 82 games — barring a rash of injuries.
So instead the disaster scenario is a third consecutive opening-round exit.
While the optics surrounding losses to Washington and Boston in the last two postseasons were much different, there was ultimately no shame in either defeat. As much as they played themselves into a position to win in a Game 7 in Boston only to lay an egg, the Maple Leafs bowed out to an elite team as measured by virtually any metric. Same with the Capitals in the season prior.
In the talent-rich Atlantic Division, there’s a strong likelihood that the Maple Leafs meet a heavy hitter in Round 1 again this season, though it’s their responsibility to avoid it.
So, for as much optimism as there is and deserves to be in Toronto, there’s not much separating a successful finish from a sour one.
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