As the Toronto Maple Leafs prepare to meet the Tampa Bay Lightning in this season’s first-round matchup, who can lead this team forward? In this post of Maple Leafs’ Quick Hits, I’ll look at four different players who are on the spot for leadership.
Related: Maple Leafs’ Lineup For Game #1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs
Quick Hit One: Ryan O’Reilly Is a Different Player in Toronto
Ryan O’Reilly’s performance during the entire 2022-23 NHL season seems to be the story of two halves. While his statistics were not particularly impressive during his time with the St. Louis Blues, he seemed to find a better fit with the Toronto Maple Leafs after being traded mid-season.
Certainly, O’Reilly has been playing with more top-end talent in Toronto than he played with in St. Louis, and that likely has contributed to his improved performance. However, it also could be that his skill set is simply better suited to the Maple Leafs’ style of play. We’ve seen that work out in the past with players like Phil Kessel. While Kessel played well enough in Toronto, he thrived in a lesser role when he moved to the Penguins.
Despite his struggles with the Blues, O’Reilly is a proven top player in the NHL. The Maple Leafs are counting on him to resurrect his playoff success with his new team. The Conn Smythe Trophy he won with the Blues in 2019 wasn’t a fluke. O’Reilly has a game that’s suited for the postseason. I for one look forward to watching him engage in that same level of play with the Maple Leafs.
Here in Toronto, he might be asked to play a different role. That said, he still has the potential to be a significant difference-maker for the team. Whether he’s playing on the second line with top talent (which is where he’s been practicing headed into Game 1). Or, if it’s on the third line with defensive wingers, O’Reilly’s experience and skill should be valuable assets for the Maple Leafs.
Is it too much to hope he stays for another season? He fits this team well.
Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Simmonds, Murray, Lafferty & Samsonov
Quick Hit Two: Can Jake McCabe Become the Next Jake Muzzin?
Sadly, Jake Muzzin’s injury may mark the end of his career. He was an important player for the Maple Leafs, particularly on the defensive end. From all accounts, he was also an important voice in the locker room. [I hear he still is.]
However, the acquisition of Jake McCabe from the Chicago Blackhawks seems to have provided the team with a much-needed replacement. While McCabe does not have the same offensive skills as Muzzin, he’s a reliable defender. Like Muzzin, he’s physical and able to block shots effectively. He’s also smart with the puck and able to make clean, efficient plays to get it out of the defensive zone.
Granted, from my perspective, it took a period to adjust to playing with the Maple Leafs’ systems. However, now it seems that head coach Sheldon Keefe has settled on McCabe as part of the team’s shutdown pair for the playoffs partnered with TJ Brodie. This twosome will have a big responsibility, they will be asked to face off against some of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top players.
Despite his long NHL experience, McCabe has never played in the playoffs. This fact could provide added motivation for him to perform at his best in this postseason. He’ll likely enjoy the chance to finally get a taste of hockey after the regular season ends.
If McCabe can use his defensive skills to help the Maple Leafs contain Tampa Bay’s offence, he could play a big role in helping the team advance deep into the postseason.
Related: Remembering Maple Leafs’ Goalie Jonathan Bernier
Quick Hit Three: Time for Matthews and Marner to Lead This Team Forward
As two of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ most talented and highly-paid players, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have a significant responsibility to perform at their best during this particular postseason. I’m looking for them to both rise to lead their team to a first-round series win. If they did, it would be a testament to their abilities as players. It would also be a crucial step toward fulfilling the high expectations placed on the Maple Leafs as a franchise.
Matthews and Marner have grown in almost every imaginable way as players and people. They’ve proven themselves to be crucial to the success of the Maple Leafs. They’ve honed their offensive skills, but they’ve also grown as all-around players.
Both have learned from past failures. Now they’ve had one more year to prepare. They recall what it feels like to be on the losing end of the stick, and I believe they are both poised to lead their team to the next level.
I have to believe both will grab the challenge of the postseason confidently and with determination. I also believe they are both mature enough and skillful enough to become key factors in the Maple Leafs’ success moving forward.
Bring on the postseason.
Related: COUNT ON ILYA SAMSONOV SIGNING LONG-TERM WITH THE MAPLE LEAFS