Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs came into the NHL's pandemic-shortened campaign desperately looking to change the narrative.
On the heels of another post-season disappointment — this time inside the NHL's summer bubble — the team's roster bursting with offensive talent was under intense pressure in hockey's biggest market to demonstrate it had learned from past failures.
At the midway point of their truncated 2021 schedule, the Leafs have shown plenty of signs this time might be different.
With its usual offensive flair backed by a previously unseen commitment to structure and defence, Toronto sits first in the North Division with 40 points through 28 games. The Leafs (19-7-2) also lead the all-Canadian circuit, which was borne out of necessity due to COVID-19 border restrictions, with a points percentage of .714 that put them top-5 in the league heading into Friday's action.
Despite dealing with a wrist/hand injury most of the season, Matthews has been a catalyst at both ends of the ice. His 21 goals in 25 games leads the NHL, while the star centre's dog-on-a-bone mentality in getting the puck back from opponents is an example of the team's growth under head coach Sheldon Keefe.
"We've done a lot of really good things," Matthews said. "We've cleaned up a lot of things defensively, which has been really positive for us. (But still) lots of room for improvement."
After losing out to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the qualifying round of the NHL restart, Toronto still had its Big 4 up front of Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander locked in at nearly half the team's salary cap allocation coming into the season, forcing creativity from general manager Kyle Dubas to improve his roster.
The Leafs added character and veteran leadership by plucking Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds and Zach Bogosian from the free-agent bargain bin, signing T.J. Brodie to play alongside Morgan Rielly on the top defence pair, and bringing back Jason Spezza as another low-risk, high-reward piece.
"Sheldon has the guys competing hard every night," Thornton said. "It's a very complete team."
But for a franchise that's failed to win a single playoff round since 2004, the last few months won't matter unless it breeds spring — and in 2021, summer — success.
"We had high expectations," Keefe said. "We're happy with how things have gone here, but we also recognize there's lots of hockey left to be played. We've got to continue to grow as a group.
"We're not where we think we can be."
Here's a look at the North Division's other six teams through the first half of the season:
The Jets (16-8-2) opened training camp with a cloud of uncertainty surrounding Patrik Laine's future. The sniper started the season in Winnipeg, but was traded to Columbus along with fellow disgruntled forward Jack Roslovic for centre Pierre-Luc Dubois — also keen for a change of scenery — and a third-round pick. One of the Jets' hallmarks has been consistency and an ability to get back on track. Winnipeg is 7-0-1 following a regulation loss, 7-4-0 when trailing after the first period, and 4-6-0 when down at least a goal heading into the third. "This group, there's a lot of fight," winger Nikolaj Ehlers said. "We don't give up."
The Oilers, who sat 17-11-0 heading into Friday, entered the season with a chip on their collective shoulder following a surprising upset at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks in the qualifying round in the bubble. The team came back with basically the same roster, but much like the Leafs, accompanied by a renewed focus and commitment to taking care of the defensive zone. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl continue to do their part, once again sitting 1-2 atop the NHL points race. Edmonton started 3-6-0, but went 11-3-0 over its next 14 to climb up the standings. "We're in a good spot," Draisaitl said. "Hopefully we can keep it going."
The Canadiens (12-7-7) were one of the surprises of last post-season as the 24th and final team included. Montreal stunned the heavily favoured Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round before going toe-to-toe with the Philadelphia Flyers in a six-game series loss. Buoyed by the emergence of young centres Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Carey Price's stellar play in goal, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin splurged in the off-season by adding wingers Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli, defenceman Joel Edmundson and backup netminder Jake Allen. But after a hot 7-1-2 start, Montreal fell into some troubling old habits, which resulted in Bergevin firing head coach Claude Julien and replacing him with Dominique Ducharme. The Canadiens' rookie bench boss is 3-2-3 through eight games, while Price appears to have rediscovered some of his form after a rough stretch.
The Flames (12-12-3) brought interim head coach Geoff Ward, who replaced the disgraced Bill Peters partway through last season, back to start the 2020-21 campaign, but were slow out of the gate after reaching the first round of the playoffs. Calgary GM Brad Treliving made a splash in free agency by adding No. 1 goaltender Jacob Markstrom and defenceman Christopher Tanev, but saw worrying trends reappearing before firing Ward last week and bringing back former Flames coach/GM Darryl Sutter behind the bench. "It's not good enough," Treliving said of his team's first half. "We certainly haven't played to our expectations and capabilities."
The Canucks (12-16-2) opened with high expectations following a bubble experience that saw their young stars take a big step by making the second round of the playoffs. No. 1 centre Elias Pettersson and smooth-skating defenceman Quinn Hughes are talented pieces, but Vancouver has regressed after losing Markstrom, Tanev, Toffoli and blue-liner Troy Stecher in free agency. Thatcher Demko appears to have staked his claim to the crease with off-season acquisition Brayden Holtby struggling to find traction. The Canucks played 16 games in just 27 days to start the schedule, finishing that brutal stretch 6-10-0. Sitting with the second-worst points percentage in the division at .433, Vancouver faces an uphill climb to get back in the playoff race.
After not playing a game in nearly 10 months, the Senators downed the Leafs 5-3 to open their season before dropping the next nine. Ottawa, which wasn't included in the NHL's restart, has an exciting young core featuring Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, Drake Batherson and 2020 third overall pick Tim Stutzle, but continues to be in full rebuild mode. The Senators started the campaign 2-12-1, but were a respectable 7-7-0 since ahead of Friday's action. "We want to have more consistency," second-year head coach D.J. Smith said. "We're growing together. And we're getting better together."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2021.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press