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Leafs fans, don't let pride stop you from enjoying this season

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It's been a special start for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are the hottest team in the NHL right now. But for reasons associated to past failure, the level of excitement with the market doesn't do the team's performance justice.

Video Transcript


JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yahoo Sports Hockey Podcast solo midweek edition. Justin Cuthbert with you, and I want to start this podcast with a plea, a plea to fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs or maybe former fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I urge you do not be scared of the pain. Do not be too proud to go back on your word. You must enjoy this regular season because it could be the greatest in the history of this team with the way things are going.

The Maple Leafs are, after 14 wins in their last 16 games, the number one team in the league based on points at the time of this recording. This comes after a dominant win, 8-3, over the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday night. The Avalanche, who had just got Nathan MacKinnon back, were feeling themselves after I think seven wins of their last eight games themselves.

And that was a huge statement win, and don't tell me about goaltending. I know it was a scoreline that was a little exaggerated, but the Maple Leafs dominated that game. What's happening right now with the Maple Leafs is not a coincidence. They are more talented, more balanced. They have more depth. They are more responsible defensively, and they are getting better goaltending than what, 85%, 90%, 95% of teams around the league this season.

Their superstars are superstars. Auston Matthews is suddenly back in the Rocket Richard race. Mitch Marner is making those passes that only Mitch Marner would dream of making. John Taveras is dominating in a new way that we haven't really seen from him since he's been with the Leafs, Nylander continues to produce but is now producing sort of cohesively with Tavares rather than doing it almost in a silo like he was at the start of this season.

David Kampf on the third line is productive and sort of the key to this team, at least defensively, with or without Andre Kasha. The fourth line is feasting on what is diluted depth, I think, we're seeing from around the league. Muzzin and Hall figuring it out. Riley and Brodie putting up spectacular numbers that even strength in Sandy and Rolling, whether it's with Dermott or Liljegren.

But it does come back to Jack Campbell. This guy should be the Vezina Trophy frontrunner at this point, no matter what nhl.com poll tells you otherwise. And with him, it's been this relentless battle. He's playing with the sort of attitude and intent which would suggest it's like, still game seven versus Montreal. And I know that didn't go well, but it's almost like the same consequence is going to be there if he allows in a goal with the way he's battling for this team. He looks obsessively competitive.

And it's been that way for about a month now, since-- you remember the Tampa game, 2-1 in overtime? Believe it was November 4 around that point. Tampa was all over Toronto up one-nothing in that third period, and Campbell kept them in that game with save after save after high danger look after high danger look. He's been that way for a month now. Again, he's the Vezina Trophy frontrunner right now. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

But to my original point, again, if you're a Leafs fan, embrace this moment even if there is no promise at all-- and there's not-- of no pain when the playoffs do roll around because this regular season could be the single greatest in their history. It is certainly trending that way. I mentioned the Aves, who the Leafs beat.

And they were sort of-- you know, this was exciting. It's exciting when Cale Makar comes through and Nathan MacKinnon comes back into the lineup. So you're hoping for a bit of a more competitive team-- or more competitive game. But I mean, I think this was another example, the Aves coming through and the Maple Leafs have their superstars do what they do, of how special of a time it is to be a hockey fan.

Alex Ovechkin chasing Wayne Gretzky, it figures to produce maybe the single most rewarding moment for this generation of hockey fans when he finally does break Gretzky's record. I mean, someone my age who's watched the last two decades of hockey fairly intently and has watched all of Alex Ovechkin's career to this point, when he gets there, it's going to be a really special moment.

And by the time he breaks that record, three, four years down the line, I think we could be legitimately talking about Connor McDavid as maybe one of if not the greatest player of all time with the way his career is going right now. Think about where McDavid might be four and five years down the line. And in that time period-- I mentioned him before-- it's possible that Cale Makar starts setting the groundwork for the entering the all-time discussion among the greatest defenders to ever play this game.

Before last night-- and we are in his third season, but we are not even a season and a half into his career because of the shortened last two seasons. 117 games in, he's producing at 0.974 points per game. That is fifth all-time behind Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey, Denny Potvin, and Ray Bourque. Now, Orr is on another level. And also the circumstances of his career will prevent his per-game production from ever being threatened, at least we think. We said that about Gretzky, but at least we think because, of course, he had to walk away from the game before he could have those diminishing returns later in his career.

But Makar, assuming his trajectory continues to rise, and it should-- we, again, are only 117 games into his career-- he's becoming a better player and a player given more and more responsibility here over the next three, four, five, six years, I think he could pull ahead of the other three. This was a big topic of conversation before the Leafs Avalanche game, and I had the chance to ask Jared Bednar about the next steps with Makar and whether or not he's fully formed.

And he suggests that he's pretty close, but there are a couple of key things that have happened here from Makar into his third year, one of which being he's getting more ice time. I mean, we're seeing him go from 20 minutes to about 25 minutes, and that's because Bednar believes he can keep that standard longer. If you can have 25 minutes of Makar, you take that over 20 minutes of unadulterated Makar.

Another thing, less to furl in his game. He's shooting the puck more. He's already got nine goals this year, I believe, in 17 games. So that's been a big part of his game and something that will help him chase down those greats. There's also penalty killing. That won't help him, but another sign that he's at least becoming close to a fully-formed defenseman.

But the thing Bednar said was the biggest factor is that he's just letting the game come to him now. Just a product of being more comfortable, more of an understanding of his own capabilities, but also the nuance of the NHL game. Again, those are legends, right? Orr, Coffey, Potvin, Bourque. So if not them in terms of per-game production and ultimately production at the end of his career-- and we'd be talking Hall of Fame certainly if he gets at that point.

But next up, Makar should become the next defenseman to score 30 goals in a season. I mentioned he's got nine already. 21 to go this year. He'd just be the ninth all time defenders in the NHL to hit 30 goals, And the last since Mike Green with the Washington Capitals, I believe, in 2009, and he's sort of the outlier of the bunch.

But again, just 21 one to go. If he scores every third game from here on in, he will get to 30. And Bednar, according to him, he's not ruling out 40 one day. I mean, this is a very, very special player, and what he can do, the ceiling that exists for Cale Makar, I mean it's similar to these greats that we're talking about right now in the NHL like McDavid, Drysdale, Auston Matthews from a goalscoring perspective, and of course Alexander Ovechkin.

Some concerning news. Not even news, it's really just a feeling, right? It's a feeling that the Olympic games and the NHL participation at the Olympics in Beijing is teetering a little bit. Of course, we've got shutdowns in Ottawa and the New York Islanders already. Two postponements, can we handle three, four, five, six? Probably not.

But we had issues in Edmonton with Cody Ceci going on the shelf, Boston with Bruce Cassidy getting COVID. I mean, if one or two or three of these things starts to snowball like it did in Ottawa and like it did in Long Island, should there be any expectation that Olympic participation will, in fact, happen?

There should be real concern right now about this idea and something that every hockey fan wants to see. We are teetering, and NHL teams-- and I put teams as most important here-- have to tighten things up. We saw memos from the NHL. No team parties, holiday parties, and all that. And surely, that's probably a good thing.

But just the day-to-day for these teams, they have to be a little bit better if they want those three weeks off because the league can put down a memo, but-- and not that they want anything to happen, clearly, but one more issue, and they'll have the excuse to eliminate the opportunity that they never really wanted to provide in the first place. And honestly, if the NHL does not go to the Olympics. it will be among the most disappointing things that a hockey fan will have to stomach in a long time.

And of course, there's been some awful things in the NHL, and I want to separate those things but from a pure hockey-playing entertainment standpoint, that's going to be a pretty big blow. We need McDavid at the Olympics. We need Matthews potentially terrorizing Canada. What a storyline that would be.

We need as content makers the opportunity to break down these squads. And because I'm kind of getting a little concerned here, I'm going to have a week-long Olympic preview just because I want to get it out of my system next week. So look out for that.

OK, time now for the Power Five where I determine the best teams in the NHL right now, and a couple notes before we get into it. First being the Carolina Hurricanes not a part of this list. Two straight losses five wins from their last 10 games. I believe this is the first time Carolina is not involved. There's still up there, but they're going through it a little bit. I believe a loss to the Kraken was in there. Not great.

And the Minnesota Wild, they're knocking on the door here. They're not in the top five either, but not Edmonton, not Toronto, not Florida, not Washington, it's the Minnesota Wild with the most goals in the NHL right now at 83. So a little bit of a surprise there. Maybe next week. And I believe they play the Leafs, so they'll have an opportunity for a statement win.

But let's get into it. Number five is the New York Rangers. Four straight Ws for the blue shirts. They outscored the Flyers and Bruins 9 to 3 this week. Now, Chris Crider could win the Cy Young, here the unofficial Cy Young. But Igor Shesterkin for me number two behind Jack Campbell for the Vezina. Just an unbelievable performance from him so far this season, and he's probably the main reason why the Rangers make their first appearance here on the Power Five.

Number four is the Florida Panthers. Like the Hurricanes, they're cooling off a bit as well. Those were kind of far and away the number one and two teams through the first, I'll say four or five weeks of the season. They lost to the Kraken, and maybe it was them that lost the Kraken. Maybe I'm getting those two mixed up, but that was their first home loss on the season just recently to the expansion team. Not great.

[COUGHING] Excuse me. But a remarkable comeback over Washington this week prevents a slide out of the top five. I believe they scored four unanswered in the third period in that game to beat a really good team after seemingly being down and out. And they've done this without Sasha Barkov, so they're dealing with a bit of a shorthanded situation right now with their captain out. They need him back if they're going to stay at that very top of the league, but pretty impressive to still get wins and big wins over good teams without him in the lineup.

Number three is the Edmonton Oilers. They are the number one team in terms of points percentage right now. The 16 and 5 record that they have after a big win on TNT over the Pittsburgh Penguins is the best in the NHL. I mentioned Barkov. I mean, the Oilers, they're not missing a superstar right now unless you want to call Darnell Nurse, that but you probably shouldn't.

But they are missing a lot. Their defense is gutted. They're rolling with a lot of players that were not even under consideration coming into the season back there. Mike Smith, of course, is still out, and yet the Oilers continue to roll. If there's a dip from Dry Seidel, it produces a run from Connor McDavid. And as long as one of those players is going, it seems like the Oilers are just fine.

Number two is the Washington Capitals. Number one right now if it wasn't for that aforementioned collapse versus Florida. Only Calgary has a better goal differential so far than the Capitals, who again, I continue to say it, have been as consistent as any team from the very start of the season and perhaps surprisingly so. They've got a Hart Trophy contender in Alex Ovechkin at 36, who has just been incredible, powering that team.

But number one, you guessed it, the Toronto Maple Leafs. They have not been on this list for very long, but they have ascended to the top because no other team has won 14 of 16. They are on pace, the Leafs now, for 119 points, which would smash their franchise record after losing 5 of their first 17 games. They are now on pace to threaten 120. It's been a remarkable turnaround for Sheldon Keefe and this group, which does not have a single area of which you can nitpick right now. They are playing that well.

That was the Power Five. That was the best teams-- or those were the best teams in the NHL right now. And that'll do it for this week's solo edition of the Yahoo Sports Hockey Podcast. A reminder, I will have Julian back on the weekend before zone time next week. And all the other content we produce on YouTube and on network and on your favorite podcast streams here at Yahoo Sports. See you then.

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