What a long strange trip it’s been.
What a long strange trip it’s been.
This quote from the Grateful Dead seems to sum up quite nicely the feelings on my lifelong obsession with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The last few years being no exception.
When the 2015/16 NHL season began, there was little optimism to be found across Leafs Nation. Coming off a seemingly disastrous 2014/15 regular season and wounds from back to back collapses still surprisingly fresh, the unthinkable had finally happened.
Leaf fans had lost hope.
Television ratings were down, empty seats could be seen at the Air Canada Centre and sports talk at the office had turned to the Blue Jays. Toronto just wasn’t relevant in the NHL and even die hard Leaf fans had stopped defending their team against the incessantly over used golf jokes.
Were there bright spots? Sure. Brendan Shanahan had managed to pry coach Mike Babcock out of Detroit, named Lou Lamoriello as General Manager and we had drafted this Mitch kid out of London. But after being burned time and time again the trust just wasn’t there and for some even thinking about the Leafs was painful. Missing the playoffs in every full season since the 04/05 lockout will do that.
As the season progressed, the lights started to come on one by one in this once dark house. The Leafs were losing yet they were entertaining, the system installed by Mike Babcock had the team playing a defensively responsible brand of hockey. If it wasn’t for a small wrinkle that the roster on the whole was painfully bad at scoring goals, they would have certainly won a few more games.
Now that would have been the last thing we needed though and as the losses piled up the more engaged the faithful became. Too many times this team had won just enough games to draft a second tier prospect but not enough to get into the playoffs, so when the team won 4 out of 5 games from March 15th – 24th after bringing up the likes of William Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov and Connor Carrick, Tank Nation began to panic. Here we go again.
It turned out our fears were unfounded and the Leafs managed to be slightly worse than the Edmonton Oilers (which is no small feat) earning the best odds of any team to land the first overall pick in this month’s NHL entry draft and the opportunity to select Auston Matthews.
Hope is alive.
And with those beautiful, beautiful lottery balls falling into place and the Blue & White faithful celebrating a rare win, hope has transformed into true optimism, a feeling that hasn’t surrounded this team in a long, long time. The golf jokes have subsided and have been replaced with a look of apprehension from fans of rival clubs. One of my co-workers who is an avid Habs disciple with a rich history of taking every opportunity to take a dig at Leaf fans said to me recently, “You guys are actually starting to worry me. Nylander looks to be the real deal and that Marner kid scares the hell out of me. If you get Matthews it’s going to be terrifying”. People are starting to take notice.
So how did all this come about? How did we go from being in such a dark place to now basking in the glow of optimism and hope that seemed so far away just 12 months ago? Well, we can point to the hiring of Mike Babcock as coach, Lou Lamoriello as general manager, Mark Hunter and Kyle Dubas as director of player personnel and assistant general manager respectively, and those are all key factors. We can all agree though, the most important factor in getting here lies with the man who put that group together.
I will admit, when Brendan Shanahan was hired as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs I was extremely skeptical. It looked a lot more like a public relations move than a hockey move and my expectations of the hire were quite low as a result. Shanahan didn’t appear to do much in his first year in the new role which only strengthened my belief that his hiring had no teeth. But that all changed on Sunday, April 12th, 2015 when in one clean swing of the axe, Brendan Shanahan fired general manager Dave Nonis, coach Peter Horachek, assistant coaches Steve Spott and Chris Dennis, goaltending coach Rick St. Croix, chief pro scout Steve Kasper and director of player development Jim Hughes along with most of the scouting staff. As it turned out, Shanahan not only had teeth but sharp ones at that and he had the matching claws to go with them. So as I normally do, I took to social media to express my thoughts and I exclaimed to the masses that gutting the organization was the right move but if they don’t gut the roster it would mean nothing.
Gut the roster he did.
After hiring one of his mentors in Lou Lamoriello, the Toronto Maple Leafs embarked on an ambitious tear down starting with the trading of Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins for what some had considered a weak return, and later in the year would see captain Dion Phaneuf sent to the Ottawa Senators. The significance of these two trades cannot be overstated as even though both players are talented, if they had remained on the roster the team’s future would not be nearly as bright as it is now. If they had played a full season with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2015/16, we would not be drafting Auston Matthews at the end of this month.
Some liked the Kessel trade and others did not. We heard people screaming from their Twitter roof tops “He’ll score 50 in Pittsburgh! How did we not get Maatta or Pouliot!?” and maybe the Leafs could have received more for Kessel if they had waited. But that was no sure thing and the new Leafs brass had a plan that involved running to the bottom of the standings in the coming year and they knew that couldn’t be done with Phil Kessel in the lineup. So they pulled the trigger on the deal they had in front of them and race to the bottom of the standings they did.
So as the Toronto Maple Leafs head into the off season, fans have plenty to look forward to. Besides the number one selection in this year’s entry draft, a pipeline of top prospects and enough cap space to give the team maximum flexibility, the Leafs brass are armed with 12 picks to further fill the cupboards with young talent. We are in uncharted waters here folks and it’s only natural that we may not know how to respond. Years of failure on and off the ice have left some of us with the hockey equivalent of PTSD and I find myself sometimes questioning whether this new found optimism is real or if it’s a mirage. So please allow me to give you some advice…
Enjoy it. Enjoy this long strange trip and soak in every twist and turn. More pain is assuredly coming but we are finally in a place where we have someone at the helm of the good ship Maple Leaf that gives us a future to look forward to. A bright and beautiful future that shouldn’t be tainted by the stormy clouds behind us. Like the Grateful Dead once said, every silver lining’s got a touch of grey.
Shanny’s wisdom shows now, he has his own touch of grey. After looking in my own mirror this morning, after a life of loving these Maple Leafs, I can confidently say that a touch of grey is an understatement.