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January 2, 2017 | 12:39pm ET
Fountain of youth working in Toronto
Maple Leafs' young guns playing well, and having fun.

TORONTO, ON -- Don't get too excited just yet, Maple Leafs fans, but it's okay to be a little more optimistic than you were at the start of the season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are flying, having won five straight, including Sunday's 5-4 overtime win against the Detroit Red Wings during the jam-packed Centennial Classic. Led by young stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly, the Leafs clicking a tiny bit ahead of schedule, as they sit three points behind the Boston Bruins, with three games in hand, of third spot in the Atlantic Division, and four points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the final wild card spot in the East.

There are still a few holes management wants to fill, especially on defense, but Mike Babcock and the team's coaching staff has this club on the right track. The energy we saw towards the end of last season, with Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Hyman and Connor Brown playing regularly, changed the dynamic of the dressing room. That uncomfortable, almost negative feeling you got walking into the team's room vanished when the kids jumped up.

Toronto's veterans -- 27-year-old James van Riemsdyk, 26-year-old Nazem Kadri, and 26-year-old Jake Gardiner -- have matured at the NHL level, and the mix currently in place on the roster is working well.

The addition of free agent tough guy Matt Martin has also paid dividends both on the ice and in the room. The 27-year-old, who is still a huge fan favorite among New York Islanders fans, has gelled very nicely with the Leafs' young core. While his ice time should improve -- and it likely will as the season progresses -- teams know that if they want to mess with one of Toronto's young studs, they'll have to answer to Martin.

In fact, you could make quite the argument that Martin's fight 3:25 into the third period of Sunday's outdoor game against Steve Ott sparked the rest of Toronto's offense.

The issue, for the Leafs, is that after they jumped ahead to a 4-1 lead with 6:06 left in yesterday's third period, they allowed the Red Wings to get back in the game and tie things up with 1.1 seconds left.

Don't get me wrong, full credit to Detroit for battling their way back into the game and earning a point out of it, but if you're the Leafs, these types of issues need to be remedied quickly if they want a legitimate shot at post-season play this season -- which would still be a great accomplishment given they're still, technically, in a rebuilding process.

"(It's) just little things we've got to clean up," Matthews said following Sunday's game. "I think we just can't let our foot off the gas in these types of games. When you get up goals, we've kind of done it a couple times this season, and I think it's just part of the whole learning process with such a young team. But it's really no excuse, we don't want to find ourselves in that position much more here."

Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello wants to help his team's defensive struggles, but it's clear he won't rush into making any moves to improve the blueline, or overall team defense. The club still understands the objective and despite being within an arm's reach of a playoff spot, right now, the club's long-term success is weighed much more heavily than short-term goals.

"What we're going to do is just do what we always do. (Sunday) was the first game of the segment we got two points. We're three points behind where we need to be, and so we've got to find a way to get more than six points in every five-game segment," said Babcock. "We're just going to try to get better every day, and what happens is your team gets better and better, the competitive people get better and better, and the non-competitive people got to find someplace else to play. That's just what happens in the good programs. We're finding players every day as we watch them grow, and we have aspirations to be a really good team in the National Hockey League, one that in the summer you know you're going to make the playoffs. That's not where we're at right now, but we're a work in progress. We like the direction we're going."

Over the last couple of weeks, we've heard JVR's name popping up more and more in trade speculation, but nothing has changed from Toronto's perspective. Would the Leafs move him? Sure, but it's going to take a lot of convincing and you better be prepared to give up a top-tier defenseman in order to get him.

With Rielly, Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev on the backend, the Leafs effectively have three holes they'd like to fill with long-term solutions. Connor Carrick has been given every opportunity to secure one of those spots, and many around the League believe he will grow into a legitimate top-four defenseman, but whether that happens with Toronto or not is too early to tell.

Looking around the NHL, the Anaheim Ducks remain a logical destination for van Riemsdyk, but they'd have to cough up one of Cam Fowler or Sami Vatanen and I'm a) not sure they're willing to do it, and b) I don't know if the Leafs feel Fowler, who, like JVR, has one-year left on his deal beyond this season, is the player they'd want in return as part of what would likely be a larger deal.

van Riemsdyk also has a 10-team no-trade list as part of his contract.

Other possibilities could be the Minnesota Wild, who have a surplus of top-tier defensemen whom they'd be exposing in the June expansion draft. Would Wild GM Chuck Fletcher consider acquiring JVR, with the intent of protecting him from Vegas, as part of a package for a player like Jonas Brodin?

With Ryan Suter having to be protected -- he has a no-movement clause -- and the Wild likely to protect Jared Spurgeon, that leaves one slot open, assuming the Wild opts to protect three defensemen, seven forwards and a goalie. Do they go with Matt Dumba? Seems like the right move, but it leaves Brodin, Marco Scandella and Christian Folin available.

It's worth thinking about, from Minnesota's perspective, and something, if you believe the whispers, the Maple Leafs have already poked around about.

Would the New York Islanders, desperately in need of a top winger to play alongside John Tavares, consider JVR in a deal if it meant moving Travis Hamonic? Would the Los Angeles Kings look at JVR as an option to play with Anze Kopitar if it meant moving Alec Martinez?

The Leafs are sure to have options, but it doesn't mean they're eager to move him. Lamoriello could certainly explore moving other assets like Kadri (unlikely) or Tyler Bozak (more likely), and focus on strongly targeting pending unrestricted free agents Kevin Shattenkirk or Karl Alzner, both of whom they'd certainly love to get their hands on.

Toronto has the salary cap space to play with, with Nathan Horton, Joffrey Lupul and Stephane Robidas on long-term injury reserve (totaling $13.55 million), but the long-term thinking still outweighs the short-term gains -- Zaitsev, Brown and Hyman's salaries are climbing next season, Nylander's will jump in 2018-19, and Matthews and Marner's will skyrocket in 2019-20.

Bottom line, the Maple Leafs are in the best position they've
been in since the early 2000s and it's only getting better from here, whether this team makes the playoffs this season or not.

A FEW TIPS

It seems the general, national consensus to bitch, moan and complain about too many outdoor games, but until people stop showing up, the NHL's going to keep it going. With three likely on schedule next season, according to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, the national focus for some of these games, outside of the Winter Classic, will likely begin to shift primarily to the local markets. Sure, the NHL will continue to promote the games nationally, to an extent, but cashing in on local attention, and local dollars, is where it's at.

The Los Angeles Kings need to figure out their offensive deficiencies before the season gets away from them. Luckily, they have a couple of games in hand of the teams above them, and even though they're holding down the final wild card spot in the West, right now, their lack of consistent goal production is becoming more and more of a concern. Outside of lone-All-Star Jeff Carter, who is currently second in the NHL with 20 goals, and goaltender Peter Budaj, who has been holding down the fort exceptionally well (All-Star worthy?), the rest of the club's stars, including Kopitar, Tyler Toffoli and even Drew Doughty have struggled mightily. Dustin Brown's performance has been pretty solid, nobody should complain about Martinez's season so far, and Kevin Gravel has earned a regular spot on the roster, by all accounts, but the team needs more out of their guns Kopitar, Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Jake Muzzin and Marian Gaborik, who has been frustrating to watch lately. And when that many guys are struggling on a team, the blame is shared with the coaching staff and Darryl Sutter isn't innocent in all of this, either. I don't get the sense, right now, anyway, that Kings GM Dean Lombardi is going to make a move for a goal-scorer, but you've got to think it's on his mind. His off-season acquisitions -- Teddy Purcell and Michael Latta are in the AHL, and Tom Gilbert may soon join them -- haven't worked out, with the brief exception of Devin Setoguchi, whose time might be running out, and if Gaborik and Kopitar can't get their acts together, even the fan cries for calling up Michael Mersch and Adrian Kempe won't be enough.

I'm not sold on the Colorado Avalanche moving Matt Duchene or Gabe Landeskog during the season, nor am I fully sold that Joe Sakic ends up being the guy to pull the trigger. Whispers have been picking up that Sakic could move up to another position and bring in another person to take over the General Manager duties in Denver. If that happens, it'll happen in the off-season. If it happens. Sakic could find a dance partner for Duchene and/or Landeskog, right the ship, and remain at the GM role. Heck, if the right deal presented itself for Semyon Varlamov or even Tyson Barrie, the Avs will consider it if it meant they'd improve. Their season is basically over, and the focus should be on next season.

David Pagnotta is the Editor-in-Chief of The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.

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