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Talented Maple Leafs a legitimate Stanley Cup contender

by Arthur J. Regner @ArthurJRegner /

DETROIT - If Toronto really is the hockey universe, then the Maple Leafs are the sun with the other 30 NHL teams revolving around them.

At least that's the hype being peddled by the Canadian press about a team that hasn't won a Stanley Cup since 1967.

Toronto is a very good hockey club with a forward corps that is as deep and talented as any in the NHL.

When they visit the Red Wings on Thursday night at Little Caesars Arena (7:30 p.m. face-off), the Leafs (3-1, 6pts, first in the Atlantic Division) will be playing their third game of a four-game road trip.

Thus far on the trip, Toronto defeated Chicago 7-6 in overtime last Sunday and shelled the Dallas Stars 7-4 on Tuesday.

The Leafs made the biggest splash of the offseason when they signed New York Islanders captain John Tavares to a seven-year, $77 million contract in free agency.

It is the move many pundits believe may put the Leafs over the top, resulting in the franchise winning its first Stanley Cup in over 50 years.

However, not everything is smooth sailing in Toronto, despite the city being Leafs-crazy.

Highly-skilled center William Nylander is at a contract impasse with the club and it appears the two sides are far from being on the same page.

Reports are Nylander is seeking a long-team deal with an average salary of $8 million per season. The Leafs would also like to sign him to a long-term deal, but they're looking at a salary of $6 million per season.

Toronto must have Nylander signed by December 1 or he will have to sit out the entire season.

The Skinny:

Toronto finished 49-26-7 last season, good for 105 points, which was third in the Atlantic Division and qualified them for an automatic playoff berth. They lost to Boston in seven games in the first round of the playoffs, despite being up 4-3 in Game 7, the Bruins mounted a furious comeback and won 7-4. Toronto averaged 3.29 goals per game, which was third in the league; defensively they gave up 2.80 goals per game, placing them 12th overall in the NHL. The Leafs had the second-best power play in the NHL, converting at a torrid 25 percent clip. In one-goal games, Toronto was 26-6-7 for a winning percentage of .750.

The last time:

On March 24, 2018, in Toronto, the Leafs defeated the Red Wings 4-3. At 5:25 of the second period, Martin Frk missed on a penalty shot, which would have given the Wings a one-goal lead. Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi and Frans Nielsen were Detroit's goal scorers. Nazem Kadri netted the game-winner for Toronto at 12:34 of the third period. Patrick Marleau and Mitch Marner picked up the assists. The Wings were 1-3 against Toronto last season with their lone victory coming on December 15, 2017, 3-1, at Little Caesars Arena. Danny DeKeyser, Trevor Daley and Tomas Tatar scored for Detroit and captain Henrik Zetterberg notched two assists.

The forward corps:

Even without the talented Nylander, the Leafs are loaded up front. Tavares (37-47-84) is a superstar, Marleau (27-20-47) at 39 is still getting it done and Marner (22-47-69) is one of the best young players in the world. Throw in the often forgotten Kadri (32-23-55) and it's easy to see why Toronto is an offensive dynamo. But once you add world-class mega-star Auston Matthews (34-29-63) into the mix, it's easy to see why many are picking the Leafs to go all the way. Matthews missed 20 games last season, but he's healthy now and has started this year as hot as any player in the NHL. In his first four games, Matthews has seven goals among his 10 points.

The blueline:

Toronto's blueline is led by Morgan Rielly (6-46-52) and Jake Gardiner (5-47-52). Rielly has two goals among 10 points in his first four games of the season and is plus-2. Gardiner has four assists in his first four games and is plus-3. Nikita Zaitsev (5-8-13) and veteran Ron Hainsey (4-19-23) round out the Leafs' top four on defense. Last season Toronto allowed the fourth-most shots per game and relied on sound goaltending to keep the opposition at bay. Even with the emergence of 21-year-old Travis Dermott (1-12-13) and with some promising young defensemen the system, Toronto's blueline is skilled, but their defensive prowess is a concern.

The net:

Since the Leafs acquired goalie Frederik Andersen from Anaheim in June of 2016, the Danish netminder has appeared in 66 games in back-to-back seasons (2016-17 through 2017-18) and has stabilized a position that had haunted the Leafs for years. Last season Andersen was 38-21-5 with a 2.81 goals-against average, a .918 save percentage and five shutouts. He finished fourth in Vezina Trophy voting and he led the NHL in saves with 2,029. If there is one player a deep Leafs team cannot lose for an extended period, it is Andersen. Garret Sparks is Andersen's backup. In 18 NHL starts, he's 7-9-0 with a 3.19 goals-against average, an .887 save percentage and one shutout. Sparks was the AHL goalie of the year last season for the Calder Cup champion Toronto Marlies. He was 31-9-1 with a 1.79 goals-against average, a .936 save percentage and six shutouts.

The burning question:

If Nylander's contract stalemate continues up to the December 1 cut-off point, would the Maple Leafs trade him for a top flight defensive-minded defenseman to shore up an uncertain blueline?

The series:

Thursday will be the 666th meeting between the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs. Detroit leads the series 284-282-93-6. The Wings are 174-111-46-4 in games played in Detroit and are 110-171-47-2 in Toronto.

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