“This is the year,” is the oft-heard voice of the fan, the player, the executive, the anyone emotionally invested in the success of a contending team in professional sports. Things have gone right for you for a while, your roster is as good as its ever been, the vibes in the city start to feel a good type of unfamiliar, and because you’re likely more familiar with yourself than anybody else, you feel like nobody can stop you.
It’s probably over-optimistic to believe in it as a certainty. Scratch that, it’s definitely so; hockey, perhaps more than any other sport, makes the ultimate theatre sacrifice of being the best in exchange for being the luckiest good team in the moment come the spring. An injury, a hot or cold goalie, a couple of goal posts can make an underdog look like a Goliath-slayer, or a powerhouse look like choke artists. “The Year” can go away in an instant. Entering “The Year” doesn’t make you a team of destiny, but rather one that can reach that plateau and have it look like it was meant to be.
For the first time in a long time, the Toronto Maple Leafs enter “The Year” territory.
Depending on where you get your information, you’re likely to find very different opinions on where this team is headed this year. The general consensus has been to downplay and temper expectations, mostly from the same crowd who had the team in their Bottom 10 before the start of last season.
After all, too much went right last year, no? The kids are due for sophomore slumps, people stayed too healthy, and teams don’t just get better out of the blue like that.
Don’t buy it.
Don’t buy into the sophomore slumps. They aren’t real. We use them to justify our decisions when we get burned by getting over-excited by over-performing rookies. Sophomore slumps are used to justify the rookie that makes the team for cap reasons and rides shotgun on a top line, only to find themselves in a more traditional role the next year. They’re used to justify the kids who shoot 15-20% without any clearly obvious talent to snipe or get into high-danger areas and never produce to the same extent again.
Toronto doesn’t really have that. Is it possible that Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and/or William Nylander, who were among their best players at 19, 19, and 20, have down years? Sure. Down years happen to everyone. Is there a red flag attached to them? No, not really. All three of them put up history book quality numbers along the development paths that led them to last year. None of the three filled the net in any sort of un-ordinary way. That goes for the support kids as well; nothing screams out at you. Maybe Connor Brown doesn’t shoot 14%, and maybe Josh Leivo doesn’t score at a 65 point pace, but neither is slotted in a vital role in the lineup. The same rule applies to the veterans too; whether anyone slows down or not is up for debate, but there isn’t the same inevitability that the 2013 Leafs, 2014 Avalanche, or 2015 Flames had.
It might just be, you know, that they’re good.
Don’t buy into the inevitability of an injury crisis. Now, that’s obviously not to say that the Leafs are going to be as healthy as they were last year. Their top 9 forwards missed a combined ten games last year, and their top three defencemen combined for six. That, quite frankly, is way closer to miraculous and probably won’t happen again.
Are they screwed if that’s the case, though? I don’t buy it. Yes, losing a starting goaltender or a top pairing defenceman for an extended period of time would be problematic, but that applies to nearly every team in this league. But anywhere else? Toronto might almost be curious to find out.
Their first winger option is a guy who scored 10 points in 13 games last year and still can’t find a way into the lineup, and their AHL team is filled with about half a dozen NHL-ready wingers waiting for an opening. Losing one of their core centres can be alleviated by moving one of William Nylander or Patrick Marleau into the middle for a few weeks. Losing a bottom line centre means they call up a player who was a 1st liner in the second best league in the world last year, and losing a supplementary defencemen means they can pick from four or five options that could keep their heads above water for a bit. Losing multiple core pieces would be damaging, but they’re in manageable shape if supplementary dominoes fall, to the point where that might be one of their biggest advantages over other teams later in the season.
Don’t buy into the impossibility of a sharp rise. Toronto’s methodology, as much as we like to dissect the little bits (and trust me, we will more than ever this year), is shockingly simple at the core: amass a pool of top, young talent, unleash them in a wave once you’re ready to switch from the top of the draft lottery to the top of the standings, acquire veteran support in the window where you can still afford them, and enjoy the running start.
Despite its simplicity, it’s still hard to achieve. You need to do well at the draft table, you need to develop everybody properly, you need to continue to recruit talent from the outside, and you still have to play quality hockey on the ice once the hoarding stage has passed. But the teams that have pulled it off pulled it off well: Pittsburgh, Chicago, and, with a more acquisition-heavy approach and a rockier sprint to the finish, Los Angeles, won their first cup of their multi-trophy dynasties by rapidly improving, building up their surroundings the next season, becoming contenders, and shortly after, going the distance.
The question, of course, is whether you believe Toronto has a group comparable to Pittsburgh’s and Chicago’s. Given the track record of their youth, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to say that they’re closer to them than they are to everybody else that’s tried and failed in the past decade.
You can tell the team recognizes it too, based on them using their cap space this summer to sign Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey to short-term deals lasting about as long as they can afford them. Those aren’t players you go after, though, unless you like your odds, and they’re not ones who say yes unless they like them back, even if the money is good. The two bring Toronto even closer to their goal of not having a nerve-inducing matchup on the ice for an entire 60 minutes, which will be key once they hit the stage of the spring where a moment can change the course of a season.
Now, none of this means that it’s a sure thing that the Leafs are destined to win a Stanley Cup this summer, next summer, or at all. Washington followed this model as well, and unlike the other three, they still haven’t escaped the second round after nine years of trying. Toronto doesn’t exactly have a clear laneway either; the Penguins are still a clear threat, the Lightning will give him hell within their division, and the Hurricanes are on their own upward trajectory. That’s to say nothing of the other side, where even if they do make it to the finals for the first time in 50 years, they might be stuck having to take on a Western Canadian counter-Goliath in Edmonton or Winnipeg.
It’s going to be a very, very difficult stretch of road for the next couple of years. Anybody who thinks it’ll be a cakewalk is sorely mistaken. But that doesn’t mean that expectations should still be kept tempered; while the battle scars of following this organization over the years leave many waiting for it all to fall apart, the red flags are grossly outnumbered by the green ones.
That’s where I stand. If you want a guarantee that your team is going to the promised land, it’ll never be “The Year”. But “The Year” is about thinking that you have a pretty damn good shot of things going your way and having it be surrounded with more basis than raw belief. It’s going to be filled full of ups, downs, screaming in celebration, screaming in frustration, tough decisions, and it might not come anywhere close to fruition, but for the first time in what feels like forever, “the Toronto Maple Leafs could win the Stanley Cup” doesn’t sound like something spoken out of a hallucination.
So don’t fight it. This is “the year”, and it’s the first of many to come. Enjoy the ride.
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