The Toronto Maple Leafs have spent the majority of the 2000s tarnishing their legacy as one of the proudest teams in the history of the NHL. But they might now be trending in the right direction, with a good chunk of an entire country ready to support them in the event that they finally have taken some steps forward in. And with the Leafs looking like a threat in the Eastern Conference, it’s worth asking if they are going to make 2020 the year that they get back to the top of the mountain.
With a strong core led by John Tavares, this might be the strongest Maple Leafs team that the NHL has seen in decades. As a result, the team’s odds to win the Stanley Cup haven’t been this strong in quite some time. As of August 19, Stanley Cup winning odds at Betway have the Leafs as the second favorite team in the league to win the Cup at +900. They are just behind the favorites, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who come into the season at +700 to lift the Cup.
Can Matthews drive the Maple Leafs to success?
Of course, the Lightning were among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup heading into last season’s playoffs and got knocked out in the first round. In the NHL, preseason odds are only as good as the way a team is playing at the end of the season, and early season form can be misleading as teams adjust to new rules and equipment as well as personnel changes, which can affect the rate of goal scoring. But the fact that the Leafs are expected to be an elite team is a sign that they are improving. But are they improving enough to win a championship?
Many think that the Leafs are on the verge of a breakthrough and finally breaking their Stanley Cup drought, with Auston Matthews’ prolific goalscoring playing a large part in that, although he has a long way to go if he wants to reach the heights of greats such as Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe. They have even added to their top-level talent with some thrifty free agent signings. But a deeper look at some of the moves that the team has made would show that they need to win now or risk falling back into obscurity sooner than later.
Their decision to give Auston Matthews big money forced their hand in free agency this offseason in a way. That move took away a lot of the team’s salary cap flexibility, forcing them to go the thrifty route rather than being able to pick up some more impactful players with that same amount of money. And with the team still lacking a captain, something they might have to deal with for a fifth straight season, the Leafs might lack leadership as well as depth.
That isn’t to say that the Leafs are going to be bad this season by any means. In fact, they are projected to be the opposite of that. But even if the Leafs turn out to be good, there is no guarantee that they will be able to keep themselves together come the postseason. As of now, the recent state of the Maple Leafs as a franchise has been to fall apart in the playoffs. This team appears capable of changing that, but it is something that hockey fans are going to have to see to believe in many cases.
Fan expectations increase pressure
And the fact that the team is on its way to relevance could lead to some harmful pressure from the fans as well. Leafs fans have drawn comparisons to New York Yankees fans in the past, with their entitlement leading to unfair pressure on the players that can bring them down on occasion. There is no way of knowing if that will happen this season, but the fact that it is a possibility is something that has to be weighing on the minds of some of the players as they get ready for a season filled with the pressure of expectations.
Of course, all of this could be meaningless and the Leafs could end up tearing through the rest of the NHL en route to a Stanley Cup title. But there are some red flags that the team will need to work through in order to claim a rare Canadian team championship in the league. Fortunately for the Leafs, their front-line talent is good enough to overcome plenty of red flags. The question now is whether or not they can do so consistently enough to celebrate when the final buzzer of the season goes off.