Photo by Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press
It's the year 2019. Donald Trump is president of the United States. Unlimited entertainment is available through streaming services at your fingertips for a small monthly fee. Artificial intelligence and robotics look to be on the verge of taking over the world. Esports are a legit thing, social media is the No. 1 way people consume news, alternative energies are making a push to overtake fossil fuels, and the Toronto Maple Leafs have every piece in place needed to make a serious push for the Stanley Cup this season.
Wait, what? That last thing doesn't seem right.Led by a 33-year-old general manager, the Maple Leafs are indeed in position to make a serious run for their first championship in like 800 years (OK, only 52 years!), and the recent addition of defenceman Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings without having to give up anything on their roster has solidified that sentiment. The only glaring hole the Maple Leafs really had present was on the back-end, and despite Muzzin not being that right-handed shot guy they so coveted, he's a pretty damn good consolation prize.
The 29-year-old OHL product has been one of the few bright spots on a horrendous 2018-19 Kings squad and was arguably the best, most reliable and consistent defenceman on a squad that boasts perennial Norris contender Drew Doughty. Muzzin brings a multi-dimensional prowess to Toronto’s blueline, including the ability to play heavy 5-on-5 minutes, a rocket of a shot with a strong powerplay acumen, penalty killing, puck moving, physicality, net front play, and even a championship pedigree after playing a key role on the 2014 Stanley Cup-winning Kings.Muzzin put up 21 points in 50 games with LA this season while averaging 21:32 minutes per contest. Whether you put a lot of merit into plus-minus stats or not, it's hard to deny that the Kings have been a much better team with him on the ice. Muzzin's plus-10 rating leads the team in that category by a large margin—this in spite of the Kings boasting the worst goal differential (minus-36) and goal differential per game (minus-0.72) in the entire NHL. With a 57.2 percent career Corsi and one closer to 60 percent when playing with LA's best blueliners in Alec Martinez and Doughty, he checks all the boxes from a possession standpoint, too.
Muzzin, by all accounts, will join Morgan Rielly as the Leafs' top-pairing defencemen and solidifies the team's D-corps by providing a legitimate No. 2 option. Toronto's blue line looks a lot more solid and ready to contend after the acquisition of Muzzin, and star goaltender Freddie Andersen, from an individual standpoint, may benefit the most. Arguably the team's most important player, Andersen was already on pace to post a career-best save percentage, despite Toronto giving up the ninth most shots on a nightly basis before the acquisition of the defensively-astute Muzzin.With the Muzzin deal all-but solidifying the team's back end, it's almost easy to forget another mid-season, low-cost (asset-wise) acquisition the team made last month by adding William Nylander back after a months-long contract dispute. Though Nylander, as expected, has taken a bit to get his timing and legs under him, the Maple Leafs have as formidable a forward group as anyone in the NHL with Willy in the fold.The Maple Leafs' top six, especially, is potent AF. Two All-Star and future Hall of Fame centres in Auston Matthews and John Tavares, surrounded by the immense skill of Nylander, Mitch Marner and an emerging Kasperi Kapanen, make Toronto's top two lines a nightmare to deal with. Mix in an exceptional third line anchored by back-to-back 32-goal scorer Nazem Kadri and one of the most efficient fourth lines in the NHL, and the Maple Leafs look as deadly and deep up front as anyone.
Whether it all comes together in a way that brings Toronto its first Stanley Cup since 1967 is obviously a big question mark, especially with the team's recent struggles over the past 20 games and its unenviable path to the Eastern Conference final. Round 1 will likely see another showdown with the Bruins, while Round 2, if they get there, will pit the Leafs up against an absolute juggernaut in the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have been the NHL's best team this season. But Kyle Dubas, president Brendan Shanahan and the Leafs scouting and player development departments, have done quite a job putting together all of the elements needed to legitimately contend for a championship this season and next, for sure. You can't control the path, but you can control your vehicle.With second-pairing blueliner and power play engineer Jake Gardiner set to become an unrestricted free agent and Muzzin locked up for another season, the latter will provide a cost-effective ($4 million cap hit) and defensively adept replacement should the Maple Leafs decide to let Gardiner walk this offseason—which they likely will. They now have a flexibility in that area that was previously non-existent.Goaltending, defense, scoring, and organizational depth are all there, and if you look at where this franchise was just three seasons ago—and the whole decade-plus before that—it's wild how fast it has all come together.Soak it in, Leafers, these windows usually close quicker than they open.