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Mike Babcock, rookies helped Maple Leafs clinch

Auston Matthews, young core bought into coach Mike Babcock's system, sparking return to playoffs

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

The Toronto Maple Leafs were not supposed to be here already. Though it would have been foolish and short-sighted not to see the Maple Leafs were building a team with potential and the capability of being great in the future, it was easy to believe that would not happen this season.

Until it did.

The Maple Leafs have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs ahead of schedule, returning to the postseason for the first time since the 2012-13 season and the second time since 2003-04. They clinched a berth by defeating the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins 5-3 in their next-to-last game of the season.

This team, with all of its rookies and all of its inexperience, captured the hearts of Toronto's fan base and the imagination of the entire NHL, beginning with the four-goal NHL debut by Calder Trophy candidate Auston Matthews.

Neither the 19-year-old center nor his teammates have slowed down much since. They've been exciting and frustrating and tantalizing, all at the same time. Given the experience the young Maple Leafs gained down the stretch in their playoff push, there's a good chance they'll be in the postseason for years to come. But first, it's a reintroduction to the playoffs for many of the Maple Leafs and an introduction for all of those rookies.

Here are five reasons the Maple Leafs clinched:


1. Mike Babcock

The hiring of Babcock as coach on May 20, 2015, was the moment many in Toronto and in the Maple Leafs organization realized something different might be ahead, the moment defenseman Morgan Rielly saw hope blossom across the city of Toronto and in the dressing room.

Those hopes have been realized in Babcock's second season at the helm of the Maple Leafs.

Babcock has gotten his players to buy into the larger plan, to play defensively sound hockey (at times) and to work toward a goal they have now achieved -- playing beyond the regular season. His words carry gravitas, given the coaching mind behind them.

Playing by the seat of your pants is fun, and it's often what happens with a rookie-laden team, but that's not what Babcock's charges have done. That has been a huge piece in getting the Maple Leafs to this point.


2. Auston Matthews

Matthews has been better than advertised, even if that has sometimes seemed impossible. He began his career with four goals on opening night and hasn't stopped scoring since. Matthews broke the Maple Leafs' rookie record for goals with his 35th on March 28, surpassing Wendel Clark. He also became the 11th player since 1990 to score at least 35 goals in his first 75 games in the League, pitting him alongside players like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Eric Lindros. Matthews is also the fourth rookie to score 40 goals before his 20th birthday.

The victories and the excitement he's brought to Toronto have more than justified his selection with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Video: PIT@TOR: Matthews seals crucial win with empty-netter

A rookie season can come with some stumbles, even for a player as talented as Matthews. But he hasn't had many, consistently helping push his team in the direction of the postseason before capping it with an empty-net goal in the playoff-clinching game for his 40th of the season.


3. Offensive punch

Seven teams in the NHL are scoring at a 3.00 goals per game pace or better. That includes the Maple Leafs, who are at 3.06, fifth in the League behind the Pittsburgh Penguins (3.41), Washington Capitals (3.22), Minnesota Wild (3.21) and New York Rangers (3.09).

It's a big step forward for a team that finished 28th in the NHL last season with 2.34 goals per game.

The Maple Leafs have been led by Matthews (40 goals), but he's gotten plenty of help from forwards Nazem Kadri (32), James van Riemsdyk (27), William Nylander (22) and Connor Brown (20). The Maple Leafs have gotten offensive contributions up and down the lineup, particularly from their host of young players.


4. Rookie maturation

Of the top eight rookies in goals in the NHL this season, four play for the Maple Leafs.

Let that sink in.

Led by Matthews, Nylander (20), Brown (23) and Mitchell Marner (19), the Maple Leafs have one of the best rookie crops in memory. But it's not just that the group is talented; it's that that they, along with Babcock, have been able to harness some of their raw talent and mold it to a point where they have all been valuable contributors.

Video: WSH@TOR: Marner slams home late power-play goal

Add in contributions from forwards Zach Hyman (24), Nikita Soshnikov (23), and Frederik Gauthier (19), and defenseman Nikita Zaitsev (25), and it sometimes seems half the team is in its first year in the NHL. That could have been a disaster. But for Maple Leafs, it hasn't been. It has been a boon.


5. Nazem Kadri

In many ways, Kadri, 26, represents the old guard of the Maple Leafs, a group that had to buy in when the new regime took over, starting with president Brendan Shanahan, then Babcock and finally general manager Lou Lamoriello.

Toronto spent last season weeding out players who could not or would not adapt to the new ways and the new system. Kadri was one who embraced the changes, and he has been rewarded with the first 30-goal season of his career. His 32 goals are 12 more than his previous NHL best (20 in 2013-14).

"We went through 47 players last year to find out who really wants to be a part of this program," Lamoriello said. "So the veterans who are here are all on board. They want to win. They want to be a part of it."

That list has Kadri at the top.

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