‘Empowered’ rookies driving Maple Leafs; franchise records likely to fall

'Empowered' rookies driving Maple Leafs

TORONTO — When Mike Babcock first pondered his potential lineup for the 2016-17 season, he was uncertain whether the Maple Leafs could dress so many rookies and still find success.

“For me to be able to tell you who was all going to be on the team and that, I couldn’t even do that for you,” said Babcock after a Monday practice. “I didn’t know the kind of impact a lot of guys would have … yet in saying that, once (the season) started and they showed they could play in the NHL you expect them to be good NHL players and you expect them to get better.”

Indeed, they have.

The Leafs’ first-half success has been driven by first-year players, two of whom — Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — rank 1-2 on the team in scoring. Toronto is employing rookies like no team before, dressing seven in almost every game so far this season with eight expected in the lineup for Tuesday’s contest against Buffalo.

The club’s rookie class isn’t just playing, but performing to a high level.

Matthews and Marner are on pace to break Peter Ihnacak’s franchise mark for points in a season by a rookie (66), and are real threats to capture the organization’s first Calder trophy since Brit Selby in 1966.

Matthews is also likely to shatter Wendel Clark’s mark for goals (34) by a Leafs rookie â€” he has a team-leading 21 — and could become the first rookie to lead the team in scoring since Syl Apps in 1937.

Marner, meanwhile, is well on his way to busting past Gus Bodnar’s 73-year-old franchise rookie mark for assists in one season (40). The 19-year-old already has a team-leading 25 helpers after 41 games.

William Nylander, too, is tracking towards setting a new franchise rookie record for both power-play goals and points.

Toronto is on pace to have six rookies hit the 30-point mark in one season for the first time in club history and have five rookies with 10 goals or more.

“I think we’ve just been empowered,” said Connor Brown, who has 11 goals and 20 points. “At the beginning of the year they let us — even through last year for guys that were here — they let us make mistakes and grow and it just gave us confidence to play and I think that’s why it’s come together like it has.”

Marner said that confidence came from Babcock and beyond, including management and the handful of veterans leading the group. 

“I think on the ice everyone gets the same amount of respect which is a big part of, obviously, someone’s confidence,” said Marner, who has 35 points, third among all NHL rookies.

“Usually you come into the league as a first-year you don’t get a lot of confidence. Sometimes you’re not trusted with the puck in certain moments. I feel like all our young guys here, the older guys really respect us with the puck. They know if they give it to us they feel safe about that. It feels pretty warm when that happens. You get confidence off that and you just keep building.”

Toronto rookies, a whirling rush of speed and skill, have combined for 60 goals or 47 per cent of the team’s top-10 NHL total.

Beyond Matthews, Marner, Brown and Nylander, the Leafs have gotten valuable efforts from Zach Hyman and Nikita Zaitsev, who’s averaging more than 22 minutes on the team’s top pair.

Only Nikita Soshnikov and Frederik Gauthier have underwhelmed, the latter especially struggling in the fourth-line centre spot.

Toronto has shown vulnerability while playing with the lead and still gives up a lot of shots and chances, but despite those challenges the club currently occupying a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.

“We’ve had some video sessions where we’re on the wrong side of the puck and we get a tightening,” said Brown, teased as he spoke by veteran Matt Martin one stall over. “But at the end of the day we’re back in the lineup and we’re back playing the (same) minutes.”

Marner noted that the rookies weren’t “scared to make a mistake” which allowed them to take chances to make plays.

No team in NHL history has had six rookies play at least 70 games, and only two teams this season, the Arizona Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks, have dressed five rookies in half or close to half their games.

Sensing the mounting enthusiasm around his team Babcock asked that the media “just chill.” Still, he was sure to note the team’s biggest improvement: “understanding and expectation”.

“We know where we’re supposed to stand and we expect to have success,” he said. “In saying that it is Game 41.”

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press