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Leaf Auston Matthews takes a shot in Thursday’s win over San Jose.John E. Sokolowski

The reasons the Toronto Maple Leafs may improve over the second half of the NHL season have more fancy than fact, but there is no arguing they are a better team than the 2016-17 edition.

That team was life-and-death to make the playoffs on the final weekend of the season, while this season's edition was a solid second in the Atlantic Division, where the Leafs are tied with the Boston Bruins in points at 50 (24-16-2). However, there is the matter of the Leafs' recent play, which saw them go 4-6-1 in their last 11 games.

But with Auston Matthews' return to health and a more friendly schedule over the final 40 games of the season, there is a feeling around the team that things will get better. Of those 40 games, 23 are at home and there are just three sets of back-to-back games left.

The No. 1 reason in the fanciful category concerns Matthews and William Nylander. Neither player enjoyed a first half in their second NHL seasons that was as good as their rookie campaigns. Much of this can be put down to Matthews' injury woes, as a suspected back injury and then a concussion cost him eight games. This, in turn, affected Nylander, who became a peripheral player without his running mate at centre.

However, Matthews still has 32 points in 32 games, which could still put him ahead of last season, when he scored 40 goals, finished with 69 points in 82 games and took home the Calder Memorial Trophy as the rookie of the year. The encouraging sign in this regard is that since returning from a concussion on Dec. 23, he has five goals and one assist in six games, while Nylander has two goals and four assists, a considerable improvement on the pace that had him at eight goals and 21 assists in 42 games.

"I think he's been good here of late," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said of Nylander. "He's been committed with and without the puck. Obviously he's got a real skill set and plays more determined. The more he's on the puck, the more he's going to have the puck.

"I still think that line can get the puck to the net way more and be way heavier in the offensive zone."

For all of this to happen, of course, Matthews has to stay healthy and so does Nylander, which is the fanciful part of the equation. The Leafs have had extraordinary luck with injuries going back to last season, although they would argue their innovative sports science team plays a role here.

Also pointing to an improvement are the other forward lines and their special teams. Nazem Kadri may have scoring issues (he broke a 12-game drought in Thursday's 3-2 shootout win over the San Jose Sharks) but he and linemates Leo Komarov and Patrick Marleau do yeoman's work in shutting down the opposition's top scorers.

And Mitch Marner, the third member of the Leafs' gifted sophomore class, also came to life in recent days to spark linemates Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk.

On a team basis, the special teams are maintaining the standard they established last season when the power play finished second overall in the NHL and the penalty-killing unit was ninth. After 42 games this season, the power play is sixth with a success rate of 21.8 per cent, while the penalty killers are seventh with a success rate of 83.7 per cent before Friday's games.

Babcock is not concerned about any slip in the power play as long as the penalty killers remain among the league's best units.

"The power play is important for scoring goals and for guys to feel good," the coach said. "But I really believe you can win without that. But you can't win without your penalty kill. You can't be digging it out of your net all the time.

"Your penalty kill has got to be elite. That's goaltending, that's a plan, that's execution, that's commitment, that's shot-blocking – a lot of stuff."

The questions for the Leafs come on the defensive side of the game with the exception of goaltender Frederik Andersen, who is in top form at present. All agree there needs to be an improvement from the defencemen – but not on where it will come from.

When it comes to the matter of the Leafs potentially making a trade for a veteran defenceman with star quality, blueliner Morgan Rielly said, "I don't spend any part of my day thinking about that."

The most pressing need is someone who shoots right and can play in the top two defence pairs. That is even after their second-best defenceman and right-hand shot, Nikita Zaitsev, returns from a suspected broken foot some time in late January.​

The Leafs did make a move Friday that points to their planning for the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 26. They called up 21-year-old defenceman Travis Dermott from the Toronto Marlies farm team, although Babcock said he has not decided if Dermott will make his NHL debut Saturday night against the Vancouver Canucks.

But Dermott is considered the most NHL-ready among the team's defence prospects. Calling him up now indicates the Leafs want to see just where he stands before entering the trade market.

Former Maple Leafs captain Darryl Sittler says Johnny Bower left a “lasting impression” on everyone he met. Some of hockey's biggest names gathered in Toronto on Wednesday to pay tribute to the Hall of Fame goaltender.

The Canadian Press

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