FROM HEARTACHE TO HAPPY BALLS

Our Long Journey Out of Hockey Hell


Those who know me – or are at least familiar with my Twitter persona – know that I’m generally an angry sports fan. The 5 years that I’ve spent spewing my knee-jerk hockey opinions online have been driven largely by rage, disappointment and a hopeless capitulation that – no matter what – my sad existence as a hard-wired Leaf fan would lead to little other than heartbreak and an eternal, torturous loop of debates regarding distribution of 4th line minutes between fringe players who I wouldn’t recognize if they crawled into bed with me.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve sincerely enjoyed getting to know many fellow Buds fans who’ve accompanied me on the same frustrating journey.  Our shared experience has removed any doubt that misery doesn’t just love company, but NEEDS it.

In fact, I personally have all of you to thank for helping me cope with a hapless team and evolve as a fan throughout this turmoil. I can even look back with a measure of fondness to the early battles with analytics hardliners who smugly tried to shame me and like-minded cronies for heralding our moments of pugilistic superiority while we were (at least on the fight ticker) kicking the NHL’s ass.. As if there was much else for us desperate bastards to cheer for.  I admittedly became conditioned to survive on the most meager table scraps in order to feed any possible form of hockey pride.

What Twitter, and forums like this have given me, is access to an enormous, chaotic and wonderfully eager support group. I’ve lost count of the many hours we’ve been spent licking each other’s wounds as we cathartically recall where we were when Kerry missed the high stick call, when Tie suckered Niedermayer to awake the Devils, when Mats didn’t waive his NMC and when it was 4-1…Fuck.

Thanks for sharing.

Even in the dawn of the Shanahan era, my morbid instincts as a Leafs fan prevented me from finding too much solace. His remaking of the front office and luring of the most bestest coach in the universe were definitely great; but the core..the culture..the future.. they all still seemed light years away from promise.

I was positive that the teardown alone would take years.  Our dreaded “Leafs luck” meant that not only would the cap scars from the Nonis regime continue to pummel us financially, but the immovable veteran pieces would almost certainly ensure that we’d fall just short of sucking badly enough to draft a franchise altering centrepiece. Things were bad and were likely gonna stay bad for a long time.

As such, this angry sports fan had all but surrendered to the reality that I was to remain angry for quite a while. No big deal.. this was my normal.. this was OUR Leafs. What’s amazing is how comfortable one can get while mired in familiar misery…like the line in that whiny Gotye hit tells us: “You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness..”

Now let’s fast forward to the end of 2015/16.  This feels…different…not my normal.

Where is this PAIN you spoke of Mr. Babcock?  Rebuilds aren’t supposed to be this bloody uplifting.

The Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t supposed to get any help from that bitch named Karma, the laws of Murphy, the fuckin’ hockey gods or whatever other malevolent entity we believe has been kicking our teeth in for the better part of 2 generations.

After all, even the smartest among us had all but assumed the role of primitive village elders when explaining to our wide-eyed offspring why otherwise rational people still followed a team whose logo may as well have been a steaming turd floating in a bucket of our own tears. To justify our inexplicable loyalty, we’d spin yarns of evil spirits and curses which continue to plague our hockey market as if the ACC and Gardens before it had disturbed hallowed burial grounds.  The ghost of poor Harold himself has barely been able to rest given what some suggest is his role in everything from not landing Gretzky to trading Rask to signing *dry heaves* Clarkson.

Yep – it was supernatural causes that had burdened us with a terrifying trail of (mis)managers to oversee hockey operations.  Even the exile of the great Davey Keon was implicated for the fact that those tasked with running our team had, by way of inexperience / stubbornness / desperation / short-sightedness / ego / obedience or general lack of the current hockey trends, kept delivering a failing product that always seemed 71 steps behind the rest of the league.

Not now.

For the first time in a long time, I feel…happee hapy hapie happy?

happy

[hap-ee]

1. delighted, pleased, or glad, as over a particular thing:
to be happy to see a person.
2. characterized by or indicative of pleasure, contentment, or joy:
a happy mood; a happy frame of mind.
3. favored by fortune; fortunate or lucky:
a happy, fruitful land.

So wha happened?  Lots happened.  Lots of good shit happened.  We all know the organizational transformation since Shanny came aboard was the catalyst. The presence of Hunts / Dubes / Pridham set the wheels in motion for the long, arduous climb out of the gutter. But how did things seem to get so much better so fast?

For me, the rapid changing of the tides can be ultimately attributed to 3 primary factors.

1.  COMPETENT DRAFTING/SCOUTING/RECRUITING.

(With all due respect to Nylander, – who is fukn awesome – I’d like to focus on the post-potato-head era in Leafs management to address this point.  Suffice to say that Willie absolutely solidified himself as a top line forward both with his dominance at the AHL level and his brief stint with the Leafs. Thanks Davey boy but even a blind clock finds broken squirrels twice a day.)

Hunter et al have appeared to bring about a drastically needed change in philosophy as far as plucking young talent.  Based on the early returns of last year’s picks, the ability to recognize and place a high value on pure skill over anything else is already paying dividends as far as restocking a formerly barren organizational pipeline.

A brief summary of some picks from the 15 draft if you will: (*as of May 11)

Dmytro Timashov – LW – Quebec Ramparts – QMJHL

5th Round, 125th overall
15/16 Regular season: 57GP, 22G, 63A, 85P, 1.49P/GP
14th in league scoring during the regular season, 8th best P/GP
3rd in playoff scoring – 20GP 13G 15A 28P

Martins Dzierkals – RW – Rouyn-Noranda Huskies – QMJHL

3rd Round, 68th overall
15/16 Regular season: 59GP, 24G, 43A, 67P, 1.14P/G
2nd in rookie scoring in regular season
1st in rookie playoff scoring – 19GP 5G 10A 15P

Andrew Nielson – D – Lethbridge Hurricances – WHL

3rd round 65th overall (6’3” 207LBS)
15/16 Regular season: 71GP, 18G, 52A, 70P, .98P/GP
3rd among WHL defensemen in scoring
Tied for 5th in league with 122 Penalty minutes

Jeremy Bracco – RW – Kitchener Rangers – OHL

2nd round – 61st overall
15/16 Regular season: 49GP, 21G, 43A, 64P, 1.30P/GP
Playoffs: 9GP 3G 11A 14P

Travis Dermott – D – Erie Otters – OHL

2nd round 34th overall
15/16 Regular season: 51GP 6G 37A 43P
Tied for 9th in regular season scoring among OHL defensemen
2nd in playoff scoring: 13GP 3G 11A 14P

Am I forgetting anyone?

Oh yes.. Our Red Tilson and Wayne Gretzky award winner.  If you’re not aware of his performance both in the regular season or in the Knights’ playoff run, just know that he’s doing is pretty fukn good. I’m not even going to bother looking up his stats because I’m pretty sure I know them off the top off my head.

Mitchell Marner – RW/C/LW/D/G – London Knights – OHL

  • 1st Round, Somehow dropped to 4th overall
  • Regular Season: 57GP, 194G, 238A, .997Sv%, +694, 92.7CF%
  • 91 Fighting majors (all won by knockout)
  • Responsible for a 3000% increase in OHL revenue..
  • Playoffs: 18GP, about 83G, 483A
  • Caused 3 opponents to quit hockey
  • 90% of boys born in London this year were named “Mitch” (compared to only 40% of girls)

Aside from doing well in the NHL entry draft, the Leafs are showing a keen willingness and ability to scout the KHL for talent and are clearly becoming a desirable landing spot for FA defectors. This year brought a pair of solid Nikitii (sp?) from Russia.  The 22 year old winger Soshnikov looks to be a solid forward who has transitioned seamlessly into the NHL game – with a tenacity which has already put in him good favour with the coach and fans.  The recently signed, 24 year old Zaitsev was a highly sought after free agent as one of the K’s top defenders – by all accounts he should provide an immediate top 4 boost to a core in need of quality depth.

All these pieces along with the dozen picks in this upcoming draft will no doubt continue to fill our cupboards with quality building blocks to add to a system which already boasts a champion caliber AHL affiliate. I don’t remember the last time I encountered debates surrounding the lack of Leafs roster spots available to our many prospects that deserved a shot.  This year – such unimaginable “problems” may have actually started to surface. How goddam refreshing is that?

2. FUKN LOU

I know fans and media of other markets often roll their eyes when they hear us continuously heap praise on the wily GM.  After all, he’s been elevated to near legend status by many of us who remain in awe of his genius. Blah, blah ..usual Toronto hype right?  I say to hell with them – in my opinion we haven’t given him ENOUGH praise.

To suggest he merely has incriminating photos of executives at the league offices and several of his peers would, in my mind, be an insult to the man’s hockey prowess.  He’s managed to blow away even the most optimistic scenarios that I had in mind when plotting out the roster purge that would enable our rebuild.  He’s shown an incredible ability to take a pile of rusty screwdrivers, shine them up nicely, and then sell them for more than we dreamed they were ever worth.

Some have, by virtue of his age, intimidating presence and Italian heritage, affectionately alluded to similarities between him and The Godfather when marvelling at this year’s moves. This analogy, though marginally humorous, falls way short in giving him his due credit. At the height of their power, “Godfathers” don’t get blood on their hands – they are very much insulated from any dirty work and rely on henchmen to carry out their business.  Conversely, Lou’s hands are completely fukn dripping with the mangled entrails of players we logically assumed were going to be long term problems.  Instead, I see him as a lethal combination of Paulie Walnuts’ muscle, Scotty Bowman’s hockey acumen and Hannibal Lecter’s persuasiveness.  Ya – he’s that much of a big dog.

Getting out from under Dion – the trudging defenseman who has FIVE FULL YEARS left on a $7M AAV deal – is reason ALONE for all of us to kiss his ring. The fact that we didn’t have to retain a penny of salary AND GOT A 2ND ROUND PICK still makes me shake my head.

“Let’s get Hunts some picks” was Babcock’s edict upon his hiring.  I can imagine no better GM than Lou to execute that plan.

By my count, he has SO FAR turned spare parts into FOUR 2nd round picks, TWO 4th round picks and a couple of very nice young pieces including Connor Carrick who has 13 points in 8 playoff games with the Marlies.

Aside from his shrewd trades, his manipulation of the roster has been an absolute joy to watch.  He seemingly bent the NHL rule book to do his bidding as he jettisoned once able-bodied athletes into the I.R abyss while back-filling his pro roster with what appeared to be 100 “emergency” call-ups.  It wouldn’t shock me to learn that NHL labour watchdogs simply stopped asking questions after a while – not worth the fight. If there was even a tiny loophole available for Lou to exploit, he would take a sledgehammer to it until it was big enough for him to shove whoever’s overpaid carcass right through it.

And how ‘bout contract negotiations?  Remember the looming issue of signing important RFA’s? I’m sure the agents of both Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri had, at one point, confidently strutted into the MLSE offices armed with pages of strategically compiled evidence and well-crafted arguments as to what their clients deserved.  My guess is, by the end of the negotiations, those agents left the boardroom with their pants around their ankles en route to the parking garage where they happily waxed Lou’s Eldorado.  Those potentially tricky deals secured 2 homegrown pieces of the Leafs’ young core for SIX YEARS, and with a cap hit that will assuredly become laughable bargains in the seasons to come.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, Lou provides the ideal mentor to what is very likely our young GM in waiting. Dubas recently stated that he had some learning to do before taking over a team.  This sounded to me like a man who, despite a well-deserved reputation as an incredibly bright hockey mind, has the confidence and foresight to bide his time alongside one of the most revered executives in all of pro sports.  I have no doubt that Kyle is milking every opportunity to learn from Lou and benefiting immensely from his wealth of experience.

3. WE. WON. THE. LOTTERY.

Holy shit!

Let me say this again….The Toronto Maple Leafs WON the NHL draft lottery.  More importantly, we won the lottery in a year when the best player available happens to be a CONSENSUS FRANCHISE CENTREMAN – and one who has been touted as such for at least the last 2 years. Is there ANY team in the league who is more desperate and deserving of that elusive 1C?   I’m not going to bother listing the merits of Auston Matthews – I’m sure most of you have heard, seen and read more than enough in the previous weeks and months to recognize what a golden opportunity this is.

To be honest, I admired this kid from arm’s length but never REALLY let myself fall in love with him until the 1st pick was ours.  After watching McDavid tragically get sentenced to the place where young NHL talent goes to die, I could barely stand the idea of getting my hopes up only to watch another incredible player just elude our grasp.

Then.. it happened.

Bettman’s balls dropped…those glorious, franchise saving balls.

Since the moment we watched Daly hold up the winning square with that gorgeous new logo – and Shanny beside him grinning like a kid with the most kick-ass new bike – I don’t think Leafs Nation has stopped smiling. It was at THAT exact second when, for the first time, I felt all of my hockey angst, disappointment and anger start to slip away.  Then it hit me: So THIS is what it feels like to have real hope.  Sure, we would have landed a damn good player with the 4th overall pick (which I was totally expecting to get)…but now?

There are no words.

Oh, and in case you’re one of those contrarians or annoying-as-hell devil’s advocate types who, with all due respect to his recent electrifying play, even SUGGEST taking the Finnish Jeff Spicoli with our 1st overall pick, allow me to shut the door on that silly fukn debate right now.

  • WE WILL SELECT AUSTON MATTHEWS.
  • SELECCIONAREMOS AUSTON MATTHEWS.
  • NOUS SÉLECTIONNERONS AUSTON MATTHEWS.
  • SELEZIONEREMO AUSTON MATTHEWS.
  • WIR AUSTON MATTHEWS WÄHLEN.
  • 我們將選擇AUSTON MATTHEWS.
  • VALITSEMME AUSTON MATTHEWS.

Assuming our top prospects, with Matthews in the fold, evolve to levels even close to their projected ceilings, the Toronto Maple Leafs may finally have that elite group of players that could form the core for a decade of winning hockey.

This newfound good fortune also begs some interesting questions as to the state of our rebuild. As one who was fully prepared to wait 5-6 years to achieve legitimate contender’s status, is it now fair to reassess our time-line given the influx of clearly high end talent?

Do we exercise the same patience as we had planned on 12 months ago as far as giving young talent time to grow in the minors?

Assuming next season presents an opportunity for our blue-chips to ply their trade with the big club, does the notion of pursuing high-end veteran help become more appealing despite potentially huge/risky contract commitments?

Do we speed up the process of filling holes in defense and/or goaltending by trading some of those picks and prospects for NHL ready pieces that would enable winning hockey far earlier than we had anticipated?

Needless to say, the next few weeks and months will shed light on the direction of the club and we’ll all have plenty to debate.  The one thing we should ALL be able to agree on is this: we finally have a management group that we can trust to make the best, forward-thinking decisions for the club.  This trust, as much as anything, lets me sleep better knowing our future is in capable hands. I’m now free of the dread we felt with previous brass (and intrusive ownership) which too often sabotaged any long term, sustainable success by chasing fleeting win streaks. I’m confident those days are gone. And believe me – given the crap this franchise has put us through – that’s not a statement I make lightly.

We can all, in my very humble opinion, now breathe easier knowing we have some of the smartest and most committed hockey people steering this ship.

Lastly, I, the formerly angry hockey fan, am finally ready to let go of YEARS of old baggage and legitimately get excited about my fukn Leafs again.

I’ll tell you one thing….I’m certainly not used to this shit.

Wishing you and yours a spectacular summer – we’ll see you at the draft!

Cheers.

@oak_leafs

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