What does the Toronto Maple Leafs' effort against the Washington Capitals mean for next season?
Craig Custance: If they can upgrade that defense, everything is there for the Maple Leafs to catapult to the top of the Eastern Conference next season. Rookie center Auston Matthews was spectacular, not only scoring during the toughest time to do it, but he was also very effective at retrieving the puck and winning battles. If they stay healthy, the Leafs will be playing for a Stanley Cup in the next two or three years.
Joe McDonald: The Maple Leafs have become a perennial Stanley Cup playoff contender. This organization is legit. I wish we could fast-forward to spring 2018, because we won't be discussing a first-round exit for Toronto. The team needs to upgrade its defense and I'm sure that will happen during the offseason, but there's no denying the talent and future success of the Maple Leafs. I'm sure the Capitals are thrilled the series is over because if it had reached a Game 7, Washington would have been squeezing its sticks a little too tight.
Pierre LeBrun: A team's arc isn't always a smooth ride up. The Maple Leafs look like the new Pittsburgh Penguins-Chicago Blackhawks circa 2007, as Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville himself suggested to Leafs coach Mike Babcock earlier this season. And I certainly agree it looks that way. But a word of caution: A lot went right for this young team this season, especially getting lucky in the injury department. There were low expectations. Everything was gravy. From now on, the Toronto fans will expect continued success. The pressure is on.
Scott Burnside: If the Leafs hadn't blown a 2-0 lead against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 82, they would have shredded the Ottawa Senators in the first round -- and who knows what happens from there? Just saying. But maybe that's the point; sometimes the biggest step forward is the next one. The Leafs will have to fight complacency and the natural letdown by sophomore players, as well as sky-high expectations that will make the environment around them completely different than this magical season. But the good thing for them is they have proven their core has all the tools to take that next step -- and then another and another.
Rob Vollman: The Leafs are on the right track. They started in an awful hole a few years ago but have consistently been making the best decisions and the right investments, and they have changed the team's direction as quickly and as effectively as imaginable. They're ready to take the next step and become legitimate contenders in 2017-18.