Part one: How did we get here?
It’s no secret that the Leafs are not meeting fan expectations at the moment. Given their current slump it is understandable why some fans might be a bit upset. One would imagine that the players and coaches aren’t too happy about it either.
It really doesn’t matter what fanbase you are a part of, everybody wants to win. That goes for any city and any sport, Toronto fans are no different and they should not be ashamed of that or of how they express themselves, despite what the self-anointed “real fans” say. That being said, expectations should be realistic and logic should be the foundation of any sound argument and unfortunately, the fans of Toronto aren’t always keeping that into perspective.
Given the current state of the leafs and the perpetual knee-jerk reactions of the alarmist Toronto media and fans, it is important to maintain realistic expectations and to analyze and qualify how exactly the leafs are doing in reality. To do this we need to examine our current progress, where we sit in comparison to the rest of the league and how much room and potential we still have for growth. We will do this in a three-part series so that we may give each area the focus it deserves. This should not only give us a better grasp on realistic expectations but also hint at what our actual foreseeable window for a Stanley cup may be.
Pull up a seat, a coffee (or a beer) and let’s get down to business as Maple Leafs Daily News takes you on a deep dive into the current state of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The rebuild (Feb 2015- July 2018)
How it Began
Our story begins with the rebuild everyone wanted but noone had the guts to initiate. Someone once said, “to know where you are, you have to know just where you started.”
For argument sake, we are going to say that the rebuild began when MLSE met and officially announced that they agreed to scrap and rebuild in early February 2015 and that it ended when John Tavares was signed. Also, when it became apparent that barring an unexpected and unfortunate regression, the leafs were most likely: going to be playoff contenders again, were no longer going to be making any significant roster changes and for the 3rd year in a row, were not going to be building from the top of the entry draft but instead, were reliant on quality late round scouting, the roster in place and the decisions of then newly appointed general manager Kyle Dubas.
The rebuild unofficially started with the hiring of Brendan Shanahan on April 11th, 2014. He was tasked with straightening out the leafs organization as a whole which was a daunting and monumental task considering at that point the leafs had only made one playoff appearance in ten seasons. Maybe that wasn’t the start of the rebuild but it certainly foreshadowed the changes that would come.
Some may suggest the rebuild began when the leafs finally threw in the towel on Randy Carlyle, firing him on January 6th, 2015 when the leafs then winning record took a big hit after a 2-5-0 western road trip.
One could even go as far as arguing that the drafting of Morgan Rielly in 2012 and even Nazem Kadri way back in 2009, were at the very least a part of the rebuild given the fact that the leafs were not a contending team at the time and that both (then young) players would inevitably become integral parts of the Leafs current core. One could argue that but that may be reaching.
The truth is, the rebuild unofficially started well before it was an accepted form of dialogue, the writing was on the wall for a very long time. With a running cup drought since 1967 and multiple generations of fans with nothing to brag about and nothing to look forward to; the rebuild was an unavoidable solution to problems that were so ingrained within the franchise that they had become a part of the culture.
Fruits of labour
The leafs rebuild took off with a string of smart moves initiated by the hiring of a world class coach in Mike Babcock on May 20th, 2015 and the legendary general manager, Lou Lamoriello on July 23rd 2015. With Kyle Dubas (assistant gm) and Mark Hunter (director of player personnel) already in place, the management team set off to fulfill Brendan Shanahans directive to instill a winning culture within the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.
The leafs would go on to blow up their roster by trading away some of their more strenuous contracts like David Clarkson, Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel, while keeping their promise to leaf fans by building directly through the draft, a sentiment lost by previous managements.
From 2014-2015 the Leafs would draft big ticket names like William Nylander and Mitch Marner and NHL hopeful Travis Dermott, three important building blocks that would eventually go on to become Leaf regulars. They also picked up goalie Frederik Andersen, partially thanks to the first round pick that Toronto received back in the Phil Kessel trade on top of then prospect, Kasperi Kapanen. Its hard to imagine now but at one point, this was everything Leaf fans had to look forward to; a time in which William Nylander was the most heralded prospect we had and Mitch Marner was still a question mark in the eyes of the pot stirring Toronto media.
After shedding player salary, restructuring team management and only one full season into the official rebuild, on April 30th, 2016 the Leafs won the lottery, literally, by winning first overall pick with the ability to draft franchise center, Auston Matthews. Things were finally looking up for Leafs Nation, the semblance of an organized team with a promising future was becoming a reality and for the first time in a long time the leafs fortunes seemed to be turning around.
Today, this is where perspective is important; forget about pain now, in hindsight, prior to the rebuild, leaf fans suffered through so much insufferable and constant pain. There were years of bad asset management, bad contracts, recklessly bad decisions in an almost comical sequence of non-stop bad luck. All failed attempts (some half-assed, some misguided and some just unfortunate) to fix a problem they couldn’t comprehend for a fan base that they didn’t seem to care about. When the current leafs are losing seemingly important games during a period in which teams are supposed to be stepping it up, it may be hard to gather perspective however the pain of today is far less greater than the pain of yesterday and for that, Leaf fans should be grateful. Like they say, “anyday with your head above water, is a good day.”
When the current leafs are losing seemingly important games during a period in which teams are supposed to be stepping it up, it may be hard to gather perspective however the pain of today is far less greater than the pain of yesterday and for that, Leaf fans should be grateful. Like they say, “anyday with your head above water, is a good day.”
What happened next, was the unthinkable. The leafs then did what no one expected and after just two years from when the rebuild was announced, they shocked the hockey world by qualifying for the playoffs. The Leafs Faced off against the Washington Capitals, taking them all the way to game six but inevitably losing the first round playoff match.
The leafs may have been eliminated but it was a treat to fans. A treat they did not ask for, did not expect, did not require. They laughed at the sentiment of pain; broke bread and sipped wine as the Leafs brought the city to life. For a brief moment, at least in the universe that is Toronto, anything was possible.
The loss was not a failure by leafs coaches, players or management; this was an overachievement by any measure and a gift that some fans have come to take for granted. A badge of glory, an achievement celebrated; not a loss but a win however some fans, instead of praising the leafs, take it out on the people who help in ways they don’t understand. They demand trades and to change the coach, “two straight first round losses” they rant, “one more and they will have to think about firing Babcock.”
The reason the leafs made the playoffs that year is simple, the coach and a good team but not a great one. Since the day Mike Babcock arrived, the Leafs have been playing above their heads; his methods and style are what the leafs needed and although his effectiveness on the players is sometimes underappreciated or ignorantly dismissed, the results speak for themselves and there is no question that he is a proficient coach who can get the best out of his men.
As mentioned briefly above and like most fans of hockey already know, the leafs managed to make the playoffs the following year as well. This time the leafs would play against the rival Boston Bruins; not only did they compete but they took them all the way to game seven. An outstanding feat for such a young team that two years prior had one of the worst records in the NHL.
The reality of the situation
Toronto and Boston have some bad blood. They have a long and tired history and the animosity is mutual, to say the least. Leaf fans wanted this one so badly that they allowed pride and emotion to raise their expectations beyond reason. They propped their beloved Maple Leafs up onto a pedestal, concealed inflated expectations and mistankingly held the young team, that overachieved once again, accountable for the fans own mistaken interpretation of the reality that is salary cap era hockey while dismissing the existing parody that is one of the driving forces behind the leafs rise.
With the help of a world class coach and at the time, mildly underestimated talent within the organization, the Leafs were able to excel as a team and clinch a wildcard spot within a weak eastern conference in 2017 and performed marginally better to get third in their division in 2018.
For the sake of argument, neither playoff series should be held against the Leaf players or coaches, in any argument, in any format. Simply put, they were overachievers, a product of their salary cap environment and the parody it cultivates.
This was an unexpected gift, plain and simple. Leaf fans, as a whole, should be thankful everyday that the city and the young burgeoning team were given a gift from the hockey Gods, the gift of experience and the experience of the gift itself. Something that as a city and a fanbase, they had the joy of sharing.
No one can deny, the leafs have made fantastic strides and are a fair distance beyond where they were just a few years ago. Its natural to want to win and the men who are running the organization and who put on the blue and white on a daily basis, didn’t get to where they are today by not wanting to win. The chances are that they are there by consistently wanting to win more then any one of us who aren’t so fortunate to be in their position but think we are qualified enough to solve their problems and to walk in their shoes.
The Leafs, as a team, have a high ceiling with plenty of room to grow. They have been a better team every year, they are a better team then last year and next year, they will be a better team then now.
When questioning the direction of the Maple Leafs, the effectiveness of coach Mike Babcock and the current state of the Toronto Maple Leafs, maybe it’s time that Leaf fans say thank you to this organization in the form of perspective and understanding.
Leaf fans should appreciate what they have been given and sacrifice their heavy expectations in exchange for a deeper understanding and appreciation of what it took to get here and how much further that maple leaf team has to go. Fans need to stop begging for something else when after all, it wasn’t that long ago, that this was the something else they wanted.
It’s only natural that a fanbase that hasn’t enjoyed winning in so long, isn’t always sure how to behave now that they are winning. In a city where criticism has become the sport and the hockey media acts like the Hollywood tabloids, its time Leaf fans gain some perspective and learn how to be winners. Despite every failed management and lost season, every bad trade and dumb signing, over and over, year after year. Despite everything Leaf fans have come to know, this team is what you wanted, they are hear and they are present; they truly are winners and their window is now.
By Paul Kornatz
Maple Leafs Daily News