Something broke inside of me last season.
Now, I’m a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, so I’ve been breaking for a long time, little by little. Being a fan of this team means getting your heart broken over and over, until there isn’t much left. Almost all of the long time fans of this team eventually step back and think to themselves “Why? Why do I keep coming back for more? What has this organization ever done to warrant this type of love and commitment?”
Those that don’t think that, well, they’re the special ones. No more or less a fan than the rest of us, just ever hopeful. I envy their fortitude, their commitment and their unwavering love of the team. I admire them and I want to join the ranks. I want to answer every negative comment I hear about this team with “yes, but….” and start talking about the teams chances each year with “just you wait and see!!”
It’ll be a tough road to get there though, because, as I said, something broke inside of me last season and I remember exactly when it happened.
The date was February 22nd and Carolina came to town. The first period ended with Toronto holding a 1-0 lead over the Hurricanes. Then, before you know it, there were 4 pucks in the back of Torontos net. Things were going downhill but that wasn’t ever the bad part……. enter David Ayres.
The Leafs scored 2 quick goals to get to within one of tying the Hurricanes and it looked like it could turn into an embarrassing night for poor David, the emergency goalie that was thrust into the spotlight to play an unprecedented twenty eight minutes and forty one seconds of game time against the Buds, after Caroline lost their 1st and 2nd string goaltenders. But no, not on that night. On that night, like so many others, it would be the Leafs and their fans that would be embarrassed.
It wouldn’t be the type of “it was 4-1” embarrassment that you could justify later, either. That would be easy, because, after all, the Bruins were one hell of a team that year and the Leafs weren’t. Nor would it be the type of “let’s all watch the Bruins pick Tyler Seguin 2nd overall at the draft with Toronto’s pick” kind of embarrassing. We could turn off the TV and watch Phil Kessel highlights on our computers and just pretend it wasn’t happening and boy, there were some great highlights.
No, this was an entirely different type of embarrassing. It was a deep, grinding, hurt-in-the-pit-of-your-stomache kind of embarrassed. Those that said the Hurricanes simply played a great game in front of an EBUG were right, but that did little to dispel the resentment that began to grow for the team.
Where was their fight? Where was their drive? Where was their PRIDE??
If there was any of that within the players they certainly didn’t show it that night.
So when management refused to add at the deadline and the team eventually lost to Columbus in 5 games, it was of no consequence. Of course they didn’t add. Of course they didn’t win. Of course players admitted to “not being physically engaged” in Game 1. The team often took games off and this was just another 5 game stretch for them, not a do-or-die scenario. There was no pride on the line for that group. Besides, they had already proven who they were in February, so anybody that expected more from the team in August were only fooling themselves.
That’s how I felt. It’s still how I feel. When they lost to Columbus I wasn’t embarrassed or disappointed, I felt the same as I had for the six months previous. I felt exasperated and angry. I felt (feel) that they weren’t heavy enough, weren’t determined enough, weren’t proud enough and weren’t in it for the team, but for themselves. I felt (feel) that I am now a fan of a team that marches into the rink every night with big skill, big egos, big contracts, big expectations, but little love and pride for the jersey.
This isn’t a fun way to be a fan.
So, let’s point to what’s good about this team. Maybe I can start to have faith again if I put a positive spin on things for a change, even if this team hasn’t earned that of late.
The Big 4!!
Of course the Big 4 are the most positive of things on the team. We are currently witnessing the most talented goal scorer to ever don the blue and white, Auston Matthews, enjoy a terrific start to his career. Hopefully it’s a long one that’s spent in Toronto in it’s entirety. He’ll challenge for the Richard Trophy each year and fans are proud to have him here. Forget the fears of him fleeing to Arizona, if Leaf fans and management treat him right he’s here to stay.
Having that type of franchise centreman in the organization could only be made better if you had another franchise centreman in the organization and it just so happens that the Leafs do!! John Tavares wouldn’t have been my pick for captain (that would have been Captain Underpants himself, Auston Matthews), but you can’t go wrong with a die hard fan like Tavares wearing the “C” for your team. He’ll live up to his contract to the end and if I were a betting man he’ll follow that one up with another contract with the Leafs, at a much more reasonable caphit.
The only thing that could make all of that even better is if the team could provide each #1C with a top end winger to play with. Having William Nylander, who was on pace for a 70pt season and scored 31 goals last year, as your 4th best forward shows just how rich the Leafs are offensively. That a 1st line winger is being held back by Mitch Marner, who lead Leafs forwards in TOI/GP, PP TOI/GP and SH TOI/GP is incredible when you think about it. Marner is an all situations juggernaut and is the only Leafs player to register over 90pts in a season since the calendar flipped to the current century, when he scored 94pts over the 2018-19 season. That 94pts ties him with Mats Sundin (1996-97) and Vincent Damphousse (1989-90) for the 10th best single season point total in Toronto Maple Leafs history. Only two players in Leafs history have scored over 100pts, as both Doug Gilmour and Darryl Sittler did it twice, but I believe they’ll be joined by Marner and Matthews before long.
The Big 4 should go down in Leafs history as the most potent offensive unit- this franchise has ever seen and that’s worth being excited about.
Alright, hear me out.
I’ve hurled as much criticism at Kyle Dubas as anybody. He’s learning on the job and I can’t say I’m too thrilled when he admits to things like underestimating the important of veteran leadership on a team, adding “shame on me for that.”
When you see agents take advantage and land their clients big contracts and watch the team enter the draft with tunnel vision, only to draft smaller, skilled players, it’s easy to have doubts.
However, he’s one of the smartest men I’ve witnessed run this team. He has a plan and by all that is holy, he’s sticking to it!! That type of steadfast dedication to a direction that you believe in should be admired (though it’s easy to disagree with that admiration if you don’t believe in the direction). He often admits to his mistakes and does what he can to fix them (even if that takes time. I.e. the goalie situation. I.e. the lack of grit on the roster. I.e. the lack of veteran leadership). That willingness to change his opinion, while also holding steady on the direction of the team, is encouraging.
There’s a bright and energetic young man at the helm right now and while he hasn’t been perfect, I can’t think of a GM in our past that was. I’m willing to give him more rope in hopes that he doesn’t use it to hang himself.
“Jumbo” Joe Thornton is such a commanding presence in the hockey world and we should all be thrilled to have him on the team, even if he is about 58 years past his prime. He can still play the game, has love for the jersey and has very little time left to win a cup. That should spell determination and passion, which has been lacking from the roster. Add in Wayne Simmonds, who has had more than enough time to allow his body to heal from the wear and tear of regular and long NHL seasons, so could be poised for a comback year, Jason Spezza, who wants to end his career in Toronto and longer term players such as John Tavares, Jake Muzzin, TJ Brodie and Zach Bogosian, and you have a litany of leadership candidates that should be the rock this young, talented core needs to stand on.
Frederik Andersen is a terrific goaltender. Yes, he has his moments and months, but through the ups and downs he always finds a way to put up a lot of wins. His 38 wins from the 2017-18 season are the best this franchise has ever seen, edging out Ed Belfour and Andrew Raycroft, who sit at 37. His 36 wins from 2018-19 are tied with Curtis Joseph for 4th best all-time and his 33 from 2016-17 are tied with Joseph, Johnny Bower and Vesa …. Toskala? (okay then) for 11th best all time. Meanwhile, he should pass Curtis Joseph to earn sole possession of 4th all-time in wins for a Toronto goalie, and could put himself in shooting (saving?) distance of Felix Potvin for 3rd on the all-time list. If he re-signs with the Leafs (he’s a UFA after this season) that title will surely be his. Depending on how many years he re-signs for, he’ll have an outstanding chance at passing Johnny Bower for 2nd place as well, which would leave him behind the one and only Turk Broda, who posted 304 wins in a Toronto uniform. Freddy may not have enough years left in the league to catch Broda, but he’ll surely be a large name in Torontos goaltending history when he’s done here.
His SV% is 4th all-time among Leafs goalies (minimum 30 games played) and his GAA is 16th as well.
That’s enough of that. The point is we’re talking about an all-time Leafs great here and a guy that has had little defensive help in front of him. If this was a defend-first-score-later team he would have numbers that would put him in the Vezina Trophy conversation every year, of that I’m sure.
From there they finally have a solid backup goaltender, Jack Campbell, who should help to push Andersen to be even better than he has been, while Aaron Dell sits as the 3rd string goalie. Dell has been a solid backup goalie for a few years now, but really came into his own last season while playing behind a terrible San Jose team. The Leafs are in good hands in net this season and look as good as they have since they lost Curtis MacElhinney and Calvin Pickard to waivers a few years back and it’s a great thing, because injuries are bound to happen during this compact schedule.
Last and possibly least of all, is the teams defense. While many will turn their noses up at the thought of this teams defense being solid, that won’t be me right now. They don’t have an all-star top pairing, but all of Morgan Rielly, TJ Brodie and Jake Muzzin have experience and pedigree on their side. Justin Holl is a capable defender as well, while Travis Dermott, Zach Bogosian, Rasmus Sandin and, hopefully (because we haven’t seen him in game action yet), Mikko Lehtonen provide terrific depth. The hope for me is that this group can come together to become more than the sum of it’s parts. On paper, in my opinion, they are a little light on the defense side of things and a little heavier on offense, but at least they’re starting the year with a group of players that all deserve to be in the NHL. That’s more than we can say for some of their more recent defensive groups.
On paper TJ Brodie is a good partner for Morgan Rielly, while we saw chemistry from Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl last year. If those things continue and the team can manage to get one more pairing that gels out of the remaining 4 defenders, we may be in store for the best defensive group we’ve witnessed in years.
Here’s hoping it works out because we all deserve a little more to cheer about.
Also, lets face it, we all deserve to hold pride in our franchise again as well.