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Maple Leafs Centennial Season in Review

by Adam Proteau Proteautype / MapleLeafs.com

When the Maple Leafs kicked off their centennial season in October, there were a few clear signs and events that underscored the depth and accomplishment of the organization, and the crucial role the team has played in the city of Toronto's history and identity: The team redesigned its logo. Legendary centre and Hockey-Hall-of-Famer Dave Keon re-embraced his place in franchise history by having his number retired - along with 16 other Buds icons - and returning to the city to see a statue of himself erected on Legends Row.

Video: BOS@TOR: Maple Leafs retire Dave Keon's number

 

 

For the first time in NHL history, an outdoor game was scheduled in Toronto, with the Leafs taking on their fellow Original Six rivals from Detroit at Exhibition Stadium on New Year's Day, 2017.

Video: Check out the Centennial Classic Game in Six

 

But even after all of that pomp and ceremony, the Leafs went far and beyond with their on-ice actions to distinguish this year as one worth remembering. Some people in the hockey world may not have expected it, but Toronto's evolution, surge through the standings and into a playoff berth gave Leafs Nation a thrill that will resonate throughout the summer and into the start of their 101st season.

The promise of a dynamic young team was obvious at the beginning of the season, but nobody quite expected it to become apparent as quickly as it did in Game One of the regular season, when rookie centre Auston Matthews scored four goals in his first-ever NHL game. Matthews would go on to score 36 more goals in the 81 games that followed - breaking Wendel Clark's franchise record for goals from a first-year player - and led the team with 69 points. He was every bit as good as scouting reports made him out to be, but he got better as the year went on, demonstrating he was an effective two-way player who made life hell for the opposition with his relentless forechecking and ability to score from anywhere on the playing surface. And he was only 19 years old.

Video: TOR@OTT: Matthews bursts onto scene with four goals

 

 

However, Matthews wasn't the only Leafs rookie who impressed in the 2016-17 campaign. Winger Mitch Marner set a new team record for assists by a rookie in a season - registering 42 to break Gus Bodnar's mark that was established in 1943-44 - and finished the year tied for third on the team with 61 points. Fellow rookie winger William Nylander also amassed 61 points (including 22 goals) and was twice named NHL rookie-of-the-month (Marner and Matthews also received rookie-of-the-month nods once this season). First-year winger Connor Brown scored 20 goals and 36 points, while rookie blueliner Nikita Zaitsev registered 32 assists and 36 points to finish the season second among Leafs defencemen in point production. And winger Zach Hyman led Toronto with four shorthanded goals and was one of head coach Mike Babcock's most trusted players.

This is not to say the Leafs' veterans didn't do their share this year. To the contrary: four of them (winger James van Riemsdyk, centres Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak, and D-man Jake Gardiner) set new career highs in points in 2016-17, and even those who didn't - blueliners Morgan Rielly, Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak, and winger Leo Komarov - made valuable contributions. 

And of course, then there was Frederik Andersen, whom Toronto acquired from Anaheim last summer to serve as their No. 1 netminder. After playing in a platoon environment in his first three NHL seasons with the Ducks, Andersen excelled with his new team, setting a personal-best in games played (66) and shutouts (four) with the Leafs and earning the respect of his teammates as arguably the organization's most valuable player night-in-and-night-out. The 27-year-old Danish native was the Buds' defensive backbone and best penalty-killer, and the team's decision to sign him to a long-term contract before he played a single game as a Leaf is looking like one of the better decisions GM Lou Lamoriello has made in Toronto.

Video: TOR@COL: Andersen makes 38 saves in brilliant shutout

 

Combine all these elements - the efforts of the young players, the raised-games of the veterans, the consistency in net - and it shouldn't have been a surprise that the Leafs went from 30th overall in 2015-16 to securing a post-season spot in the Eastern Conference. It certainly wasn't easy, and it did take them until the final weekend of the regular season to lock up a playoff berth, but Toronto exhibited the resilience that was a part of their game all year in qualifying for the 16-team Stanley Cup tournament.

Once there, the Buds squared off against the Washington Capitals, who finished the regular season as the league's best team. The Leafs gave the Caps everything they could handle and then some, pushing Washington to overtime in five of the six games in the series and winning two of them. The more experienced team moved on to the second round, but Toronto received a standing ovation from Leafs Nation as they left the ice for the final time Sunday night - and the Leafs deserved every second of it. 

Video: WSH@TOR, Gm3: Bozak scores OT winner on power play

 

Yes, it was wonderful to see Toronto's legends honoured by having their jerseys retired. It also was terrific to have the Leafs out in the open air - and beating the Red Wings 5-4 in overtime - during that Jan. 1 centennial classic game. And yes, Legends Row now looks even better with the addition of Keon and four new members (Charlie Conacher, Red Kelly, Frank Mahovlich and Wendel Clark) to the southwest corner of Air Canada Centre. But this season wouldn't have been as special as it was were it not for the efforts of the men wearing Blue and White on the ice this year.

Those Leafs players likely won't be able to appreciate it in these immediate days following the end of their season, but they stamped themselves into the memories of Torontonians and Leafs Nation with their speed, skill and determination this year. They set a standard of expectancy, not just for the short term, but for the seasons to come. They grew their own games, created new Leafs fans and left longtime Leafs fans prouder than ever to cheer for the team.

In short, they left us wanting more. And they look like exactly the type of group that, some day soon, is going to give us what we want.

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