By: Dan Grant
The scream echoed through a silent bar full of broken Toronto Maple Leafs fans. Some looked over and muttered. Others buried their heads in their hands. Some just shuffled to the door.
“It happened because we’re Leafs fans.”
Those were the first words I uttered to the guy next to me, back on May 13th. I leaned in close, a sad mixture of beer and disappointment on my breath, and not so much spoke them as expelled them.
He looked at me and shook his head, laughing. “That’s exactly it man. That’s exactly it.”
May 13th, of course, was the date of the Toronto Maple Leafs epic third period collapse in Game 7, to the Boston Bruins. The Bruins, galvanized by the victory, jumped on a weak Eastern Conference and wound up storming all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Nobody had ever lost that way before. Not up by 3 goals, with only 11 minutes remaining, in a Game 7. It was a whole new kind of losing.
The game summed up the pain that Leafs fans have felt over the past 35 years. While the Cup drought has hit 47 years, the longest current drought in the NHL, the pain didn’t really begin until the 1980’s. The 70’s Leafs held promise; Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald led loaded young squads, only to fall to the juggernaut Flyers, Canadiens and Islanders in succession. The 80’s were a lost decade, as curmudgeonly owner Harold Ballard stripped the once proud franchise bare, insulting the players and coaches on a near daily basis, and creating a chip on the shoulder of his loyal fan base, one that has been exacerbated as the team has failed to even make a Finals since 1967, let alone win one. Brief flashes in the early 90’s with Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour and in the aughts with Mats Sundin and Curtis Joseph ultimately led to some fun memories, but nothing of substance.
The current version of the Leafs is a little different. They’re the most fun Leafs team I can remember watching live. They’re fast, they’re good with the puck. They have a strong group of forwards, rather than mostly average players surrounding a smaller number of stars. Their defense is offensively competent, something that’s important in the new NHL. The goaltending has become a potential strength. And despite the shattering pain of that Game 7 loss, I think it was actually a good thing for this team.
“We could have made the Finals!” my Dad said, at some point during the Bruins post Leaf run. “The Rangers suck, the Penguins were banged up… we could have been there! You can’t mess up chances like that!”
Yes, my Dad is right, in theory. Flags fly forever. You always hear the same thing from veteran players who are playing with young guys, who have success early on: treasure this moment. You might not get back here. It goes by more quickly than you realize. And so forth and so on. But here’s the thing; this team wasn’t ready. They played above their heads in a shortened season, and used their fantastic team speed to harry a Bruins team that wasn’t quite talented enough to keep up with them at their best. However, while the Leafs highs were higher, their lows were also monumentally lower. The Bruins didn’t so much beat them as the Leafs gave it away. Turnovers, and terrible ones, are the glaring cherry on the poo sundae that were the Leafs four losses in the series. Missed checks, bad passes and a general lack of poise; these were all readily apparent.
The Game 7 loss, while tragic, was the lesson these Leafs needed to get to the next level. Even if they made the Finals, they weren’t beating the Blackhawks, not last year. So things could have gone one of two ways. One, you win game 7, make the conference finals or Finals, lose anyway and then think your team is good enough to get back there with a few minor tweaks. Or 2, you lose game 7 (the gut punch wasn’t really necessary but still) and you use that as fuel. You use it to push for off-season changes to strengthen the team. You use it to motivate the returning players this season. You use it in video sessions, so that poise you lacked last year, you gain it. It’s more than fuel; it’s a tool. And if the two things it is rhyme with each other [Ed. note: sort of], you know it must be good.
The team this year is undoubtedly better for having lost that game. Don’t agree? Let’s take a look.
As I mentioned before, this Leafs forward group is as strong as I can remember. Youth, speed, skill and grit; all are featured in droves. Led by returnees Phil Kessel (still just 25!), James Van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri, the Leafs aren’t short on guys who can score. The newly inked, and subsequently suspended, David Clarkson and 2-time Cup Champion David Bolland are strong additions and Mason Raymond brings a combination of speed and grit. Tyler Bozak, Nikolai Kulemin and Jay McClement return as dependable two way players. Rookie and former first round pick Carter Ashton adds size and will open the season with the team, while Clarkson serves his suspension. Colton Orr will be rostered and continue to do this. Troy Bodie will get a chance to help him, while Frazer McClaren has been placed on IR and his timetable for return is unclear.
The back end is undoubtedly the place where the Leafs will sink or swim. Loaded with offensive talent, the defence is, let’s say, inexperienced in their own end. This is a nice way of saying they have some growing to do. Let’s hope the playoff experience gained last year has helped young behemoths Cody Franson (finally signed) and Mark Fraser. Last year’s breakout favourite Jake Gardiner had a very quiet camp (verging on silence) which means 19 year old Morgan Rielly will begin the year with the team. Expect to see lots of Rielly in the first nine games; after nine the Leafs have to decide whether to keep him up or send him back to junior while he’s still eligible. If they choose to keep him beyond that, he’d have to be sent to the Marlies, making him an official professional and costing the Leafs a year of arbitration eligibility in future. For a potential star such as Rielly, this consideration is legitimate. Coach Randy Carlyle, a former offensive defenceman himself, isn’t someone known for his love with younger players, so Rielly’s stay could be short. That said, the fact that he’s even broke camp with the team is to his credit; I personally think he’s going to be a lot of fun to watch, whether it’s this year or next. The signing of Paul Ranger, with his strange story, has rung the death knell for John-Michael Liles, with Carl Gunarsson and Korbinian Holzer taking the other two spots on the blue line, for now.
Captain Dion Phaneuf took a ton of criticism following the loss to the Bruins, particularly on the tying goal, as he failed to so much as make Bruins monster Zdeno Chara even feel a slight breeze in front of the net. His ill-timed pinch also caused the game winning goal in the Bruins overtime win of Game 4, putting the Leafs in to the 3-1 hole they had to dig themselves out of. Say what you want about Phaneuf but he’s never shied from the criticism one draws as a captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He speaks frankly with reporters and owns up to mistakes. He’s a professional. Despite our pain as Leafs fans, we’ve been spoiled by our captains in past. The previous three lasted for over 20 years and were named Sundin, Gilmour and Clark. Putting Phaneuf next to hometown heroes such as those isn’t fair and it’s not realistic. He’s not an elite NHL defenceman; neither is he a scrub. He was playing 30 minutes a game for this team in the playoffs and that’s not a role he’s suited to. He can be a very good two way defenceman, playing 22-24 minutes per night. Those extra 6 minutes make all the difference in the world. They’re for the best of the best. The Leafs defensive core looks deep enough this season that Phaneuf shouldn’t be asked to carry such a heavy load and will be able to thrive in a role more suited to his talent.
The Leafs off-season acquisition of Jonathan Bernier said to many that they were dissatisfied with James Reimer’s performance and were looking to acquire his replacement. I, for one, couldn’t disagree more. I think the Leafs looked at the season as one in which they’ll need solid goaltending for, hopefully, close to 100 games. That’s a huge ask for any goaltender, in particular one such as Reimer, coming off a short season and a guy who’s never played more than 37 games in any one season. Adding an above average second goaltender was an intelligent depth move by General Manager Dave Nonis, particularly when he was only asked to give up clear backup goalie Ben Scrivens and fragile speedster Matt Frattin. Bernier’s upside is that of a #1 goaltender; having two #1’s is a nice problem to have. I think the Leafs will be able to ride the hot hand through the season, with both goaltenders pushing each other to new heights. I don’t think either goalie will top 50 games played during the regular season, barring injury to one or the other.
SO WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
Toronto is an interesting sports town. Successful in fringe leagues like the CFL and NLL, struggling to remain relevant in MLB, never really relevant (yet!) in the NBA and perennially tortured in the NHL, this city wants a big time winner so badly it can’t breathe. Despite passion elsewhere, the Maple Leafs are still the pulse of this city. Being in Toronto is never more fun as when the Leafs are good and when the Leafs are in the playoffs. There’s a feeling of electricity that’s hard to explain; everyone who’s experienced it understands. It’s a feeling like none other. This Leafs team is going to be fun to watch. It’s going to go through ups and downs: remember, we’re in for a full season, not the 48 game rollercoaster ride of last year. But I’m hopeful. The team has looked solid in pre-season and made moves to shore up the inefficiencies of last season. It’s September, so I’m feeling optimistic. Maybe I’m a homer but if I didn’t build myself up now, how would I crash back down later?
It happens because we’re Leafs fans.