The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to be good next season. That has been a foregone conclusion since this rag tag boy band of a hockey team nearly took the President’s Trophy winners the distance in April. Yet, in the bowels of echo chambers such as HF Boards and Twitter, disagreement rages on. The debate over just how good they’ll be has spurned takes hot enough to make the summer heat feel like a cool breeze.
Toronto Maple Leafs Off-Season Thoughts: Relax
In the dog days of July, when the hockey world’s biggest news is Marc Bergevin annexing a core piece of his team for the second summer in a row, predictions for next year’s Leafs team is all fans have to tide them over until the team hits the ice again. One should respect the passion and vigour this anxious fan base displays, however there are times it can get out of hand. For those who are losing precious hours of sleep over which fourth line winger will occupy the press box on a given night, please just relax.
How Far They Have Come
Did you know that Eric Brewer was once a Toronto Maple Leaf? So was Tim Erixon. Joakim Lindstrom (who?) donned the Blue and White. And who can forget the illustrious “Olli Jokinen Era” that lasted a remarkable six games. Just three short years ago, those players regularly contributed to a Peter Horachek coached Leafs lineup that publicly tossed any remaining shred of desire out the window of the eighteen wheeler they were driving off a cliff. Leafs fans all need to take a step back here. So, put the phone down, and think about how far this franchise has come.
These Aren’t the Leafs of Old
It was a little over four years ago, Game 7 against the Boston Bruins. The fanbase went through a toxic concoction of emotions that night. Those feelings of dread and utter embarrassment lingered for months. In shock, an entire fan base, engulfed in blue and white, marched home in silence, wishing they would wake up from this horrid dream. And yet deep down, everyone knew that this was the outcome they had expected. That is what being a Leafs fan used to be like. It used to be pain. It used to be false hope. Sadly, it used to be putting all your hope into an underwhelming prospect who is now playing in a league whose games likely aren’t even televised. But, that’s not what being a Leafs fan is anymore.
Management has Earned Trust
When was the last time fans truly had confidence in Leafs management? Really take a moment to ponder that. Did they really believe Brian Burke when he promised a five-year plan, only to go all–in months later on moves for Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Phil Kessel, and Dion Phaneuf? Did they really believe Dave Nonis when he said the last three years of the David Clarkson contract weren’t a worry to him? It doesn’t take one going out on a limb to say that most fans likely did not.
This is the first time in over a decade that Leafs management has actually earned the confidence of this fan base. They have adhered to the “Shannaplan”, despite temptations to abandon it. This group has drafted skilled players with value picks, acquired young and talented pieces, and developed them in a patient manner. They have built a lineup deep enough that Kasperi Kapanen, who would be the top prospect for at least half of the teams in the league, is not guaranteed a spot. Say what you will about the defence corps, one can’t deny that this management team has assembled one of the best top six forward groups in the entire NHL. They have acquired the franchise goaltender this team has lacked since Curtis Joseph departed for Detroit.
Last Year was Just a Start
In what was intended to be a developmental year, the Leaf’s fifth-best rookie put up a twenty goal season. Additionally, he scored the goal to clinch the franchise’s first playoff spot, in a full season. Their sixth-best rookie set the franchise rookie record for shorthanded goals in a season. Their fourth-best rookie emerged as a top-four defenceman in his first year playing on North American ice.
Have all the Leaf’s personnel moves been perfect? Absolutely not. There may be an issue with paying Eric Fehr $2 million to likely be a Marlie. Matt Martin is keeping Josh Leivo in the press box. Yet, that is beside the point. It may be a new feeling, but these are the problems that good teams grapple with. Problems that just three short years ago, Leaf fans would have given their first-born child to have.
Mo’ Talent, Better Problems
The Leaf’s biggest issue is no longer, “how are we going to ice a lineup in which everybody can probably skate backwards?” Rather, now they might ask, “how can we find a roster spot for a twenty-one-year-old prospect with elite speed and two-way game, who scored the game winning goal in double overtime, in the playoffs against, statistically, the best team in the NHL?” If the teams biggest problem consists of a run-on sentence that just gets better as it keeps going, then they are doing alright.
More to Come
So, relax. The fact is, Patrick Marleau is overpaid. But doesn’t the thought of him on Auston Matthews and William Nylander‘s wing get hearts pumping? Yes, Zach Hyman didn’t put up gargantuan offensive numbers last year. But doesn’t the thought of him driving opponents to utter insanity alongside Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov for the next four years make one smile?
If one dissects every move the Leafs have made, one is undoubtedly going to find some problems. However, that is true with any NHL team. But one is also going to find a good team. Whether one swears by analytics (which, by the way, are incredibly useful), or use the “eye test”, Leaf fans all felt the sheer joy that last season’s improbable success brought us. So as the summer sags along, think back to that joy felt mere months ago. Think back, and remember one, single thing. That was only the beginning.