Relax everyone….It’s a rebuild.
Boy… That escalated quickly.
Remember way back in the day… in October… when it was the season opener and Auston Matthews was in the midst of scoring four goals in his NHL debut, a first for any player in the history of the 100 year old National Hockey League? The Leafs fan base was full of piss and vinegar, hopes and dreams and a twinkle in its eyes? Ahh, those were the days and how I miss thee.
My Twitter feed was so nice for a while. Everybody was happy and content. I saw people saying things like “I don’t care where we finish this year, as long as the kids develop” and “Win or lose, this team is so fun to watch”. I even saw somebody write “Who knew a rebuild could be this fun?”
Then we lost to Minnesota.
And it all changed.
Now granted, nobody should be happy about losing anything to a team based out of Minnesota, but I digress. This was different. This one stung.
My Twitter feed is now filled with expletive laden arguments about backup goalies, Mike Babcock’s intelligence level, Nylander’s defensive play and who works harder than who (spoiler alert – this is the NHL…all of them work hard or they wouldn’t be there).
So what was it about that loss to the Wild that has everyone so worked up? What was it about that loss that has Leaf Nation feeling so ornery?
I mulled over the narratives that have been floating around recently, you know…Mike Babcock likes grinders over skill, he forgot how to coach and William Nylander is a lazy kid who doesn’t want to work for his minutes (All of which is nonsense but I’ll save that for another time), and as I did one thing became clear. None of that actually mattered.
It runs much deeper than that.
The game against the Wild was a game that The Leafs should have won, except for one glaring point.
They weren’t good enough.
Now before you start firing off hate mail with the “They outshot them you %@*$% idiot” messages (or fire away, it’s cool) let me explain.
Yes, Toronto dominated large portions of the game outshooting the Wild 37-20 over three periods and outside of just a few mistakes, they actually played fairly well defensively. All three Minnesota goals came from mishaps that were generated by the Leafs inability to handle the Wild forwards down low. They were bigger and stronger and the Leafs had no answer for when Minnesota was able to stake a claim on the area behind the net at either end of the ice. Their goaltending was also better. That’s not to say that this loss can be placed on Frederik Andersen but Devan Dubnyk was lights out for the Wild, stopping 35 of 37 shots on net. Andersen stopped 17.
The problem for Toronto fans though lies in the fact that the Leafs were not good enough to win a game that they should have won. Logically, we can tell ourselves “We dominated the second and third period, we should have won that game” but emotionally this loss exploited the fear, that if we are honest with ourselves, we all harbour deep down.
That this rebuild won’t be enough.
That we are a cursed fan base and are destined for misery.
That William Nylander is a bust and that maybe, just maybe we should have picked Patrick Laine over Auston Matthews.
Well I’m here to tell you that it’s not true.
It’s not a curse that has kept this team from competing for a Stanley Cup for most of the last 50 years. It has been horrendous decisions made by abysmal front office teams that were often led by ownership more concerned with quick money than doing what was right for the team.
Believe it or not, that’s good news.
It means that we aren’t just a tortured fan base, playthings of vengeful hockey gods who take delight in our suffering and that if the team is managed correctly, can win it all. So far, the team is being managed correctly. I know this because everything the team is doing is the complete opposite of what every failed Toronto management team has done in the past. As Jerry Seinfeld once said to George Constanza, “if every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right”.
And believe me, the opposite is most definitely right.
Have we traded away any young talent for aging veterans on the decline? No.
Have we traded high draft choices in hopes of kick starting a rebuild that has barely got off the ground? No.
Have we signed any of our pending free agents to deals that could be considered cap killers? No.
Have we ruined any of our young prospects by putting them in situations that they aren’t quite ready for? No.
Let’s face it, this management team is making decisions that are completely foreign to what we are all used to. Smart, long term thinking that is the complete opposite of what has been done in the past.
Thank God (Just in case I’m wrong about a vengeful higher power).
That’s not to say we shouldn’t feel this way. Hell, if anyone gets to feel this way it’s Leaf fans and we’d be foolish if we just blindly went along with another “5 year plan”. But as has been stated many, many times over, this is the real deal. A real tear it down, build it up rebuild that this team so desperately needed.
Now let’s address this whole perceived issue that Mike Babcock has with William Nylander. Kristen Shilton of TSN had a great quote from Babcock regarding his recent usage of Nylander from Friday’s Leaf practice:
“Nylander has played lots this last while. I think he’s played real well. I have a tendency to play Nylander with Kadri and Komarov on the road. I like the Brown, Hyman and Matthews line. I like the other line as well. So that’s basically our only change. So when the other team has last change, that gives Willy more of an opportunity. When we have last change, in a hard match, I like to use Sosh in that situation.”
That may seem at odds with some of Babcock’s earlier comments regarding Nylander and his compete level, but it’s really not. What he had said was: “The reality is, for him to play centre in this league he’s going to have to get way better defensively and way more competitive”.
The key part of that quote is “at centre”.
Is it so shocking that after just a few games playing at centre, that Nylander would have to get better defensively to stay there? Obviously not. What we are seeing here is a coach that sees a lot of potential in a young player and is attempting to help him reach it. He expects more from Nylander because he sees what the young man can become. It’s not that William Nylander is lazy, it’s that he has the capability of becoming an elite player and as such is being held to a very high standard, as he should be.
That’s how you develop a player with the kind of talent that William Nylander has.
Fans can be forgiven for their reaction though, we have never seen a player with his level of talent being developed properly. In other markets, particularly those that have seen Lord Stanley’s mug raised, Mike Babcock’s “treatment” of William Nylander would be a non-issue. The fans have seen it before and recognize that holding a player with elite skill to high standards is precisely how they develop. It happened to one of their players, early in their team’s rebuild, before winning a Stanley Cup.
The Minnesota loss exposed the fragile psyche of a fan base that is used to failure, and what we have seen since is the discontent that comes along with it. The 4-1 win against Boston on Saturday night boosted everyone’s spirits and it was easy to chalk up the 3-1 loss to Colorado the following night to Semyon Varlamov standing on his head, stopping 51 shots fired at him by the young Leafs. The loss against the Wild couldn’t be explained away so easily. It hit a nerve.
The basic truth is this: The Leafs are very unlikely to make the playoffs this year. It’s possible but I’d be shocked. They just aren’t ready and that’s ok. Another top pick in this year’s NHL entry draft would go a long way in solidifying the Leafs future for years to come and is probably the best thing that could happen to this team. Even though we may not want to hear that, it’s true.
So kick back everyone, grab a drink and enjoy the show. All the things that were said at the beginning of the year still apply. The most important thing this year is for the kids to develop and this team is fun to watch, regardless of wins and losses. Who knew a season such as this could be this fun?
Relax everyone…it’s a rebuild.