A few months into the season, it looks increasingly likely that the 2016-17 Toronto Maple Leafs are going to end the year with a historic rookie class.
According to the NHL.com records that date back to the 1987-88 campaign, no team has had three rookies finish in the top five in rookie scoring. The closest I could find was the Winnipeg Jets of 1992-93. Teemu Selanne finished first in rookie scoring, Alexei Zhamnov fourth, Keith Tkachuk ninth, and Evgeny Dadonov 11th. That Jets team did not go on to achieve the level of success Leafs fans are hoping for, but they were also disbanded prematurely before reaching their full potential, particularly in a clutch-and-grab era that made it very difficult for young players and teams to have success.
Looking back at the last 30 years or so, there are some good examples of teams introducing two high-end rookies to the league in a given season. Three is a different story. When Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews broke into the league with Chicago in 2007-08, Dave Bolland was their next highest scoring rookie and he finished 30th. Of course, two seasons later, the Hawks raised the Stanley Cup over their heads with all of the aforementioned players occupying key roles.
Those three pale in comparison to the Leafs who currently have six players in the top 27 in rookie scoring (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Connor Brown, Nikita Zaitsev, and Zach Hyman). Of course, Chicago was able to supplement their rookies by signing superstars in their prime (Marian Hossa, Brian Campbell) to “backloaded” deals that Toronto can only dream of doing now.
The only other rookie class that somewhat stood out in comparison was Tampa Bay in 2013-14. The Lightning brought up Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, who finished second and third in rookie scoring with 59 and 50 points, while also adding Nikita Kucherov (although he wasn’t very productive that season, he’s now one of the best players in the league). Tampa Bay has benefited from that youth infusion and is now a perennial powerhouse.
In 1998-99, Colorado had the first (Milan Hejduk) and third (Chris Drury) highest scoring rookies in the league and won the Cup a few years later with both of them finishing in the top five in playoff scoring that season.
A few years before the Rangers finally won another Cup, they had the top two scoring rookies in 1988-89, Brian Leetch and Tony Granato. A few years later, Granato was traded in a deal for Bernie Nicholls, who was then traded in a deal for Mark Messier.
There is also the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had Evgeni Malkin (first in rookie scoring) and Jordan Staal (sixth in rookie scoring) break into the league in the same season, the year after Sidney Crosby did.
High scoring rookies don’t always translate to wins, though. We already mentioned Winnipeg of the early ’90s, who didn’t achieve anything of note. In 2001-02, Atlanta had the top two rookie scorers in the league in Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk. Even with the Heatley incident, the Thrashers were able to trade him for a legitimate Hall of Famer in his prime in Marian Hossa, yet Kovalchuk only played four playoff games there over seven seasons.
For Toronto, they are going to have one of the most explosive teams of rookies in hockey history. So many of those teams noted above that found success – Chicago, Pittsburgh, Colorado – achieved it around three seasons after. All of those teams had other superstars already on the team or were able to acquire them in a way that is not available to the Leafs today (i.e. crazy contracts). There were some pieces already in place in Toronto, namely Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly, JVR, Jake Gardiner, and the recently-acquired Frederik Andersen. Now it will be about rounding out the unit and sorting through some of the additional young talent such as Kasperi Kapanen, Brendan Leipsic, Andrew Nielsen, and Travis Dermott. With a quarter of the season in the books, though, one thing is clear: Toronto is well on their way to climbing up the league standings again.
This isn’t just a rookie class the likes of which the Leafs and their fans have never seen before. It’s one without precedent throughout league history.
– Matt Martin has been getting some attention for scoring two goals this week; he also played under eight minutes in each of Toronto’s three games. He had only one game playing under eight minutes before the last three games. For Nikita Soshnikov, who was on his line during the first two games, that’s two games under eight minutes played. When Nylander got hurt and Soshnikov moved up, he played more on Saturday than he did on Tuesday and Wednesday combined. He ended the game with an assist, four shots on net, and soundly handled the Capitals top line. That’s a big difference.
– Last season, Nazem Kadri was the only player on the team to put more than 200 shots on goal (260). PA Parenteau was second with 168. So far this season, five players are on pace to generate more than 200 shots on goal – Matthews, JVR, Kadri, Marner, and Nylander. The 301 shots on goal Matthews is on pace for would have ranked him fourth in the entire league last season behind Alex Ovechkin, Brent Burns, and Max Pacioretty.
– I was interested to see if the Leafs would put Rielly on the PP at the end of the game against Carolina. They decided against it. When the goalie was pulled a few minutes later, Rielly was on the ice for it along with Connor Carrick. Now 21 games into the season, Rielly still leads all Toronto defensemen in points with 12, three clear of QB of powerplay unit #1 in Jake Gardiner. Babcock has continually noted that he wants Rielly to focus on defense before he can think about significant PP time, but eventually something has to give, particularly in a tight 2-1 game with a big-time powerplay in crunch time.
– The New Jersey game was the first time that Mitch Marner played over 20 minutes in a game. He’s averaging just under 17 minutes a night so far and looks like he has more to give. Watching the Leafs PK – now ranked 15th – I wonder if the Leafs might give Marner a look there at some point. Blocking shots probably isn’t what Toronto wants him to do, but the Hunters can tell them how good he was shorthanded for London.
– Leo Komarov in the month of November: seven points in 12 games. Leo Komarov in the month of October: two points in nine games. He has been going under the radar with the rookies plus Kadri playing lights out, but he has been right with Kadri the whole time and is one of their only forwards they can actually trust in a checking role. He can play both wings or even center, kills penalties, and he can even take faceoffs. It’s nice to see his scoring starting to come around now, too. Leo is a really important piece to this team right now with his ability to help handle the tough minutes and free up the kids.
– Noticed how Babcock was generally positive in talking about Jhonas Enroth after the team blew a 3-0 lead and lost in a shootout 5-4. He did the same thing earlier with Frederik Andersen, as well as Auston Matthews during his slump, and Kadri during his slump the year prior. He is blunt and honest, but rather quietly he is quite positive in trying to build his players up when they are down by pointing to positives and providing his support through the media. It’s a little thing but a big thing.
We need Rielly to be our number-one guy every night. We need him to be very good for us. That’s not racing around the rink. That’s playing without the puck and being a real good player. We need that to happen. We need the growth of Zaitsev to continue to take place. I think Gardiner has been excellent throughout this last while. Someone is going to have to decide who wants to be five and who wants to be six, or who wants to be four, five and six. We’ve got to get that all figured out. It’s up to them.
- Mike Babcock on the team’s defense as a whole
There are so many great takeaways from that quote. I’ll just note that it’s interesting that he essentially calls Gardiner the number three when the coaching staff generally hasn’t played him as such this year.
We’ll just say three games in four nights & American Thanksgiving took a little edge off us & we’ll leave it at that.
- Barry Trotz after Washington’s 4-2 loss to Toronto
There is some degree of truth to this, no doubt, but I thought it was interesting he saved his stud goalie for Toronto instead of playing him Friday. It has been a long time since we’ve seen that against the Leafs.
They’ve got a lot of skill. You don’t want to play with fire when you’re at the ACC.
- Bill Peters before the Hurricanes’ 2-1 win over the Leafs
Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I thought there was a bit of an undertone here suggesting this Leaf team is scary at home and not nearly as much on the road. Even if he wasn’t implying that, I’m sure a lot of opponents would agree.
Video Tidbit of the Week
This is a set play the Leafs use in the defensive zone quite often.
It’s pretty simple. If the center wins the faceoff, the defenseman retrieves it and either rips the puck around the boards or — if he has time — goes around the net and fires it up to the winger, who releases as soon as the draw is won and heads to the far blue line. The center, when the puck is sent up, shoots right through the middle lane gap, knowing the winger (in this case, JVR) is going to chip the puck to the middle of the ice, where the center can hopefully receive it.
At a minimum, the puck is leaving the zone and there is a forward going full speed ready to pressure in the neutral zone. If it fails, you’ll notice the far side winger actually swings low and becomes a center in position in case the play becomes jammed on the wall (if it’s Ben Smith, he heads off for a change).
This play probably looks familiar to most of you. A few nights later, Nazem Kadri scored a beauty off of it.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1 – Looking at the lines from Saturday and how they played, when Nylander is ready to return I’d bump Hyman down to the fourth line and play Nylander with Brown and Matthews, keeping the other two top lines intact.
2 – I think Soshnikov is the player who should come off of the PP when Nylander returns. He looked good there and probably has a future in some sort of powerplay role, but it’s not now.
3 – I think I’d start Frederik Andersen on the first game of this Western Canada road trip against Edmonton and give Jhonas Enroth the back-to-back the next night against Calgary. The Oilers are top five in goals for this season while Calgary is right around the bottom third of the league in scoring.
4 – I think the back-to-back is also a good opportunity to do some mixing and matching on that bottom pairing between Hunwick, Polak, Marincin and Corrado. I’d try to get all four in over those two days — Hunwick-Polak night one, Marincin-Corrado night two. It’s shuffling the deck chairs a bit, but those are the only options the team has available right now.
5 – I think the powerplay in the final five minutes or so against Carolina is a good example of why players need to be on their off-wing on the half-wall on the PP. Matthews and Nylander were in shooting positions frequently and passed it off because Ward was able to cut the angle off completely while his defenders boxed out the far side. Goalies are too good to get beat on that short side consistently. Even though Toronto gains the ability to zip passes cross ice (presumably, it’s why they do it), they give up too much in the shooting aspect of it. Players need to either toe drag it to get a shot off or go short side. It’s not exactly ideal. It’s not like Nylander can’t take a one-timer. I’m sure Matthews can, too.