The halfway point is upon us in what was earmarked to be a process filled with promise and pain. As we sit, it is apparent the former is currently outweighing the latter. Even the word itself, that phrase “there will be pain” feels like it was uttered as a whispers eons ago, compared to the affirmation behind the original quote. Did it happen? Was I drunk? Instead, replaced with happy catchphrases and hashtags like (it hurts me to say this and contribute to Jeff and @TLNdc’s countless residuals) #TheLeafsAreActuallyGood. And you know what? When you gotta give in, you gotta give in. Why wouldn’t you. Hop on, it’s true.
I won’t get too far into the nuts and bolts of what I’ve noticed myself. There’s an old saying in sports that goes something like “You are what your record says you are.” By that stand alone measure the team is doing more than fine, considering. Aside from the standings indication, all sorts of metrics are being employed in order to prove the above statement or qualify it as far as just “how good”. I could reference several of these statistics, but most of you know that wouldn’t be me or my field of expertise. It’s also less work not to and I’m sure one of my kids are crying somewhere if I listen harder. So, although we’ve been told not to trust our eyes or our own brain, and I don’t mean that facetiously, for the sake of simplicity and personal comfort level I’m only going to tell you what I see when I watch these guys. Keeping in mind of course these views could be flawed, I too will reiterate I have concluded the above to be valid. Yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs are good. Actually. To what degree, I can’t really say for sure. But good…good is not quite good enough.
Toronto sits firmly ensconced in the playoff race, a position many, maybe even me, would’ve thought not too far back to be laughable, and with fair reason. Coming fresh off a 30th place finish and dressing as many as 9 rookies on a given night, marginal improvement was the expectation. I’d even go as far as saying the hope. We were forewarned of the possibility of coinciding with the team’s reliance on youth, the Maple Leafs could take a step backwards. The only back step taken was perhaps the near unnoticeable one used to propel itself into fast forward mode, like a fly before take off, jettisoning beyond where anyone anticipated the group to be at this point. This risk in taking a “back step” by integrating a van load of teenagers into an NHL lineup has been almost as successful as it’s been necessary. The result is the best on ice product in years. I’d also point out while the Leafs struggles are often filed under “rookie mistakes”, it’s not the freshmen who are dropping the ball many nights. This may be troubling in the present, but should be viewed as a massive positive.
I’ll ask a quick question and then, if you don’t mind, take the liberty of answering it myself. Where would the Maple Leafs be without the kids? Without hesitation I can tell you where. The absolute bottom of the NHL. First and foremost, Auston Matthews has proven to be no young man finding his way through the league, learning his position and testing the waters. He’s not a star of tomorrow, he’s the star of today. One could say there’s been some level of easing in, as far as matchups go. The experimental phase in that regard is pretty much over. Matthews isn’t assigned the toughest minutes, but Mike Babcock doesn’t shy away from them as of late either. In large part, that ease or peace of mind of the coach having him out there comes from the men, or boys, flanked beside him. Low and behold, two more first year players in Connor Brown and Zach Hyman.
The message last season and continuing forward since Coach Babcock has came to town is clear and repetitive with purpose. Press play on the audio and you’ll regularly hear “Good people”, “gonna come to work everyday and do good things”, “play the right way, live the right way”, no matter the phrasing it all equates to wanting and expecting the same things from its players. Logo first, and the Toronto Maple Leafs have found their poster boys.
The workmanlike play of Hyman and Brown exemplifies who the Maple Leafs want to be as an organization. Babcock is quick to point out their impact at every turn, assuring his unsung heroes don’t go unnoticed. Spreading the wealth of praise, since there are others, even younger, you just can’t help but notice.
Hockey is entertainment, and there has been no Leaf recent memory or otherwise as entertaining for me as Mitchell Marner. He’s my favorite friggin’ player and I’ll never pass up a chance to rave about him. Marner embodies many of the same characteristics as the boys above, the kid works his tail off. What he brings along with his tenacity I don’t have to tell you. It’s innate, it’s rare. We all watch the games together and night after night he does something spectacular that makes the game worth watching, the beauty of it all. Skills that take you out of your seat and he’s not the only one.
William Nylander, just 20 years of age, is in some ways still finding his way in Toronto’s lineup. Still he finds a way to make a light go red. No matter how utilized, Nylander remains always dangerous. Whether hitting the back of the net with a deadly wrister or a cross seam pass on the PP for a tap in. His potential to produce at this level knows little bounds.
I’m not going through the entire roster for a midseason report here (grades and report card on this week’s BNWT podcast lol), I’ll stop at the five above and I guess here’s why. For starters, I’ve already spent the last couple paragraphs telling you things you already know. No wonder Leafs bloggers are considered mainly idiots. Fantastic analysis, the rookies have played very well. Bet you’re glad you aren’t paying for this. No, I brought those young men up as examples specifically not only because they are primarily responsible for the satisfactory place in the Eastern Conference Toronto finds itself today, but they among others carry with them the opportunity to be better. To frankly be the best.
Yeah, the Leafs are good. Listen, it’s wonderful, splendid in fact. But being basically good was never the goal around here, not how the Shanaplan is scripted to end. Nor was this particular blog ever supposed to be about the halfway mark this year. The blue & white are in the middle of something much more significant than the hunt for a playoff spot. They are quite possibly halfway to greatness.
You know how to make something fun? Be good at it. Being good is pure enjoyment. In many cases, it’s kind of easy. Look at the game of golf, a pastime former Leafs teams may know a little about. If you are a decent athlete with okay hand/eye, you can be pretty good pretty fast. Some struggles out of the gate, but before you know it you break 100. Then, not to long after, you’re breaking 90. Now it’s getting really fun so you play a lot and even break 80. Impressive. Still, there’s a lot of good golfers out there, just like good hockey teams and players. The kicker is, if you strive for more, well that’s not always so much fun. As a matter of fact it can be grueling and a whole lot of work. It’s getting up before anyone else and chipping for two hours. It’s hitting balls until you’re hands blister, it’s the extra faceoffs and one timers. It’s frustration, it’s learning to close out games, to be a pro, and it’s putting the time in, day in and day out. It’s what Mike Babcock talks about at every turn.
Greatness in anything takes sacrifice, this we know. It can even be terrifying. Many are content to be good, as we should. Greatness is mired in disappointment and setbacks. Greatness requires patience and perseverance is mandatory. Greatness isn’t for everyone. If or when Toronto are great, 34, 11, 16, 29, and 12 are most likely going to have to be there in the front row, smilin’. Leading the way. There is greatness in them, you can feel it, the presence. But nothing is a given and nothing is guaranteed. And that’s only 5 of 23 men needed. Who else wants to be great? Who else isn’t satisfied with good? No passengers welcome on the Ol’ Leafs train anymore, I can tell you this for certain. Complacency in Toronto is on the verge of extinction. Brendan Shanahan isn’t interested in just being good or those who are. Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello aren’t interested in a 13th overall here and there or a cameo appearance in the 2017 year end tournament. They want to be great. They need to be. It’s why they are there.
It’s not necessarily about everyone being a superstar, those are needed and we got ‘em, there’s more than one way to be great. Be team great. Be your own great, a Leafs great. We’ll all remember how you gave for us. That’s what Leafs fans do. Morgan Rielly, his greatness will be fulfilled by leading this defense night in and night out and that’s not only on the scoresheet. Nikita Zaitsev can be great by continuing to settle in, improve, and handle the load put on him with more and more ease by continuing to compete every play. Jake Gardiner can be great by staying on the path the coach has laid out for him. Play to your strengths and be confident. Look at Nazem Kadri. Find your role and be great at it. Own it. Matt Martin can be great by being a coach’s conduit, that guy in the room who keeps everyone together (and keep the flies off of course). Freddy Andersen, well he will make a Great Wall. You get my point. Find your greatness or find another place to play. Teams can always use a good player. For the Leafs, we only want great and to truly be that, not simply good, their greatness will come through the sum of its parts. Each and every one, with more additions to come.
As for the year so far overall? Not bad, eh? Fast, exhilarating, talent laden, all factors in their rise to “goodness”. It hasn’t all been rose petals though. The Maple Leafs defense corps struggled mightily early on, especially the bottom end. Granted Hunlak have solidified to the degree it can suffice. Goaltending had an early hiccup and Enroth in the backup position definitely let them down. An inability to close out games and instances of the same type of predictable mistakes from veterans up front hasn’t cast too ominous a shadow, however it’s a mild dose of piss off and has held the group back from truly maxing out. I liken it some ways to an enjoyable movie with cool explosions and CGI, but holes in the plot.
Good movies are a nice way to pass time. I love going to the show. Leafs are a solid flick themselves right now. They make you happy at least for a short period. Now a great movie on the other hand, a classic, you never forget those. It reaches you, it affects you, it captures you. You know, special. The creators, the producers, the directors, the actors, they bleed for their film, for their craft, to give you that fulfilled feeling in respect to emotion. Sports, like art, draw on your emotions. The great ones pull you in. Toronto is working on completing its masterpiece, its “Godfather”. Not just another Transformers.
The National Hockey League does not celebrate good. No awards in goodness. Good is not revered and good does not withstand the test of time. Don’t get me wrong, one has to be good before it can be great. I understand that, I’m pleased, and this is where we are. No longer are the Maple Leafs “Living on a Prayer”. #TheLeafsAreActuallyGood is a reality. And as many of you know, reality can suck. Reality is hard, it’s in your face, and it’s often a challenge. This is what faces the Maple Leafs now. Loftier expectations, second guessing, losing streaks, playoff losses, scoring slumps, it all lies ahead. Yet surviving and pushing forward, overcoming and seeing yourself on the winning end of what life and the game throws at you, it’s there where true greatness is found. It’s there where these Toronto Maple Leafs will hope to find their place in hockey’s history.
We are all loving the ride this team is taking us on and by my accounts we are somewhere near the halfway point to the ultimate goal of Lord Stanley. I’ll take it. The next half of this journey, even this season for that matter, will prove much more tense and trying for us as a fanbase and the team as well. It will not be by any means easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is.
Exactly why it’s going to be great.