Maple Leafs: Contenders or Pretenders (Again)?

by | Jan 21, 2024

Maple Leafs: Contenders or Pretenders (Again)?

by | Jan 21, 2024

Ah, yes, the new year always sprouts eternal hopes that this will be the year that the Toronto Maple Leafs will hoist the Stanley Cup come this late spring.  After all, it’s only been a year or two or 57 years since the Leafs laid claim to Lord Stanley’s big hockey trophy, and why not have some optimism this year, right?  After all, the Maple Leafs are one of the Original Six teams and a cornerstone of the National Hockey League but Father Time has not been kind to this storied franchise with nearly six decades of hopes dashed into perpetual disappointment.  Could this be the year?

The eternal optimism surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs no doubt is fed by the fact that this franchise isn’t terrible and currently sits in a playoff position with a respectable 22-13-8 record and third place in the Atlantic Division.  If these statistics hold true from now until April, it’s reasonable to assume that Toronto will make the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring.  Hold on now; making the postseason is a long  way off from actual bringing home the Stanley Cup and 1967 was an eternity ago in hockey years when the Leafs last won the whole enchilada.

Just Wait until Next Year.

Anyone who’s followed professional sports should be somewhat familiar with the old battle cry of “just wait until next year” which really means “my team will always disappoint me in the long run.”  At least the Toronto Maple Leafs make the playoffs consistently; the Buffalo Sabres have twelve year absence from the NHL postseason and could conceivably add to their losing streak this season.  However, as I previously mentioned, making the postseason is one thing, winning the Stanley Cup is a whole other matter entirely.  I hate to be the harbinger of pessimism or simple truth but the Toronto Maple Leafs will probably add another year to their Cup drought come this June. The wise hockey soothsayer Elliotte Friedman summed up the Maple Leafs’ current and future state: “I think Toronto is thinking bigger picture, I don’t think this is about this year anymore, I think they’re about where they are going.”

The future of the Maple Leafs will be Bright – Probably.

Despite the potential for yet another Stanley Cup letdown at the end of this season, the Maple Leafs have plenty to be optimistic about given the recent $92 million dollar contract extension of offensive machine William Nylander, not to mention that Toronto possesses one of the great snipers in this game in the form of Auston Matthews.  Matthews alone provides plenty of excitement and is the real deal and with 37 goals and 17 assists at the half-way point of the season, Matthews could possibly finish out this campaign with 70 goals or at least close to that magic number before the ice melts away to the summer warmth.

Despite all of the accolades lavished on Auston Matthews (which are largely deserved, by the way), the ducks are churning their web feet furiously just under the water surface because Matthews many times seems to save this team from its own self-destruction.  The case in point is last Thursday’s game in Calgary versus the Flames. Yes, the Leafs skated away to a solid 4-3 victory due to Auston Matthew’s hat trick (plus an assist to boot) but without the Matthews offensive play clinic, the Toronto Maple Leafs looked like they were another lackluster NHL team churning through another endless hockey season.

Will the Maple Leafs be dealers before the Trade Deadline?

All signs point to the fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs may be entertaining potential big trade deals before the March NHL trade deadline.  After all, the Leafs seem to be currently built around the Nylander-Matthews core and quite honestly, everyone else without those two surnames could be traded in the coming weeks. All eyes are probably focused on netminder Ilya Samsonov and given his recent exile to the other Toronto professional hockey team (the AHL Toronto Marlies) for a what amounts to a career re-set, Samsonov’s return to the Leafs’ roster is more a signal that he’s available for trade inquiries than his actual future with the Maple Leafs.  Samsonov does carry a hefty $3.55 million dollar contract but just think for a moment about which other NHL teams could use a decent goaltender right now?  To be fair to Ilya Samsonov, he’s not a bad goalie but is probably out of his element in the pressure cooker that’s called Toronto.  Move Samsonov to a kindler and gentler NHL market and Samsonov’s career could truly be rejuvenated and the Maple Leafs can clear some badly-needed salary cap space at the same time.

Other pending UFA”S (unrestricted free agents) such as Tyler Bertuzzi, and Max Domi could be on the trading block as well.  In fact, anyone who may not be considered part of the Matthews-Nylander building block may find themselves in another team sweater before this season’s end.  The coaching hot seat for Sheldon Keefe is no doubt getting unbearable by this point but let’s face it – accepting a coaching position in the hockey crazed Toronto market brings its own big-time caveats and you either win or go home-literally.  Until NHL GM’s can find a way to trade coaches, Keefe will remain in Toronto for now but the bullseye target on his back is getting bigger by the day.

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