Every season carries risk, but the Leafs are worthy of the contender label

A few weeks ago, long-time Toronto play-caller Joe Bowen declared that he hasn’t been this excited about the Leafs heading into a season since the early nineties. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember that the early nineties are when the club went through two of their best runs for the Stanley Cup since, well…the last time they won it.

The Leafs were contenders in the early 2000s as well, but Bowen’s point is well-received: These are thrilling times for fans, rooted in a team with true top-of-the-league talent.

But if you live your sports fan life looking through the window of bold takes articles and wild declarations on talk radio, you’d probably come to one of the following conclusions about the Leafs this upcoming the season: They’re a contender, or they’re wildly over-hyped and will let everyone down.

The truth is that, for all intents and purposes of pre-season outlooks, they inarguably are a contender going into this thing. And it is possible that we could all be let down. Both these ideas can exist.

But before I go any further, am I over-selling the hype itself from inside my Leaf-centric bubble? We see that supporters of the team are in a frenzy, but apart from that is there a feeling league-wide that this club will contend?

I’ll preface this by pointing out that betting odds are obviously set to bring in the most action, but here is where Bovada has the Leafs among their Cup “favourites” going into this season.

Look, if we take a quick overview of the Leafs going into this season, without getting number heavy or deep into the details, I think most would agree here’s what we should expect:

  • They should again be able to drive play at a near-top-of-the-league level. Babcock doesn’t typically ever take a meaningful step back in this regard, and they were sixth in the NHL in score-adjusted Corsi last season at evens. They won’t be pushed on their heels.
  • They should have a ton of offensive firepower, even more than last season with Marleau now added and the Terror Trio more comfortable in the league.
  • Goaltending should be average-to-good if Andersen can handle the workload again.

I mean, this hit 96 points last season and all indications are they will build on that. A lot of people try to walk back that performance with the fact the team had a lucky run without injuries, but the flipside is the Leafs could’ve easily eclipsed 100 points if not for being so unlucky in the shootout. Can we almost call it a wash?

I don’t think anyone would declare Toronto as overly riding the percentages last season, “getting all the bounces” or being carried by goaltending by any means. I mean, the numbers are all out there for anyone to see, and we’ve covered those topics at length right here at the site. The Leafs were what they were. Now they are what they are, which is better than what they were, at least as things currently stand.

But yes, things can always go awry. Toronto obviously wouldn’t be the first to experience that.

Something I’ve noticed in a couple offseason soundbites is how the Leafs’ brass (and so many others around the league) viewed the Tampa Bay Lightning as major contenders last season. Babcock and the front office have alluded to it a number of times – it’s part of the reason I’m terrified of Tampa’s come-up in 2017-18. But that team ran into some injury troubles (most obviously the loss of Stamkos all season), had a rough time scoring goals, and missed the playoffs by a single point. It just didn’t work out for them last season, and I think that was a bit of a shock for the majority of the hockey world.

But does that mean the Lightning were undeserving of the pre-season praise and the respect their talent level commanded from guys like Babcock and Lamoriello last fall? I don’t think so. That’s just what comes with the territory when making predictions or throwing around these labels, and I think we’re making an informed one by declaring the Leafs should be in the upper echelon of the league this go-around.

The puck could bounce the wrong way and the Leafs could find themselves in what feels like a grind to stay in the playoffs all season, it’s happened to many good teams before (see: the 2012 Cup-winning Kings). Or, they could roll much of the conference and easily secure a playoff spot with 110 points. The point is, that appears their range, and I think it’s hard to make a backed-up argument otherwise. In today’s NHL, I believe that’s worthy of the ‘contender’ label, as tough as it is to nail that definition down.

I realize this all comes across as a major case of hedging the excitement around this team, but that isn’t my intent. Over in these corners of the internet we’ve absolutely hammered this organization time and time again when they deserved it, and along with that we’ve continually talked down expectations over the last number of years when the team has been a paper tiger (or just flat-out terrible).

They simply aren’t that anymore. For the first time since before the full-year lockout of 2004-05, the Toronto Maple Leafs are going into the hockey season as a Stanley Cup contender, even if that title in today’s NHL seems a little loose.

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  • Hugh Allan

    Of course a lot of things could go wrong but at the same time a lot of things could go right and the Leafs could find themselves in the final 4 or better yet, the final 2 in June. That’s what makes it all so exciting and worth following for 82 games. The promise of what might be.

  • Hugh Allan

    The Leafs lost 6 games to the Canadiens last year. If they were to win even 3 of them this year it probably pushes the Leafs over the 100 point plateau. A few more OT and SO wins and Leafs are a true contender. On the other hand if Frederik Anderson suffers a serious injury Leafs might not even make the playoffs. So much can happen. So exciting!

  • Bawcos

    Just think playoffs first. Leafs were a wildcard team last year. Tampa is still the class of division. MTL (sorry) still the next best team, healthy FLA + BOS + OTT, in the thick it, although Bruins seem like they’re going to fall off. Don’t overlook Buffalo with healthy Eichel. Don’t over estimate Marleau (he’s fast, yes. But he’s also the only guy on SJ who’s numbers steadily decline). My point, one step at a time. One major injury derails this entire season. Playoffs, then let’s talk contender. (also betting odds are based on who everyone is betting on not who the favorites are)