Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Toronto Maple Leafs are finally, finally starting to realize their full potential.
After defeating the Edmonton Oilers 3-0 Monday night, the team has won six of its past seven games and 17 of 23 overall this season. Toronto now leads the NHL’s all-Canadian North division by a sizable 7-point margin, the largest of any division front-runner. According to simulations using our Elo ratings, the Leafs are odds-on favorites (75 percent) to win the North. They also have a 9 percent chance of winning the Stanley Cup — tied with the Vegas Golden Knights for the third-best odds in the league.
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However you look at it, 2021 has seen a wildly successful start for a Toronto team that had spent the previous few seasons trying to square its championship aspirations with its uneven results on the ice. Yes, Stanley Cup conversations are usually … um, premature for a franchise that owns the sport’s longest active title drought (52 seasons and counting). But this Leafs season could actually be shaping up for something special. Those 17 wins are tied with 1933-34 and 1934-35 for the franchise’s second-best start ever through 23 games, and Toronto’s simple rating system (SRS) score of +0.96 goals per game is also on pace to be the second-best in team history.
The most attention-grabbing part of Toronto’s early success is arguably a high-powered offense that ranks second only to the defending-champion Tampa Bay Lightning in scoring per game, producing 3.52 goals a night. Leading scorers Mitch Marner (33 points in 23 games) and Auston Matthews (31 in 20) both rank among the top five in the league in points so far this season, with Matthews burning the net for a league-best 18 goals. Statistically, Matthews and Marner have even verged into the same territory as Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl as an all-time-prolific teammate combo. While the Oilers’ duo remains the undisputed top tandem in the game today, Matthews-Marner ’21 is pacing to be the NHL’s 13th-best offensive pairing since 1942-43 (the dawn of the Original Six era), according to goals above replacement.1
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In some ways, the sheer scoring power of Marner and Matthews has also obscured how impressive the rest of Toronto’s offense has been. Forwards John Tavares and William Nylander are averaging nearly a point per game as well (both have 19 points in 23 contests), and D-man Morgan Rielly is tied for fifth among blueliners with 18 points. Meanwhile, veterans Jason Spezza and Joe Thornton have turned back the clock with their best performances in years. Chasing the championship that has eluded him his entire career, the 41-year-old “Jumbo Joe” has notched 10 points in 11 games and — when healthy — is seeing ice time on the Leafs’ top line with Matthews and Marner (whose combined age of 46 is only slightly older than Thornton himself). Even with Matthews sidelined the past few games with a wrist injury, the Leafs were able to tally 3.5 goals per game, a number right in line with their usual production.
But while impressive, none of that is exactly new. The Leafs have boasted electrifying offensive talent for the past handful of seasons, ranking third in goals per game last season and fourth in 2018-19 and 2017-18. The real missing ingredients in Toronto’s Cup recipe have traditionally involved preventing the other team from scoring — an area that broke down almost completely last season as Toronto ranked 26th in fewest goals allowed per game, 18th in save percentage and 23rd in fewest scoring chances allowed.
Those weaknesses have largely turned around this year, however. General manager Kyle Dubas made a concerted effort over the offseason to shore up the team’s sieve-like defense, adding T.J. Brodie, Zach Bogosian and Mikko Lehtonen on the blueline to go with holdovers like Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl. He also reacquired goalie Michael Hutchinson as insurance in net to spell Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell. The results have been undeniable in coach Sheldon Keefe’s second season behind Toronto’s bench: The Leafs now rank fourth in fewest goals allowed, fourth in save percentage (despite injuries to both Andersen and Campbell) and eighth in fewest scoring chances allowed per game. At 5-on-5 with the score close, Toronto ranks 10th in Corsi percentage — a proxy for possession that measures a team’s share of all shot attempts in the game — and eighth in expected goal differential per 60 minutes (meaning the quality of their shots is better than the quality of those they allow at the other end).
In other words, by just about any measure, the Leafs have significantly improved in the areas of the game that have been holding back their Cup hopes for the past few years.
That was especially apparent in the first two contests of their three-game set on the road against Edmonton this week. As mentioned, the Oilers possess one of the most potent offensive attacks in the league, led by the historic pairing of McDavid and Draisaitl. They had also been one of the NHL’s hotter teams going into the series, winning five straight and 11 of 13 before meeting Toronto. But the Leafs shut down Edmonton’s star duo, holding them to zero points and a -5 combined rating, and as a result they shut out the Oilers in back-to-back games by a combined score of 7-0.
Missing Matthews for both contests — and finding themselves down to Hutchinson in net for Game 2 — that pair of wins over Edmonton was perhaps the best validation yet that these are not just the same old Toronto Maple Leafs. It might even signal that this is the year the team finally sheds its reputation for playoff disappointment (it hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004) and general underperformance.
Of course, there’s still plenty of season left for the Leafs to revert back to their usual ways.2 Take the 2018-19 season as a comparison point: Fresh off the big-ticket addition of the local Toronto-area native Tavares, the team began the year winning 26 of its first 38 games and was looking like a strong pick to challenge the powerful Lightning coming out of the Eastern Conference. But a second-half slowdown, capped by a total swoon down the stretch — four wins in the regular season’s final 14 games — foreshadowed a seven-game first-round loss against the Boston Bruins, part of the franchise’s ongoing three-game losing streak (with four losses in its last five chances) in playoff Game 7s.
But that team was flawed defensively in ways this year’s version appears to have overcome — at least, so far. It also didn’t feature as much top-line offensive firepower, with younger versions of Matthews and Marner who hadn’t yet reached their current heights. The Leafs are hoping that the 2021 edition, by contrast, has just the right mix of ingredients to keep playing this well through the regular season and into the playoffs. And for once, those hopes don’t look quite as far-fetched as usual.