Red Hot Rookies Have Leafs In Playoff Mix at the Break

Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. Do these names ring a bell? If not, they should. These 19-year-olds have led the Leafs to within a point of the third and final playoff spot in the Atlantic division and the wild card. With a 23-15 record at the all-star breaks, these Leafs have already dramatically improved since last season, in which they won only 29 games in what was rightly termed a re-building year. The result? Marner went back to Junior and ate up the competition, not only winning the Memorial Cup but was also awarded playoffs MVP. Currently ranked first among rookies for assists and tied for 2nd in rookie scoring, magic happens every time Marner touches the puck. Matthews, the first overall pick of the 2016 draft, has not disappointed, as he is ranked fourth overall in goal scoring (tied with Alex Ovechkin, and first among rookies) and tied with Marner for 2nd in rookie scoring. Oh yeah, and Matthews will also be an all-star. Impressed yet? That’s what I thought.

Behind the two phenoms are six more rookies, including forwards William Nylander, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov and stalwart defensemen Nikita Zaitsev. Hyman and Brown play on either side of Matthews on a dynamic top line that has been too hot to handle even among the best teams in the league. While they are certainly potent offensively, the top line has not slouched on the defensive end either. Led by the speedy Hyman, ever-ready to sacrifice himself to block shots and the fantastic play of Matthews away from the puck, these guys back check and they mean business.

Speaking of defense, Zaitsev has been absolutely sensational playing alongside anchorman Morgan Rielly. What a great find for the Leafs who signed the 25-year-old undrafted Russian in the offseason. Zaitsev played with fellow countrymen Alex Ovechkin and Evegeni Malkin in the World Cup of Hockey, and boy, now we know why. Ranked third in blocked shots (77) and fifth among rookies in assists, Zaitsev brings it at both ends of the ice. With Rielly out with a recent knee injury, expect Zaitsev to shoulder some of the extra load down the stretch.

Soshnikov, the other Russian rookie, has also impressed despite playing on the fourth line. He is a speedster with skill and a demon on the penalty kill, especially with fellow penalty killer Zach Hyman. When James van Riemsdyk eventually leaves (hopefully via trade), Soshnikov is as good a candidate as it gets for the extra ice that opens up. His speedy and defensive playing style is well suited to playing alongside third-line centre Nazem Kadri, where the talented young Russian will almost certainly get more chances to put the puck in the back of the net. There will of course also be the opportunity to play him with any of Brown, Marner or Nylander… etc.—it’s really only a matter of time.

With all this excitement around the Leafs, it’s tempting to ask why they don’t go all in for the final piece of the puzzle, a good, young puck-moving defensemen. It’s a hot commodity around the NHL these days and the only one currently available is the Blues’ Kevin Shattenkirk. Shattentkirk would be strictly a rental, since he becomes a free agent at the end of the season. The Leafs brass has been pretty adamant about sticking to the rebuilding plan, and in that regard they are absolutely right. The Leafs should not be making any moves at the deadline. Maybe they make the playoffs this year, maybe they don’t. But they still aren’t a serious Cup contender anyway, so there’s no point in rushing things.

That being said, it may be worth trying to sign Shattenkirk as a free agent in the offseason just as they did to get stellar goaltender Frederik Andersen. Shattenkirk (27 years of age) is in his prime, and brings some veteran presence and playoff experience to an otherwise very young team. Racking up 44 points last season plus 19 in the playoffs, it would make some sense to sign him to a four or maybe five-year contract, if MLSE is willing to cough up the cash. These types of players don’t come around very often, and the Leafs are generally ahead of schedule as far as the rebuild is concerned—we also don’t have any promising defensemen coming down the pipe up from the minors.

No matter what happens with Shattenkirk, the Leafs will look to continue surpassing our expectations over the second half of the season. It’s a grind, and there will be some wear and tear, but it’s going to great fun to watch!

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