Maple Leafs fans aren’t the only ones drinking the Kool-Aid this summer — players from across the league are, too.
With the addition of John Tavares this offseason to a young and talented core that includes Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, the Maple Leafs are receiving high praise from their peers, with several singling them out as strong Stanley Cup contenders this season.
“It’s a tough one, but I think with the moves, I think Toronto has a really good chance this year,” Hurricanes defenceman Jaccob Slavin told NHL.com. “I think it’s a trend. I think they have a pretty solid [defence] corps, but with the pickup of Tavares, [William] Nylander and Matthews maturing more, I just think they’re going to be a dangerous team this year.”
Seeing Maple Leafs and Stanley Cup contender in the same sentence is still jarring, but it’s not all that outrageous. They finished tied for sixth overall in the NHL with 105 points last season and boast a trio of budding stars all under the age of 22, a Vezina-calibre goalie, one of the top coaches in the game and forward depth for days.
“There’s such a big buzz about them right now,” said Stars centre Tyler Seguin, who believes the Maple Leafs have what it takes to challenge for a championship.
Added Penguins star Evgeni Malkin: “If you see young and hungry, I think it’s Toronto.” Malkin’s teammate, Sidney Crosby, also picked the Leafs along with the Washington Capitals as favourites to win the Cup this season.
When it comes to young and hungry, you don’t have to look much further than Matthews. Things didn’t end well for the face of the franchise, who had a disappointing showing in Toronto’s first-round loss to the Bruins and was later rumoured to be at odds with coach Mike Babcock, which both parties later shot down. Year 3 should be a big one for the 20-year-old, who has a big fan in fellow American and Blackhawks star Patrick Kane.
“I like watching Matthews. So big and physical and just so naturally gifted, his hands and shot,” said Kane, who named the Leafs as his non-Blackhawks Cup favourite. “Really fun to watch, especially up close and personal when I’ve skated with him. It’s pretty impressive.”
It will be interesting to see how the Leafs handle the added pressure this season after dealing with modest expectations the last two seasons, but adding a leader in Tavares should certainly help keep things on the rails.
And despite losing some players this offseason and failing to improve their defence, this is a team, on paper, that should once again be among the league’s elite. The players have certainly taken notice.
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