Can Toronto Support a Rebuild?

In the absence of a professional hockey team to cheer for, a Leaf fan’s brain tends to wander.

This year, I’ve found myself reflecting on our team in the grander scheme of where we stand in the league. In so doing, I’ve thought about how other markets continue to view our franchise based on what’s fed to them via far reaching mainstream and social media. It’s never pretty is it?

It’s bad enough that we’ve had to endure years of on-ice futility, overpriced free agents, incompetent management, bad trades, crippling NMC’s, excessively long contracts, confounding buyouts, overrated veterans, underrated prospects, squandered drafts, , insanely high ticket prices etc..

No… on top of all of these REAL hockey problems, we as fans also have to continuously defend our own hockey IQ to very eager attackers who, whether provoked or not, love to take shots at our fundamental understanding of the game. There are many stupid and recurring narratives that get thrown around by simple minded fans and fed by members of the MSM whose capacity to produce stimulating content died 15 years ago. The “Plan the Parade”, “Truculence” and “Draft Shmaft” jokes are simply a nuisance for any thinking Leaf fan to hear.. low hanging fruit for the daytime TV crowd to gum on.

There is one anti-Toronto narrative however, that has persisted and morphed into levels far beyond that of harmless nuisance. It’s one which, over time, has entrenched itself into the very foundation of this hockey market – it has been allowed to fester for so long that much of the hockey world, especially those in our own market, now simply consider it to be an inconvenient truth.

“Toronto will NEVER support a rebuild.”

That statement has evidently been pounded into our stream of consciousness for so long that many just accept it as gospel. It amazes me that so many Leaf fans continue to surrender to the notion that a full rebuild would never fly here. Many willingly accept this notion as some kind of crutch that has all but excused this franchise for making disastrous hockey decisions for short term gain. Worse yet, some have seemingly tried to wear it as a badge of honour to suggest OUR market is somehow SO much more demanding of consistent excellence than other hockey cities that we would never stand for the premeditated losing that a rebuild would entail.

From where I stand, this terrible season has dispelled the idea that this market lacks the fortitude and vision to demand wholesale changes knowing full well the struggles which are likely to follow. I’ve rarely, if ever, seen fans so unified in their stance. This latest wave of pro-rebuild mentality is nothing new to us – we’ve been here before. The dawn of the Burke era and the exodus of the Muskoka 5 was the last time the appetite for a teardown has been close to this strong. I recall many who, like me, would pray daily for any or all of that veteran core to waive their various NMC’s so that we could stockpile picks and prospects.

So throw away the Ritalin Leaf fans – our capacity for sustained focus appears JUST fine.

And while you’re at it, extend your middle fingers to those who continue to suggest we can’t be as intelligent and patient as other markets. Take offence to the accusation that you’re not as smart or loyal as others who’ve endured losing for the sake of building and have reaped the reward of sustainably competitive teams. Leaf fans no longer deserve to take responsibility for the team’s repeated failure…it’s not OUR fault.

I’m hereby proclaiming 2015 as the year we will finally shed our reputation as impetuous sushi-lovers who are simply too short-sighted and fair-weather to withstand an according-to-Hoyle rebuild. Pundits have claimed for years that we couldn’t do it – I’m suggesting we’ve already proven them wrong.

In fact, I think we’ve just survived year 1.

Wasn’t that bad was it? It’s just the same losing, but with purpose!

Yes, I realize there remains much offseason work to do as we continue to remake this core and collect building blocks but, by all accounts, our hockey priorities and hopes have now rightfully turned to the draft, future Clarkson-like transactions, free agency and what we hope is the fruitful dismantling of this team.

So why do we still carry the league wide reputation of a city that can’t handle the short term-pain-for-long-term-gain like almost every other NHL market has endured?

I’m always hesitant to give the MSM enough credit to steer how we as a fan base collectively think. In this case however, I honestly feel that they’ve played the biggest part in this. I realize that historically, certain ownership groups including some in the post-Ballard era have understandably been accused of doing whatever it takes to cash in on home playoff dates even at a cost of long term success. I’m not convinced that this continues to take place to the extent some suggest. I sincerely believe that in recent history, despite their utter incompetence, ownership has accepted too much of the blame for what’s gone wrong.

Ultimately, they are corporate, faceless suits whose only responsibility is to cut the cheques and enable capable hockey people to make smart organizational choices. To their credit, this ownership group and the Teachers before them haven’t seemed to balk at being a cap team which spends to the limit. At the end of the day, that’s all we can ask for as fans. The rest is up to the any team’s hockey brass who is supposed to make the best of the resources given to them. Recent ownership can be accused of little else than being too stupid to find the right hockey people.

This brings me to my theory on why we’re seen as the impatient idiots of the hockey world.

As a result of poor hockey management, the team has continued to lose. When an organization fails for long enough, the non-hockey people who happen to own the team become FAR more vulnerable to external influences and outside pressure as they seek to placate the league’s biggest and most lucrative fan base.

Where does this pressure come from? How does ownership gauge the pulse of its market? Who can capture the attention of the board of the directors? For me there is only one answer.

The Toronto hockey media has the most direct pipeline into the MLS&E boardroom. Make no mistake, I don’t suggest that their power comes from being smarter or more savvy than the hockey media in other markets. They are simply numerous and relentless. There is enough airtime and print space devoted to Leaf coverage that the media can collectively push whatever flawed narratives they see fit to an ownership consortium that lacks the sporting acumen to discern between true market conditions and baseless fodder.

They’ve taken our understandable anger at continuous failure and used it to fuel this self-fulfilling story arc that we can’t survive a rebuild. We, the same idiots who’ve elevated this franchise into unprecedented wealth, are somehow the ONLY NHL fans who wouldn’t remain loyal.

Yes.. according to much of this city’s sports media, Toronto hockey fans WILL NOT TOLERATE YEARS OF LOSING!

I’ll give you a moment to let the irony of that statement truly sink in………….

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In my opinion, this no-rebuild narrative is outdated and overblown. Although a struggling Leaf team may translate into a temporary dip in TV numbers, this ownership group has to know by now that our market is one which would arguably do the BEST job of surviving and flourishing during the tough years a rebuild would bring. As far as the fans go, I’m confident we can put that theory to rest.

So how long will the rebuild take?

That’s the million dollar question. How many “bad years” will we have to endure assuming we strip this thing down to bare minimum? This is very difficult to answer. Even the most successful teams have relied on an element of good fortune to shape their destinies. Others have encountered more difficult paths despite being blessed with numerous top picks.

In order to come up with an educated guess as to how long the build may take, one way is to examine the time other recently successful teams have taken on their journey to consistent winning. I had a look at a few teams who’ve now found varying levels of sustained success, then examined the number of consecutive “low” years leading up to them achieving respectability in the league.Rebuild-Tables-01

 

 

 

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Based on what I observed, the average seems to be 6 years.

6 years of floundering at or near the bottom of their respective divisions, 6 years of good draft positions, 6 years of internal development.

While examining a couple of less established teams who now appear to be on the cusp of becoming sustainably successful, their timelines seem similar.

 

 

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Assuming these numbers represent a realistic time frame to build the solid foundation of a good team, some of you may still think that 6 years of losing would push this city to the brink of sanity. There may still be doubt that we could exercise 6 YEARS of patience before seeing some tangible results. For those doubters, please review the Toronto Maple Maple Leafs post-lockout record and ask yourself how much you’ve enjoyed all the “winning” hockey this past decade has given you.

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I’m sure you’d agree that the past 10 years have been wasted by trying to rush proper organizational development and take costly shortcuts to success that have ultimately set us further back. Had we come out of the lockout with the proper mindset of managing our assets, recognizing our areas of need and patiently developing our core, we’d be light years ahead of where we are now.

The fact that we’ve all stuck around for this past decade is only the latest piece of evidence that we can in fact support a rebuilding franchise. We deserve more than we’ve been given and are willing to wait for it.

We can only hope that the people in charge of hockey operations recognize this and use these next 6 years wisely.

Cheers.

@oak_leafs

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