In this moment, the Leafs are exactly what they were envisioned to be

·5 min read

There were promises, assertions and stances abound believed to be unwavering.

After the heartbreaking and indefensible circumstances that saw the Toronto Maple Leafs lose in seven games to the rival and heavily-outmatched Montreal Canadiens in the opening round last season when it seemed the path to the third or fourth round was paved in gold, collections of fans — many who spent decades living and dying — swore off this team. They promised themselves, and any family member who would listen, that they weren't going to be fooled again.

How many of those are tucking their tails between their legs and inching their way back in front of television sets around the Greater Toronto Area and beyond?

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In this moment, approaching seven weeks into the season and after running roughshod over the Colorado Avalanche on home ice Wednesday night for their 14th win in 16 games, the Maple Leafs are exactly what they were envisioned to be in the discussions Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe had after an era was turned over a little over two years ago.

They are explosive offensively. They are responsible defensively. They own the puck every night no matter the opposition. They have the highest-performing netminder in the league right now. They seem to have struck a perfect balance up and down the lineup.

Most importantly, they are playing incredibly hard for one another.

That last piece is easy to pick up on when things are going well. But if we learned anything from the highly-neutered "All or Nothing" series from last season, we witnessed just how much it hurt these players to let each other down.

Jack Campbell, the aforementioned highest-performing player at his position right now, seems most representative of that — both through words and action.

What might be most striking about this incredible run the Leafs have been on over the last month has been Campbell's indefatigable level of compete. Healthy and at a level he's never shown previously, Campbell is battling for his team like no other netminder we have seen in blue and white in recent memory.

Perhaps this is cherry-picking, but the fight we have seen routinely from Campbell, for me, provided the moment which sparked this run.

Toronto had recovered from its 2-5 start by this point, but was still without a win that could be considered anything close to signature a little less than a month ago when trailing 1-0 in the third period to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Campbell was nothing short of sensational in the frame, turning aside high-danger look after high-danger look from the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions as the game opened up.

The Leafs netminder offered his teammates every opportunity to find an equalizer that night, which they eventually did with Campbell pulled for the extra attacker before pulling out the victory in overtime.

Campbell's compete was the reason Toronto secured that signature victory.

And he hasn't stopped fighting for his team in that way since.

It seems it's all snowballed from that moment.

Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs are firing on all cylinders. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs are firing on all cylinders. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares have shook off their slow starts, and are now performing in superstar synchrony.

Matthews has jumped right back in the Rocket Richard race with six goals in his last four games and a hat trick versus Colorado.

Marner is again oozing creativity, completing the sort of passes only Marner can dream of attempting.

Tavares is suddenly a load few can manage in the offensive zone and, despite the influence of Matthews and Marner, he still leads the team in scoring.

Not to be overshadowed, William Nylander has remained unwaveringly productive. What has been different is that he longer seems to be operating in his own silo, having now formed tremendous chemistry with Tavares and fellow flankman Alex Kerfoot.

Rounding out a top six that has become nearly impossible to contain, Michael Bunting is doing a wonderful Zach Hyman impersonation, doing more and more each and every night it seems to facilitate Matthews and Marner.

What's been most encouraging is that the bottom six is dominating just the same. David Kampf is turning defensive-zone starts into offensive possession versus top-end opposition no matter which linemates he's working with.

Lastly, in a league that seems to be slightly watered down from an overall talent standpoint after the introduction of the Seattle Kraken, Toronto's fourth line of Jason Spezza, Wayne Simmonds and Nick Ritchie has grown into a matchup nightmare for opposing teams looking to hide below-replacement-level talent at the fringes of their roster.

The work from the defensive core is less transparent, but the seven-man unit is growing into the season as well. Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl have settled in, improving their individual and collective form. Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie are starting to put together spectacular numbers. Rasmus Sandin is now asserting himself as the dominant piece on the third pair, and Keefe isn't missing with his decision between Timothy Liljegren and Travis Dermott.

Perhaps the Leafs arrived in this moment — momentarily atop the NHL standings — in ways they didn't expect, but this version of the team is showing to be as potent, balanced and capable as any put together by this regime, and many previous ones.

It would be a shame if this run wasn't enjoyed by the masses in the manner it should.

Even if there are no promises that certain fans' fears won't be realized.

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