Toronto Maple Leafs: Can They Take That Next Step?

Apr 23, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (34) skates with the puck as Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (70) defends in game six of the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

For the Toronto Maple Leafs, 2016-17′ was a step in the right direction. They made the playoffs for the first time since 2013, giving the Presidents Trophy winning Washington Capitals quite a scare before bowing out in six games. Quite the accomplishment for a team mainly made up of rookies. Now, the question is whether those young kids can take that next step, winning their first postseason series in awhile.

Led by 2016 first overall draft pick Auston Matthews, the Maple Leafs can score with the best of them. His 40 goals put him in elite company, tied for second in the NHL scoring race behind Sidney Crosby. His 32 even strength goals led the league. Mitchell (Mitch) Marner was another nice surprise, with 42 assists to lead the team. Nazem Kadri continued his special teams prowess, notching 12 power play goals. That placed him in good company, tied for fifth in the league alongside Jamie Benn, Shea Weber, and Milan Lucic.

The Maple Leafs signed youngsters Connor Brown and Zach Hyman to one and three-year contract extensions respectively. A smart move, as each one showed signs of growth last season and will continue to get better over time.

With ample youth, the Toronto Maple Leafs need veterans to provide leadership. That’s an area they lacked in last year so it should come as little surprise that GM Lou Lamoriello targeted that during free agency. He inked Dominic Moore to a one year deal, hoping to address the loss of key penalty killer Brian Boyle. They then went out and snagged the biggest free agent forward in Patrick Marleau. A member of the San Jose Sharks for his entire 19-year career, Marleau took a gamble by signing a three-year, $18.75 million contract in Toronto. One that he hopes pays off with a Stanley Cup championship.

Defensively, the Maple Leafs got a career year out of Jake Gardiner. His plus-24 rating not only topped his team but was good for ninth in the league. They then added veteran Ron Hainsey, who signed a two-year, $6 million contract. Fresh off of helping the Pittsburgh Penguins join the rare company by winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, the hope is that his championship experience will benefit a young group still learning how to win.

In net, the Maple Leafs finally have stability. Frederik Andersen returns, looking to build off of a solid first season in Toronto. His 33-16-14 record, 2. 67 goals against average and .918 save percentage was respectable, but there’s room for improvement. They re-signed backup Curtis McElhinney and top goaltending prospect Garret Sparks, with both providing depth and a little friendly competition behind Andersen.

Are the youthful Toronto Maple Leafs ready to take that next step? While unknown, they have all the pieces in place to put their dreadful past behind and become a force to reckon with. One capable of winning the Stanley Cup sooner rather than later.

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