25 Under 25: Ranking the Best Young Players in the NHL

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Bleacher Report 09 May, 2021 - 06:00am 9 views

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A quick look at this season's NHL stats reveals a number of players under the age of 25 sit among the league's top stars.

Several, such as Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid and Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, established themselves as superstars early in their respective careers. Others, such as New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox and Colorado Avalanche blueliner Cale Makar, have emerged among the league's best within a short period of time.

These young stars perform crucial roles with their clubs. Some, of course, have much larger responsibilities and value than others. Some are franchise players, some are rising stars and others are indispensable core pieces.

Here's our ranking of the 25 best under-25 NHL players. Their value to their respective clubs and their overall performance factored into this compilation. We've excluded this year's rookie class, as they have only a small sample size compared to those on this list. Players must be under 25 as of May 10, 2021.

Traded from the Winnipeg Jets to the Columbus Blue Jackets in January, Patrick Laine's endured the worst performance of his five-year NHL career. In 44 games with the Jackets, the 23-year-old winger managed 10 goals and 19 points. That's a far cry from the 30-plus goals in each of his first three seasons and the 30 he would have had last season had the COVID-19 pandemic not derailed the regular season.

Laine's 44-goal sophomore campaign in 2017-18 showed what he's capable of. The 6'5", 210-pounder is a natural goal scorer with blazing speed but needs a good setup man. That's something he's lacking with the offensively anemic Blue Jackets. He must also develop his overall game to shake the label of being a one-dimensional player.

                

Acquired from the Nashville Predators at the 2019 NHL trade deadline, Kevin Fiala has fit in well with the Minnesota Wild. The 24-year-old's offensive skills have contributed to the Wild's rise this season among the NHL's best teams.

A talented winger with game-breaking scoring skills, Fiala had 23 goals and 54 points in his first full season with the Wild. Consistency was an issue at times this season, but he's second in team scoring with 20 goals and 39 points and their leader with five game-winning goals.

           

Overshadowed by talented teammates Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov, Martin Necas served notice this season there's another skilled young forward on the Carolina Hurricanes. Following last season's promising 36-point performance, the 22-year-old sophomore has 41 points in 51 games and sits among their leading scorers.

Blessed with speed and terrific playmaking abilities, the versatile Necas' ability to play center or on the wing gives the Hurricanes some flexibility among their top-two forward lines. He's settled in well on their second line alongside center Vincent Trocheck and winger Nino Niederreiter.

             

This season was a disappointing one for the Calgary Flames, including Matthew Tkachuk. The 23-year-old winger was expected to take on more of a leadership role after tallying 77 points in 2018-19 and 61 points in 69 games last season. Instead, he's managed 34 points in 51 games as the Flames will miss the 2021 postseason.

This year's effort, however, could be an aberration. When Tkachuk's on his game, the 6'2", 202-pounder is an aggressive scoring forward who drives opponents to distraction with his feisty physical style. While his stock may have tumbled a bit this season, he has the skills to stage a bounce-back performance in 2021-22.

                 

Brock Boeser's performance was among the few bright spots in a miserable season for the Vancouver Canucks. After being waylaid by injuries through his first three NHL seasons, the 24-year-old right winger hasn't missed a game. He was also among the few Canucks who didn't end up on the COVID-19 protocol list in April.

A talented scoring winger, Boeser is the Canucks scoring leader this season with 20 goals and 41 points in 48 games. Since 2017-18, he's their leader in total offense with 91 goals and 197 points. With good health going forward, he has the skills to reach between 70-80 points per season.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews remain the biggest stars on the Chicago Blackhawks. Alex DeBrincat, however, is garnering attention as a rising young scorer. While Kane is their leading scorer with 64 points in 54 games, the 23-year-old DeBrincat sits second with 52 points in 50 contests.

Despite his diminutive stature, the 5'7", 165-pound DeBrincat has proved himself as a top-line forward. He can play all three forward positions and uses his quickness and creativity to generate quality scoring chances. Since 2017-18, he's second among Blackhawks scorers in total offense with 116 goals and 225 points and third in game-winning goals with 14.

               

Mikhail Sergachev plays in the shadow of superstar defenseman Victor Hedman, but the 22-year-old continues to develop into a terrific all-around blueliner. He has 30 points in 54 games this season, sits third among Tampa Bay Lightning skaters in ice time per game (21:52) and tied for second with Hedman in blocked shots with 73.

On any other club, Sergachev would be the regular left-side defenseman on the top pairing. Hedman and veteran Ryan McDonagh are ahead of him on the depth chart, but his constant improvement should see him challenge for more minutes in the near future.

Selected second overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2018 NHL draft, Andrei Svechnikov made his debut that fall, going on to tally a respectable 20 goals and 37 points in 82 games. It was a promising sign of what was to come for the 6'2", 195-pound left winger.

Svechnikov is among the reasons the Hurricanes rose to become a Stanley Cup contender. An excellent scoring winger, the 21-year-old's size and imaginative offensive skills make him a crucial part of the Hurricanes attack. He's second among their scorers in total goals over the past three seasons (59) and third in total points with 140.

            

Older brother Matthew has garnered the most attention of the Tkachuk brothers since Brady joined the league with the rebuilding Ottawa Senators in 2018-19. While Matthew and his Calgary Flames have struggled this season, Brady is getting his share of the spotlight for his strong play and has the look of a future captain.

Brady, 21, has emerged as a physical scoring force with the Senators. Since 2018-19, he's their leader in total goals (60), even-strength goals (49) and game-winners with nine. The 6'4", 212-pounder doesn't shy away from physical play, leading the Sens with 712 total hits.  

            

A talented puck-moving defenseman, Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks was runner-up for the Calder Memorial Trophy last season. He led all rookies with 45 assists and 53 points in 68 games and tied for third with Bo Horvat among Canucks scorers. The 21-year-old's mobility and offensive skills make him an invaluable scoring threat from the blue line.

Hughes is experiencing some growing pains this season, sitting with a team-worst plus-minus of minus-24. However, that can be attributed to the Canucks' overall poor defensive game. His offensive game remains sound, with 35 points in 48 games while logging a team-leading 23:03 of ice time per game. He will improve and remain an important part of the Canucks future.

Since his NHL debut five seasons ago, Zach Werenski has proved himself among the NHL's best offensive defensemen. The 23-year-old exceeded 40 points three times, forming a formidable blue-line tandem with Seth Jones for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Injuries limited Werenski to just 35 games this season, contributing to the Blue Jackets slide down the standings. Nevertheless, he finished with 20 points while his 24:22 of ice time per game still ranks second among Jackets' skaters. He'll remain a crucial part of their lineup as they attempt to rebound next season from a poor 2020-21 campaign.

                  

Kyle Connor made a splash in his first full season with the Winnipeg Jets by tallying 31 goals and 57 points in 2017-18. A swift-skating left wing with solid offensive skills, he played his way on to the top line the following season alongside center Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.

An important part of the Jets core, Connor's been a model of consistency through most of his tenure in Winnipeg. Since 2017-18, the 24-year-old left winger is their leader with 125 goals, 86 even-strength tallies and 22 game-winners.

              

Charlie McAvoy took over as the Boston Bruins' top defenseman following the offseason departures of veterans Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug. After three years of development, the 23-year-old emerged as a solid two-way blueliner.

McAvoy is the leading scoring among Bruins defensemen with 28 points. He's also the club leader in ice time per game (24:00) and blocked shots (76). He's likely to garner consideration for the James Norris Memorial Trophy in the coming years as he thrives in his role.

                

Winner of the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2017-18, Mathew Barzal had big skates to fill entering his sophomore season, replacing departed franchise star John Tavares on the New York Islanders top line. He proved up to the challenge. Since 2018-19, the 23-year-old center has led the Islanders in scoring each season, amassing a total of 111 assists and 163 points.

Barzal's quickness and superior playmaking abilities make him a first-rate offensive forward. He's played a big role in the Islanders' rise into a perennial playoff contender. He leads all forwards on his club in ice time per game (18:45). He also leads the club in power-play ice time (2:35) and takeaways with 26.

                    

The Dallas Stars have something special in Miro Heiskanen. The 21-year-old defenseman plays with the maturity of a seasoned veteran, establishing himself as their top all-around blueliner. He led the Stars and all playoff defensemen with 26 points in 27 games to finish third among all postseason scorers during his club's run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

A skilled, swift-skating defenseman, Heiskanen is among the league leaders in ice time per game (24:58). His overall game suffered a bit this season, but that's to be expected given the difficulties the injury-ravaged Stars have faced. His youth and impressive skills ensure he'll remain among the league's top defensemen for a long time.

It didn't take Mikko Rantanen long to become one of the Colorado Avalanche's top offensive stars following his NHL debut in 2016-17. Skating on the first line with superstar Nathan MacKinnon and captain Gabriel Landeskog, he reached or exceeded 84 points in 2017-18 and 2018-19. With 60 points in 48 games, the 23-year-old winger sits second this season among the Avalanche's leading scorers.

Rantanen is a skilled goal-scorer and an exceptional playmaker with solid offensive instincts. The 6'4", 215-pounder skates well and can play all three forward positions. He's second among Colorado scorers since 2016-17 with 129 goals and 310 points, becoming an invaluable part of the Avs lineup.

              

Sidelined since March 2 with an upper-body injury, it's been a difficult season for Elias Pettersson. The most crucial piece of the Vancouver Canucks attack, they have missed the 22-year-old center's contributions over the second half of this season.

Despite this setback, Petterson remains among the NHL's most talented young players. Slender at 6'2" and 176 pounds, Pettersson is a gifted offensive star. Winner of the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2018-19, he leads the Canucks in totals points (153) over the past three seasons and is among their leaders in most offensive categories.

Cale Makar made the leap directly from the University of Massachusetts Amherst to the Colorado Avalanche during the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. He followed that up by winning the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2019-20. Despite missing 12 games to upper-body injuries, the 22-year-old is fourth among the Avalanche's leading scorers with 41 points in 40 games and ninth among NHL defensemen.

At 5'11" and 187 pounds, Makar isn't a physical force, but it's what he does with the puck that ranks him among the league's best. A superb skater with outstanding offensive skills, he's one of the best puck-moving defensemen in the league. Makar provides the Avalanche with a strong offensive presence on the blue line, especially on the power-play where he logs a team-leading 4:21 of ice time per game.

             

The Buffalo Sabres have been a mess throughout Jack Eichel's six NHL seasons, but he's not to blame for the woeful state of his club. Despite suffering a season-ending neck injury, the 24-year-old center's steady improvement over the course of his career speaks volumes to his exceptional talent.

Since his debut in 2015-16, Eichel's led the Sabres with 139 goals, 216 assists and 355 points with a 0.95 points per game average and 25 game-winning goals. Those are impressive numbers considering the absence of a decent supporting cast throughout his career in Buffalo.

                         

It usually takes several seasons for an NHL defenseman to blossom into a top-pairing role. Adam Fox, however, is an exception to the rule. In just two pro seasons since leaving Harvard University, the 23-year-old has become the New York Rangers' No. 1 blueliner. He's on his way to becoming a future winner of the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the league's top defenseman.

Fox followed up last season's 42-point rookie performance with a 47-point effort in 54 games as a sophomore. He's among the Rangers' top scorers and leads all NHL defensemen. He's also the Blueshirts' leader in ice time per game (24:42) and blocked shots (98) and is second in takeaways with 36.

Making his NHL debut in the same season as Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner quickly established himself as a star in his own right with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He and Matthews form one of the best one-two offensive punches in the NHL. With 66 points in 53 games, the 24-year-old right wing is his club's points leader and third among the league's top scorers this season.

While Marner lacks Matthews' size and goal-scoring elan, the 6'0", 175-pounder is among the league's best wingers. He's a slick playmaker as well as a skillful two-way forward. He's generated more points over the past five seasons (357) than anyone else on the Leafs.

              

One of the NHL's top snipers, Boston Bruins right wing David Pastrnak last season shared the Maurice Richard Trophy with Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, as they each finished the season with 48 goals. The 24-year-old Bruin sits fifth in total goals since 2016-17. He's dangerous with the man advantage, sitting second during that period with 66 power-play goals.

A natural goal scorer with considerable speed and agility, Pastrnak is the trigger man on the Bruins top line with center Patrice Bergeron and left winger Brad Marchand. He missed the opening weeks of the season recovering from hip surgery but is scoring at a point-per-game clip with 46 points in as many games.

              

The straw that stirs the drink for the Carolina Hurricanes, Sebastian Aho is an outstanding playmaker and a superb skater. The 23-year-old center has led his club over the past three seasons with 92 goals, 206 points and 1.01 points per game average. His special teams play during this period is impressive, leading the Hurricanes with 59 power-play points and 13 shorthanded points.

The Hurricanes' rise into a potential Stanley Cup contender coincides with Aho's emergence as their first-line center. He and Svechnikov provide an exciting offensive punch that has turned this once-moribund franchise into one of the league's top teams.

             

Winner of the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2016-17, Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will soon be bringing home another major NHL award. With 40 goals this season, the 23-year-old center is poised to win his first Maurice Richard Trophy as the NHL's leading goal scorer. He's the prime reason the Leafs are among the NHL's top teams.

Few players in the league possess Matthews' dominating scoring ability. His 198 goals over the past five seasons are second only to Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin's 205 goals. Blessed with a quick, hard shot and sound offensive skills, the 6'3", 220-pounder could soon take over from the aging Ovechkin as the perennial favorite to win the Richard Trophy.

                

In his sixth NHL season, Connor McDavid is the face of the NHL. The 24-year-old Edmonton Oilers captain has won the Art Ross Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award twice (2016-17 and 2017-18) and the Hart Memorial Trophy in 2016-17. With an astonishing 100 points in just 53 games, the center is assured of winning the Art Ross this season and will be the favorite to take home the Hart and Lindsay honors.

No one in the league can match McDavid's ability to pull off dazzling plays at high speed. He has the ability to seize control of a game with his impressive offensive skills. The Oilers captain is the prime reason his club will secure a playoff berth this season. He leads all scorers since 2015-16 with 372 assists, 565 points and a points-per-game average of 1.40. 

                 

Read full article at Bleacher Report

Toronto Maple Leafs Youth Could Propel Team During the Playoffs

Last Word on Hockey 09 May, 2021 - 11:57am

NHL News, Analysis, History, Schedule, Rumors

The Toronto Maple Leafs youth could serve the team well come playoff time. In the playoffs, experience is the common desired trait that teams look for to push them over the edge into contention. The Maple Leafs have experienced guys who have won it all like Jake Muzzin and Zach Bogosian. They also have more guys who have made it to the dance and came home empty-handed like Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza.

Their established group of Morgan Rielly, John Tavares, Nick Foligno, and T.J. Brodie are a strong bridge between the old hands and the young stars. When paired with their young core, this team has the chance to make a lot of noise in this year’s playoffs. Here are the young players that could make the biggest impact as the Maple Leafs strive to make history.

As young as they are, the Maple Leafs’ three-headed monster is as lethal as they come. Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander have taken over and run with the team since they all debuted in 2016. All three are having big seasons in their own respect. Matthews will win the Rocket Richard trophy this season with 40 goals,  Marner sits third in points, and Nylander is close to another 20 goal season, which would be his fourth in six years. This being a shortened year is even more impressive.

The Maple Leafs have committed a lot to these three and will ride or die on their success. The three of them will need to step up and not only contribute in the playoffs but also stay committed to the team’s success. Their in-game energy is electric and intoxicating. The passion they all show for the game is exactly what a team needs to stay motivated through the playoff marathon.

The scoring prowess of the group paired with the hardstyle of Foligno and Zach Hyman only accentuates the team’s success. Missing both Hyman and Foligno has not weighed them down in the last couple of regular-season games they have left. As they join the group in the playoffs the team will only get stronger.

As mentioned, the Maple Leafs will live or die on the success of Marner, Matthews, and Nylander. With the way they are playing this right now, Toronto is in good hands

Auston Matthews 🤝 40 goals#LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/NsBDxWgsh9

— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) May 7, 2021

He may not have played a lot of hockey over the past 12 months, but Rasmus Sandin will play a big role these playoffs for the Maple Leafs. He was thrust into the lineup following Bogosian’s injury in April and has stolen the show since. At times he’s run the first power play as the team attempts to right that ship. With his current state of play, he projects to the future of the Maple Leafs backend.

But for this season, Sandin can provide an offensive threat from the more defensive backend Toronto currently employs. The Maple Leafs can also gain confidence in having a backup in case Rielly goes down come playoff time.

The playoffs bring a lot of injuries and for any team to go far, they need others to step in and fill roles. In a limited playing time of nine games, Sandin has shown the confidence/ability to play on the Maple Leafs top pairing. Sandin likely will not play again this regular season as the Maple Leafs try to balance the salary cap down the stretch here. But, expect him to step back into the Maple Leafs lineup come the playoffs when the salary cap is no longer an issue.

Rasmus Sandin does this little fake-stop a lot and it's so clean pic.twitter.com/xva2IXYLFr

— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) May 3, 2021

The Maple Leafs’ secret weapon in last year’s playoffs could make a bigger impact in this year’s dance.

Nick Robertson appeared in four of the five Maple Leaf playoff games last season and scored his first professional hockey goal. Other than that one goal and one assist in the 2020-21 season, Robertson hasn’t shown success at the NHL level.

Nick Robertson is the first 18-year-old to score a post-season goal for the Maple Leafs in 76 years. The last time it happened, Ted Kennedy did it in a playoff game against Montreal on March 28, 1944 #Hockey365 #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/0MEGF7DDJT

— Mike Commito (@mikecommito) August 7, 2020

But he has shown flashes of brilliance in the AHL this season with the Marlies. With the OHL’s COVID-19 shutdown, Robertson was one of many top prospects to make the jump to the professional level without being thrust into the NHL. In 18 games with the Marlies, Robertson has four goals and 10 assists. With only eight more games left in their shortened season, he will likely be called up to the taxi squad to be a ‘black ace‘ for the playoffs. Robertson would only crack the lineup following an injury. But, he could still make a big impact. Last years’ playoffs are a prime example of the need for depth and more importantly, depth scoring.

The Tampa Bay Lightning were able to outlast the Dallas Stars because they had more guys that could step in than the Stars did. Say Robertson does draw into the lineup, he will have the opportunity to become a bigger fan favourite. With the way he is playing right now, he could make a big impact at the perfect time.

The Maple Leafs roster contains a steady mix of grizzled veterans and young, energetic stars. The group has excelled so far this season and does not appear to be slowing down. But, if Toronto wants to break a certain streak and dance with Lord Stanley’s cup, it will be almost fully in the hands of the Maple Leafs youth.

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Toronto Maple Leafs: Auston Matthews Actually Getting Better

Editor in Leaf 09 May, 2021 - 01:00am

TORONTO, ON - MAY 6: Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his 40th goal of the season against the Montreal Canadiens during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on May 6, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Canadiens 5-2.(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Auston Matthews is not only the most prolific goal scorer in Toronto Maple Leafs history, he’s also one of the best to ever play the sport.

While cruising to the inevitable, his first Rocket Richard trophy, the Toronto Maple Leafs best player in franchise history scored his 40th goal of the season against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night.

The NHL released a tweet that puts the achievement into some historical perspective (see below).

There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’m going to break down what Austin Matthews is doing in a little bit more detail.  A lot has been written about McDavid chasing 100 points and the MVP, which I think he deserves by the way, but what Auston Matthews is doing is arguably just as impressive and not getting anywhere near the level of adulation.

Let’s start with the 40 goals in 49 games.  It’s the 6th fastest to 40 goals in modern history, and puts Matthews on a list of absolutely iconic offensive players.  I remember watching everybody on that list.  They all owned the game at one point or another in their prime.

Auston Matthews extended his goal streak to five games (6-0—6) and became the first player in over 20 years to reach the 40-goal mark in 49 or fewer games. #NHLStats pic.twitter.com/D0C7WsS5sA

— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) May 7, 2021

Interestingly, it took 20+ years for a another player (Matthews) to make that list.  That gap in time says a lot about two things.  The incredible talent of Matthews and the era in which he plays.

2016-17                        2.77                                               0.49

2017-18                        2.97                                               0.55

2018-19                        3.01                                               0.54

2019-20                        3.02                                               0.67

2020-21                        2.93                                               0.82

While league scoring went up slightly in 2017, it hit a plateau and has established a new normal for the current Matthews era at around 2.98 goals per game for the average team (all stats via www.hockey-reference.com).  While the league seems to have found a new median, Matthews has found no such thing.  Auston just keeps reaching new levels year after year and it doesn’t look like anything anybody else is doing anything close to what he is capable of.  He is setting his own standard outside of league averages, and he is only 23 years old.

To put Matthews in perspective relative to his peers, I looked up a goals/60 model that is available here.  Since the league began keeping TOI as a statistic, which dates back to 1997, Auston Matthews is first among all NHL players in goals per 60 minutes of ice time.  His G/60 of 1.868 is in a league of it’s own, with Ovechkin coming in behind him at 1.754.  Steven Stamkos is 3rd at 1.621.

To break that down even further, Matthews is also first in 5v5 G/60 at 1.663 over that same time.  Ovechkin is 2nd with 1.435.  That is not an insignificant gap.  Most era-adjusted scoring numbers show Ovechkin as the best goal scorer ever.  If somebody told you that the #1 goal scorer in the history of the league trailed Auston Matthews in G/60, while he was still in his prime, would you believe them?  Without seeing the data, most people would not, but it’s actually true.

Scoring goals is one thing but playing hockey is about more than just scoring goals.  Something to note about the prolific scoring of Auston Matthews is the fact that he plays center.  Auston Matthews is a legitimate #1 C that takes on all match-ups in all situations with the exception of killing penalties, and he does this in the middle of the ice.

Playing center in the NHL encompasses a lot more responsibility on the ice than playing on the wing.  It’s a much more challenging position.  In both the G/gm and G/60 tables, most of the goal scorers of Matthew’s caliber are wingers.  Malkin at 11th and Crosby at 14th are the next two natural centers on the G/60 list.  On the NHL list of quickest to 40 goals, only Mario Lemieux is a natural center.

This is worth repeating, but not only is Matthews out-scoring everybody since 1997, but he’s playing way tougher minutes than almost all of them while he’s doing it.  If you add in the defensive value that Matthews has added to his game in the last 18 months, what Matthews is really doing as a complete player in the league is kind of bonkers.

Chris Johnston put an article out here that talks about the growth of Matthew’s defensive impact last year, from which I will repeat some of the numbers he was mentioning.

Auston Matthews was first on the Toronto Leafs in total contested puck battles, winning the highest percentage of them in all three zones.  He led all Leaf forwards in rebound recoveries in the defensive zone.  Inner slot shots and slot passes were drastically in favor of the Leafs when Matthews was on the ice.  All of this while he had the lowest turnover rates on the team in both the offensive and defensive zones.  These are crucial elements of defensive success.

Matthews has continued that performance this season.  Marner deserves plenty of credit for the team’s success this year as he has been outstanding, but Matthews is the guy that really drives the bus.  Matthews is the guy that is an unstoppable force.

All due respect to Connor McDavid, and I’ll repeat the fact that I do think he deservedly wins the MVP this year, but the NHL needs to spend a lot more time talking about Auston Matthews.  It’s crazy to think, but safe to say, that Matthews is probably undervalued.  Matthews is actually one the most underrated players in the league, not because people don’t talk about him, but because he is actually so good that people should be talking about him way more than they do.

He is quietly giving us a consistent view of what a hall of fame player looks like, and he’s doing it in the pressure cooker that is Leaf Nation.  All things being equal, we are witnessing what will probably be the greatest Leaf of all time, the greatest American-born player of all time, and the greatest goal-scorer in the history of the game.

Do yourself a favor, sit back, relax, and genuinely enjoy the show.  It is a privilege to watch this guy play the most beautiful sport in the world, and he does it while wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey.

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Maple Leafs secure first division title since 2000

ESPN 08 May, 2021 - 10:00pm

With the victory, Toronto clinched the North Division title, its first division crown since 2000, and kept itself in line for an 80-point season. The Maple Leafs have 76 with two games left.

"Obviously, it's huge, and it's something we've been working on all year," Toronto forward William Nylander said. "To see that it finally pays off, the hard work, it's just part of the job. We've got first place, and now the real work begins."

Indeed, it's been lonely at the top for Toronto, which has occupied first place most of the season. As of the league's 116 days through Saturday's action, Toronto has been in first place for 106 of them.

"We've been grinding for a lot of our goals," Nylander said. "It's nice to see those go in, and hopefully, that can continue down the stretch."

Nylander and Pierre Engvall also scored, and Jack Campbell made 21 saves for the Maple Leafs, who went 7-2-1 against the Canadiens in the season series. With 57 points, Montreal has a chance to catch the Jets for the No. 3 seed in the North, but Winnipeg has a game in hand on the Canadiens and two more points.

It's more likely that these two Original Six rivals will meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 1979.

"This is something that we put our goal to. Obviously, it's not the pending goal that we want, but it's step two of the process," Marner said, referring to a playoff berth preceding the division title. "And we just have to make sure we keep the pedal down."

Nick Suzuki and Brett Kulak scored for Montreal, and Jake Allen stopped 23 shots.

"They were attacking us a little better, and maybe we didn't handle it all that well," Montreal forward Eric Staal said of Toronto's push in the second period. "But it was tight out there, both ways."

More of the same is likely in store for Round 1.

"I think it's what the fans probably want," Marner said with regards to the potential playoff matchup. "Both teams play hard, and obviously, every team wants to win.

"It's a fast-paced game out there. Both teams have a lot of skill and speed."

The Best Regular Season In Toronto Maple Leafs History

Editor in Leaf 08 May, 2021 - 01:00am

TORONTO, ONTARIO - AUGUST 07: Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his game winning goal at 13:10 in overtime to defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-3 in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Qualification Round prior to the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena on August 07, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images)

The Toronto Maple Leafs are having their best regular season in team history.

The fact that this is happening in a shortened season is typical of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team has not only been completely devoid of success since the NHL expanded beyond six teams, but who has seen even the league’s most recent expansion team have more historical success than they have.

But just because the season is shortened (and weirder) it doesn’t mean that we should ignore just how amazing this season has been.

The Leafs currently have played 53 games of a 56 game schedule, and at no time in the history of their franchise have they ever had more points after 53 games.  In fact, the Leafs have played over 100 seasons in the NHL dating back to 2017-18 and their current win total – 34 – is a top 30 season for them.   It’s both great (for this year) and pathetic (historically).

This season their points percentage, .698, is the best in team history.  This is amazing, but for a fanbase whose team that has never won anything (at least not while there were seven or more teams) it might be hard to get excited about.

The crazy thing, however, is how much better this team could have been.

You’d think I’d shy away from hypotheticals at this point, but I think they’re fun.  The Leafs are having their best season of all-time, and I think the following hypotheticals shed light on how good they can be.

First, it’s worth noting that in the ten games where Auston Matthews could barely shoot the puck, the Leafs went 4-6 which is just under half their total regulation losses for the year.

Second, despite the fact that the Leafs power-play went on something like a 1 for 50 slump, they actually lead the NHL in expected goals per minute of power-play time.

Third, 20% of their games were started by either Michael Hutchinson or David Rittich.

Fourth, their starting goalie, Freddie Andersen, played in  23 games and had a save percentage under .900.  (all stats naturalstattrick.com).

These four things aren’t meant as excuses, or as reasons to believe the Leafs could have gone 56-0. They are simply things that make what they have accomplished more impressive.

If Matthews never got hurt, if Jack Campbell was the starter the whole time, if the power-play wasn’t just randomly useless for a month….who knows? The point is that we’ve been witness to something special, and there is at least the potential that it’s even better than we think.

It is very likely that this is the best Leafs team of all-time.  I hope that they have at least enough playoff success that we remember it.

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Opinion | The Maple Leafs’ rise in the North has been short on drama. The playoffs should change that

StCatharinesStandard.ca 08 May, 2021 - 12:00am

It arrived with plenty of hype and what seemed like a sensible hypothesis. If the closed U.S. border was forcing the NHL to keep all seven of its Canadian teams cordoned off in a separate division this season, this while the other 24 squads played in three other self-contained loops, the possibilities felt intriguing.

At the very least, we’d see Connor McDavid a whole lot more than usual. And the unprecedented familiarity figured to breed compelling contempt.

“It’s going to be a rivalry night every night,” Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames said in the lead-up to the season.

“It’s going to get heated,” said Corey Perry of the Montreal Canadiens.

But as the North Division counts down the final days of the regular-season calendar, let’s face it: As much as players and coaches and scribes like this one enthusiastically speculated about how the one-off format might bring with it a potentially bottomless cauldron of simmering rivalry, the seven-team all-Canada league hasn’t exactly delivered on the prophecy. It’s been more often ho-hum than dramatically heated. It appears to have sown as much ennui as it has competitive animosity.

A few months ago the prospect of 10 Maple Leafs games against the ancient rivals from Montreal had some of us gleefully hearkening back to the rugged romance of the six-team era. In retrospect maybe it ought to have been noted that regular-season hockey, no matter the era, can occasionally lack oomph. Regular-season hockey in a compressed schedule played repeatedly between the same teams who’ve been more or less locked into the same guaranteed playoff spots for weeks — let’s just say it makes an observer happy to know the post-season is nearly upon us.

Which is to say, it came and went rather quietly Saturday night, game 10 of 10 between the NHL’s oldest franchises, with the Maple Leafs beating the Canadiens 3-2 and wrapping up the division title.

Not that there haven’t been bright spots worth savouring. McDavid’s run at a 100-point campaign, Auston Matthews’s ride to the Rocket Richard Trophy — they’re both the awe-inducing stuff of ever-growing legends.

But there’ve been plenty of non-event nights over the past few months, too. Part of the problem came down to pandemic-related reality: with no fans in the building there’s no fuel for the adrenalin-based fire.

And part of that, surely, has been Toronto’s dominance, which has made their first-place reign atop the division a fait accompli from the early days of the campaign. Even before Saturday’s matchup the Leafs had wrapped up the season series. They’d outscored the Canadiens by a combined eight goals in the previous nine games. They’d taken 13 of a possible 18 points. With two games remaining on the schedule — Wednesday in Ottawa and Friday and Winnipeg — they’re guaranteed to finish the season with a winning points percentage against all six of their opponents.

If Saturday’s game didn’t exactly feel like the stuff of high stakes, maybe it was because the Canadiens have been showing plenty of health-related strain. Carey Price, the franchise goaltender, wasn’t available; he’s been out with a concussion for most of three weeks and only recently got back to skating, which means he partook in just four of the 10 matchups this season. Meanwhile, Brendan Gallagher, Montreal’s irreplaceable sparkplug, is a little more than four weeks into what the team has called a six-week recovery from a broken thumb. Shea Weber, the bedrock defenceman, missed his sixth straight game with an upper-body injury. Key forwards Phillip Danault and Paul Byron were also on the shelf with ailments.

The Leafs, a far deeper team, have their own share of rehab cases. Frederik Andersen, now a game and a half into his AHL conditioning assignment with the Marlies after playing the entirety of Saturday afternoon’s 5-4 shootout loss to the Manitoba Moose, still looks a while away from NHL readiness. (He’s running an .885 save percentage so far in the minors, which isn’t exactly an instant ticket to supplanting Jack Campbell as the likely Game 1 playoff starter.) But the conditioning stint is less about putting up numbers than it is about logging minutes. It’s been more than seven weeks since he’s played against an NHL team, Canadian or otherwise.

“Today I was trying to push it a little bit with (more) intensity. It got better and better as the game went on, just playing hard on every puck, and I think just trusting that I can have energy to play a full game and trusting everything I’ve done so far.”

There’s still plenty of time for further recovery from whatever ails an NHLer worn out by the 56-game format. The Leafs play just two more games over the next six days, after which it’ll be a waiting game for the NHL to commence the post-season.

“The season’s been a bit of a sprint, and it’s been a bit of a grind at times. So it’s nice to have a little bit of a break,” Alex Kerfoot, the Maple Leafs forward, told reporters Saturday. “But I don’t think we want it to be too long, anyway. I think we’re feeling good about our game right now. Our team’s playing well right now. So we’re ready for playoffs to come.”

If the North Division began with a considerable bang, in other words, it’s concluding with a bit of a whimper. The NHL can only hope the all-Canadian concept is doing what most of the NHL’s elite have been doing for too long: waiting for the playoffs to reveal its true brilliance.

Analysis | The NHL’s 2021 playoff format rewards Maple Leafs, boosts East Division winner

The Washington Post 07 May, 2021 - 10:27am

Just how much of an advantage will the Maple Leafs get? Based on their 2020-21 results, we would expect Toronto (34-13-6, 74 points, plus-41 goal differential) to beat Montreal (24-20-9, 57 points, minus-6 goal differential) 77 percent of the time in a seven-game series with home-ice advantage.

Toronto is one of the best scoring teams in the NHL and has a treasure trove of elite talent. Auston Matthews leads the league in goals (40), and Mitch Marner ranks third in points (66). That said, in a normal year, Toronto would be the third-best team in the Atlantic Division, behind the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers, and would play the division’s second-best team in the first round. There would be no home-ice advantage in that scenario for the Maple Leafs, and we would expect them to win just 45 percent of the time. If those win rates were held constant throughout the postseason, Toronto’s chances to win the Stanley Cup would sit at just 4 percent. With the format change, they’re at 35 percent.

The winner of the East Division, whether it is the Washington Capitals (73 points) or the Pittsburgh Penguins (75 points), also will catch a break, albeit a much smaller one. Under the normal format, neither Washington nor Pittsburgh would be the Metropolitan Division winner. That honor would go to the Carolina Hurricanes, this year who lead the Central Division (and all of the NHL) with 80 points in 54 games. As such, Washington and Pittsburgh would meet in the first round. However, as it stands heading into this weekend, the East winner is likely to host the fourth-place New York Islanders (68 points).

If the Islanders’ first-round opponents are the Capitals, we would expect Washington to win a seven-game series with home-ice advantage 72 percent of the time. If it’s the Penguins facing New York, we would expect Pittsburgh to win a seven-game series with home-ice advantage 69 percent of the time. If the Capitals and Penguins were to meet in the first round, Washington would have just a 55 percent chance to win.

But the Islanders are better on paper than their record reflects. New York has outscored opponents 111-91 at even strength, giving it the 10th-best even-strength goal differential. For comparison, Pittsburgh ranks fifth (plus-29) and Washington is seventh (plus-24). Yet after adjusting for shot quality and volume, the Islanders should have the fifth-best goal differential, significantly better than the Capitals (12th) and the Penguins (17th).

New York also has one of the most productive lines in the NHL. The trio of Anthony Beauvillier, Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey has outscored opponents 18-7 at even strength, giving them the third-best goal differential among the 29 forward lines that have skated at least 200 minutes together.

Like the Canadiens, the St. Louis Blues are also fortunate as near-locks for the playoff field. They would be on the outside looking in under the traditional format but will get a taste of the postseason this year thanks to the new one. Conversely, the Arizona Coyotes won’t get a pass into the playoffs despite notching 50 points in 54 games. Their points percentage would have been good enough for fourth place in the Pacific Division under the old rules, but this year the Coyotes are fifth in the West Division, six points behind the Blues, pushing them out of the playoff picture.

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