In 42 years of history for the Washington Capitals, they have never played the Toronto Maple Leafs, their first round opponent in 2017, in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As a result, there is no past playoff history to review. Yet, there was a playoff match-up that served as a prelude for this year’s NHL match-up: last year’s AHL playoff match-up between the Hershey Bears and the Toronto Marlies, the minor league affiliates for the Caps and the Leafs, respectively. In this piece, NoVa Caps’ Diane Doyle looks at the match-up and comparison of the two teams.
Hershey Bears vs Toronto Marlies — 2015
Several players on this season’s Maple Leafs squad were part of the Toronto Marlies team that faced the Bears in the Eastern Conference Finals of the Calder Cup Playoffs last season. Like the Capitals’ squad last season, the Marlies breezed to the best record in their league, but struggled in the latter part of the season, with players being shuttled up to the Maple Leafs, either as injury replacements or to get a “taste” of the big club, and then returning to the Marlies. The Maple Leafs management had decided that it would be better for the development of many of their young players to win in the minor leagues, get used to winning, and gain confidence as opposed to spending time on an NHL team destined to lose.
The result was that the Marlies had, far and away, the best record in the regular season in the entire AHL, compiling an impressive 54-15-5-1 (the latter two figures denoting overtime losses and shootout losses) record. The Marlies won in the first two rounds of the playoffs, before meeting Hershey in Round 3. In an unusual schedule, due to conflicts in arena availability, the Bears played their first two games at home, even though the Marlies had the better regular season record and the home-ice advantage. The Bears took advantage of the unusual scheduling by winning both home games. After that, they won two games out of three in Toronto, and won the series three games to two.
Players on the 2015-2016 Marlies who are currently members of the current Maple Leafs squad include William Nylander, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Josh Leivo, Nikita Soshnikov, Connor Carrick, and Kasperi Kapanen. Carrick, incidentally, had spent most of the 2015-2016 season with Hershey, until he was sent to Toronto as part of the Brooks Laich to Toronto for Daniel Winnik. Nylander, one of the leading scorers on this year’s Maple Leafs team, was one of the Marlies’ leading scorers during the 2015-2016 season, scoring 18 goals and adding 27 assists. He missed time last season due to a concussion received at the 2016 World Junior Championship, followed by appendicitis.
Connections Between the Leafs and Capitals
Nylander is the son of former NHLer Michael Nylander, who played for the Caps from 2002-2004, and then again from 2007-2009. Michael signed a four-year contract with the Capitals prior to the 2007-2008 season, but tore his rotator cuff halfway through the season, which resulted in surgery, and was never the same player upon returning. Given his high cap hit and the fact that the Caps were close to the salary cap ceiling, he was perceived as a liability to the team and eventually was lent to the Detroit Red Wings organization. Perhaps the only people in the Washington DC area who wanted Nylander to remain with the team were the coaches of his sons’ youth hockey teams, one of the sons being William.
Among current Capitals, Daniel Winnik was formerly a member of the Maple Leafs. As many fans remember, the Caps acquired him at the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline in exchange for longtime Capital Brooks Laich, and defenseman Connor Carrick. Winnik had signed with the Maple Leafs prior to the start of the 2015-2016 season, his second stint with the team. He signed with them for the 2014-2015 season, but was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 2015 trading deadline. As for the rest of the principles in that trade, Carrick played with the Maple Leafs this past season. Laich was placed on waivers and sent down to the Marlies, where he only played in 27 games.
The Leafs were a surprising qualifier for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, especially when compared to their performance of the previous season. They had finished with the worst record in the NHL in the 2015-2016 season, and as a result, qualified for the draft lottery, and were able to draft Auston Matthews with the first overall pick. Matthews was not eligible for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft since he did not turn 18 until September 17, and the age cutoff was September 15. In many ways, the current edition of the Leafs is reminiscent of the Washington Capitals of the early 2000’s. After a poor start to the 2003-2004 season, the Caps decided to rebuild, trading away many of their regulars, and thus collecting valuable prospects.
They finally matured enough during the 2007-2008 to qualify for the playoffs. In recent years, Toronto management realized they were not going to win with the roster they had, so they also traded veteran players and acquired draft picks and prospects. Many of those prospects, as previously mentioned, played with the Marlies last year, similar to how many of the Caps’ prospects of the late 2000’s played with the Hershey Bears. Fans and media observing this year’s Toronto team who were familiar with the Capitals of 2007-2008 may have been reminded of them, especially when seeing the strong, young offensive talent, combined with a relatively thin defense corps.
While both organizations are at completely different stages in their development, both teams will be looking to prove themselves in the postseason. The Caps are hoping to prove their doubters wrong and finally make the long-awaited trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, while the young-studded Leafs are hoping to prove they can compete with a dominant powerhouse like the Capitals. And with that, let the games begin….
By Diane Doyle