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December 10, 2017

The Kids Are Alright: Thoughts on the 2017/2018 Maple Leafs’ Season

The Toronto Maple Leafs look good.

I’m not one of those fans who unrealistically think a Stanley cup is a sure-thing this season, but a few days before the start of the 2017/2018 NHL season I’m feeling really optimistic about the boys in blue and white.

I’ll admit…it’s a weird and unfamiliar feeling.

I’ve been a Maple Leafs fan (discounting those years that I was too young to fully understand or appreciate competitive sports), ever since I was introduced to hockey as child. I’ve had about 15 years of fandom to develop the cynical mistrust of Toronto’s hockey team,  that almost every Maple Leafs’ fan shares. Sure, there are fans that have suffered longer (…1967 gets further and further away every year) and feel for them, but for me, 15 years is long enough.

Toronto’s history is not without plenty of misery (especially in the last few decades). It’s difficult to even begin to think about ALL the bad trades, terrible players, and missed opportunities that have existed over the years. Just when you’ve thought of the worst one, you remember another. You might start by remembering all the plugs that somehow graced Toronto’s lineups over the years: Mike Komisarek never lived up to hype, Christian Hanson (remember how publicized he was?? He gave them 9 points in 43 games. After leaving the Leafs he never cracked another NHL team lineup (and quit playing altogether in 2014), Brett Lebda? Garnet Exelby? Dave Bolland? David Clarkson? JEFF-freaking-FINGER?!; then you remember Vesa Toskala, and all of the first-shot, bad-angle, and centre-ice goals that went in during his tenure with T.O. You miss Sundin for a moment, then think of the next great star: Phil Kessel. You don’t remember him necessarily being bad, you instead remember THE trade.

Draft picks that became Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton,  for a winger that couldn’t take the team to the next level.

You remember when they finally made a playoff appearance for the first time in a decade.  A Toronto team that was hanging in there and sticking it to their rivals from Boston. Then the collapse of all collapses: a 4-1 lead evaporating in a few final frantic minutes and all that optimism plummeting into maddening sorrow.

Finally, you remember all the “masterminds” and orchestrators of these disappointments. The coaches and GM’s that made these memories possible. You remember all their speeches laying out their strategies. Brian Burke didn’t build through the draft like he said he would. He traded the farm for Kessel and others. He preached “truculence and pugnacity”, but gave them Tyler Biggs. It is ALL these moments you remember that tarnish your faith in the Toronto Maple Leafs. Thus, after experiencing a season which no Leafs fan can say they expected; a season in which they exceeded even the grandest of fans’ expectations and then some, Maple Leafs fans are facing an unfamiliar feeling. Not just optimism, but optimism without even the slightest reason not to trust the process. Suddenly, we are cheering for a team with hope.

So let’s unpack and analyze that optimism a bit. As I stated to begin, the Toronto Maple Leafs look good. They look REALLY good. Not quite, full-Stanley-Cup-contenders good, but promising enough that there is a reason to be excited for the future.

For the first time in a long time, it is realistic to say (even before the season is underway) that the Leafs look good enough to be a lock for the playoffs. Most major analysts have them in, in their pre-season predictions, not by squeaking in on the last day of the season like they did last year, but secured in one of the middle playoff spots. Very few teams look good enough to never be in doubt (the Pittsburgh, Washington, Minnesota, Chicago, etc.) and very few are guaranteed to really struggle (Las Vegas? Colorado?). Most linger in a big blob in between those two categories. Toronto has moved out of that struggling contingent and into this middle-blob. The only thing that can differentiate these monotonous teams is their performances on the ice. As teams under or over perform, they begin to separate themselves from the pack and move toward either the top-tier teams or the bottom feeders. With that in mind, performance is subjective and can change from shift to shift for players (never mind from game to game or season to season). We have seen teams completely take the league by storm and surprise everyone with seemingly underwhelming rosters on paper, only to surge into a cup run (the LA Kings from a few years ago anyone?). We’ve also seen teams destined to be the greatest, that flounder and fail to find that next level and find success (aka every Capitals team in the Ovechkin era). With one good season in the books, it’s hard to predict where the Leafs will be this year. On one hand, pre-season has shown no signs of a sophomore slump but it is ONLY the pre-season. On the other hand, this is a very young team with a few questions still to answer. It wouldn’t be too surprising if the team did take a slight step back from last season.

I honestly believe Auston Matthews, Willy Nylander, Mitch Marner, Connor Brown, and the rest of the forward corps will be fine. Even if they don’t perform to the same exceptional level they did last year, they will still be solid and exciting nonetheless. With the speed, skill, and talent that these young kids possess, it will take a lot to slow them down. The addition of Marleau is a bit perplexing, but if any 35+ year old player was to be brought in to keep up with the kids, Marleau is that guy. He barely shows any sign of age. He can still skate, has incredible endurance and durability. (signified by not missing a regular season game in a decade). He still shows a knack for the net, and is an incredible leader who has familiarity and chemistry with Coach Babcock. Will Marleau win the scoring title? No, but he will contribute and help lead this young team.

The Leafs have the foundation for what all great-teams have: three lines that can score and compete. During the preseason, it was the battle for the 4th line spots that gained the most coverage. That, in itself, is a sign of the Leafs’ strength on the top-3 lines. To start the season, it looks like Dominic Moore and Eric Fehr will platoon at center between Connor Brown and Matt Martin.

Players like Josh Leivo, Kasperi Kapanen, Miro Aaltonen, Kerby Rychel, Nikita Soshnikov, Frederik Gauthier, Tobias Lindberg, Andreas Johnsson, as well as promising rookies like Jeremy Bracco and Carl Grundstom, all see themselves on the outside looking in to begin the season. Despite many having great pre-seasons, they just weren’t able to crack the main squad. The Leafs have so much depth at forward, that even losing Brendan Leipsic to the expansion draft barely registers as a disappointment.‍

Are all these forwards going to be stars? We don’t know. It’s way too early to tell, but there is A LOT of potential there. The play of Kapanen and Leivo has been electrifying at times.  Kapanen’s play in last year’s playoffs alone could have earned him a permanent spot in the Leafs’ lineup, but once again he must fight and scrape his way into another Maple Leafs appearance, along with every other depth forward. The real questions for the Toronto Maple Leafs (and a much maligned area for the team historically) lay in their defense and with their goalie. What will determine which way the Leafs trend is the play of Frederik Andersen and whether the defense is strong enough to compete and shut down elite NHL scorers. Andersen struggled in his debut season, prompting many Leafs fans to feel they a had a miserable déjà vu on their hands. He bounced back though, helping lead this young team to the playoffs, and almost a series win over one of the league’s best teams. His time in Anaheim has shown that on a good team he can be a solid and competent goaltender. He put up great numbers with a talented team playing in front of him. Any worry or doubt in his abilities stems from the question: what if the team (or at least the defense) ISN’T great in front of him? If the Maple Leafs struggle defensively they will need Andersen to stand tall and steal games for them,  like any elite goalie in the league has the ability to do. He needs to be Toronto’s Carey Price or Braden Holtby. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether that’s a fair expectation to thrust upon him.

It’s not a player’s fault if they’re labelled elite, but are JUST okay (remember Phaneuf?). The Leafs’ defense corps do not exactly leap out at you as being particularly stellar either. Sure, players like Gardiner and Zaitsev had strong seasons last year. Others, like Reilly, are bound to be better, but there are many undefined commodities that will be patrolling Toronto’s blue line this season. What will they get from the likes of Marincin, Carrick, Rosen, Borgman? Or even Dermott and Nielsen, if they are called up? Will they step out and prove themselves to be reliable players or are they AHLers, promoted simply because there is no one else to fill the position?

All of these defensemen have shown a lot a promise at times and are still young enough that they might take their game to another level. The problem is that the Leafs NEED them to do so to have the best chance for success. A veteran addition like Ron Hainsey will help mentor and stabilize the back end, but the fact remains that this next wave of defensemen need to establish themselves as full time NHLers. Otherwise, these young D-men could become the next Frankie Corrado; perpetually touted for having potential enough that the team fears losing you, yet not good enough to crack a team and spends most nights in the press box.

There is hope abound in Toronto: the Raptors are competitive (and would have more success if not for those pesky Cavs); TFC has finally cashed in on all the support and enthusiasm that has surrounded them since they entered the MLS; the Jays had a brief foray into October baseball and gave us the legendary bat flip (before imploding into the prototypical under-performing Toronto sports team this season). In fact there is still hope for next season in spite of it. Even Toronto’s newest professional sports team, the Toronto Wolfpack, have had a supremely successful season, earning themselves a promotion into the next tier of English Rugby League competition (yes, English as in England). The Wolfpack have done what no team has done before, by being successful in a cross-Atlantic league.

With all this positivity in sports, the city of Toronto is in a great place. For years, Toronto has sat at the bottom of rankings for sports cities, but it appears that has changed.

Helping to lead that change, with the rest of Toronto’s teams, are the newly budding Buds; the exciting kids of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

I have to say, “the kids are alright”.

“Jonathan Milner is Graduate of York University and an avid writer, musician, and sports fan. Born in England but raised in Canada, Jonathan has developed a passion for sports as vast as the ocean that separates his homelands. A religious supporter of both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Leeds United, he is determined that he will see these teams reach the pinnacle of their respective sports in his lifetime.”

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