Maple Leafs go from lottery to potential playoff berth

Following a year of vying for a top pick in the NHL Entry Level Draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs have found themselves in solid position of making the playoffs for the 2016/17 season.

Last year, Toronto finished 29-42-11 for a total of 69 points, placing them at the bottom of the entire NHL. This led to them winning the NHL lottery and proceeding to draft Auston Matthews with the first overall selection.

Matthews’ has lived up to his expectations and more. The 19-year-old, as of Monday night, is ninth in the league in scoring with 31 goals, which places him second amongst rookies, only behind Winnipeg’s second overall pick Patrick Laine.

The Maple Leafs as a team see themselves in a solid position for either the third seed in the Atlantic Division or the final wild card spot in the conference. Currently they hold that final wild card spot with 76 points and 15 games to play.

Toronto currently holds a 54 per cent chance of making the playoffs and eight home games left (seven on the road). The cards ultimately fall within the Maple Leafs hands.

At one point in late February, the Leafs had played almost five games less than a majority of the teams battling it out for a playoff spot. Toronto had an opportunity to add on points and move away from the middle of the pack. Instead from Feb. 15 to March 3, following a 7-1 win over the New York Islanders, the Maple Leafs went on a 2-4-3 stretch — including only getting one of six points during their California road trip.

A lot of the team’s success comes in part from the offense they’re getting from their rookies. Along with Matthews, Mitch Marner has 17 goals and 37 assists, William Nylander has 18 goals and 30 assists, Nikita Zaitsev has 26 assists to go along with three assists, and Connor Brown and Zach Hyman have been pleasant surprises with 28 and 25 points, respectively. What’s been most impressive is four of those six rookies have not missed a single game this season, with Marner missing five and Nylander having missed one.

Nazem Kadri has also seen a turnaround in his career under Mike Babcock. Kadri now in his seventh season with the Leafs, has tied his career high in points with 50 and has a career high in goals with 28.

The issues that standout for the Leafs is their defensive woes and shootout record. This young skilled team is 1-8 in the shootout this season, giving away a potential eight points that could have helped them to have some breathing room in the standings.

Defensively, the Maple Leafs allow 2.85 goals per game, which ranks 25th in the league. Their goalies are facing the third most shots per game at 32.7, but their penalty kill is ranked ninth in the league.

Goalie, Frederik Anderson, has been a bright spot for this team, keeping them in a majority of games.

All but four of the the final 15 games are against teams either in a playoff spot currently or are battling for one. This Maple Leafs team wasn’t expected to make a jump from last to a playoff spot this season, but it will be good for the growth of the young players.

This season could be the start of a long successful ride for Toronto. They’re finally a team that matters, with young players, a solid coach and management that knows what they’re doing. Even if Toronto misses the playoffs this year, it will be a successful year.

The pieces are there to build for the future, and things are only going to get better from here. The Toronto Maple Leafs are a franchise that matters again.

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