Editor’s note: Cold As Ice’s Jay Kumar writes about being a long-suffering Leafs fan and how that’s probably not going to change any time soon.
Life as a Maple Leafs fan in the post-expansion NHL has never been easy. I should know: The Leafs won their 11th, and last, Stanley Cup the year I was born. That year was 1967, which is also the year the NHL expanded beyond the “Original Six.” Since then, it’s been nothing but mediocrity, the occasional sniff of contention, and outright failure.
My first memories of being a Leafs fan date back to 1971, when I can remember watching games with my father, an Indian immigrant who had moved to Toronto and grew to love the national game and the Leafs. When my mother was in the hospital and about to give birth to my little brother, my dad and I nearly missed it because we were watching the Leafs-Bruins playoff game that night.
I grew up watching the Leafs teams of the mid- to late ’70s led by stars like Darryl Sittler, Borje Salming and Lanny McDonald. They were probably two players away from being a real Cup contender, but their real shortcoming was having to play during the era when the Montreal Canadiens were pretty much unbeatable; the Habs won four straight Cups from ’76 to ’79 and nobody could touch them. Then owner Harold Ballard–the George Steinbrenner of hockey minus the winning championships part–systematically dismantled the team, leading to a decade of futility in the ’80s. After he died in 1990, the team experienced a resurgence, going as far as a win away from the finals in 1993 before Wayne Gretzky and the Kings dispatched. There was another series of above average teams in the late ’90s through 2004 under Pat Quinn, but since the 2005-2006 season, they’ve only made the playoffs once, in 2013 (which saw the Leafs push the Bruins to seven games before a historic collapse).
Which brings us to today. After a disastrous second half last season, Toronto is in rebuilding mode. Team President Brendan Shanahan has assembled a braintrust that includes coach Mike Babcock, longtime New Jersey exec Lou Lamoriello, wunderkind assistant GM Kyle Dubas and director of player personnel Mark Hunter. The Leafs traded superstar winger Phil Kessel to the Penguins for some prospects and loaded up on draft picks in the last draft. The team signed low-cost veterans like P.A. Parenteau, Brad Boyes, Nick Spaling and Shawn Matthias, most of whom will likely be traded at the deadline for picks. Babcock, who signed a massive 8-year, $50 million deal, has said he expects the Leafs to contend in three years.
So what does that mean for Leafs fans? It means the lowest of expectations, with some likely raising concerns if team actually starts winning. Because it’s all about the future, and if the Leafs finish near the bottom again, that means getting another shot at the top pick. The hashtag #TankNation has shown up quite a bit in the last few years and it likely will again this year. I don’t think there’s any chance the Leafs will miraculously find themselves in the upper echelon of the NHL, but if they somehow scrape their way into the playoffs, it’ll be seen as a massive blunder.
I’m interested to see how Babcock does with this collection of misfits and youngsters. After years in Detroit with ridiculously talented players like Datsyuk and Zetterberg, he’s going to be working with a lot less this season. Will he have the patience to rebuild the team slowly or will he push management to pick up a few players to try to build a contender quicker? As painful as it’s going to be, I’m hoping for the former. I’ve seen too many attempts under previous regimes run by David Nonis and Brian Burke to attempt shortcuts through stupid trades and ill-advised free agent signings. Almost every time, it’s blown up in their faces (although I would argue the trade with Boston to bring Kessel to the Leafs was a good one; the guy was one of the best snipers in the NHL during his Toronto tenure despite being surrounded by an inferior supporting cast).
We’re three games into the new season and it appears the Leafs are working hard under Babcock. In the season opener against Montreal, they put a bunch of shots on Montreal’s Carey Price, but as one of the best (if not THE best) goalies in the league, he shut them down. In Babcock’s heavily hyped return to Detroit, the Red Wings easily dispatched Toronto 4-0.
In Saturday night’s game, the Leafs played Ottawa and gave a glimpse of what a Babcock-run team can do, even with inferior talent. Toronto was all over the Sens in the first period but couldn’t score. They got into penalty trouble in the second and fell behind 3-0 but kept working and eventually tied the game at 3. After Ottawa scored in the third to make it 4-3, the Leafs poured on the pressure and after killing off a questionable penalty to Brad Boyes, went right down and scored to tie it up. The game went to 3-on-3 overtime, which was incredibly fun to watch. The Leafs carried the play, including a 4-on-3 power play, and had a ton of chances but couldn’t net the winner. In the shootout, the Leafs’ Parenteau got the first goal but the Wings got two to get the extra point and the victory.
It was an exciting game and even though it ended in a loss, the Leafs showed they could challenge a more skilled opponent. They may not come away with a win very often, but they looked a hell of a lot better tonight than they did for much of last season–even though they arguably had substantially less talent on the team. Yeah, it’s going to be a long season for the Leafs, but given the state of the team for the last decade, most reasonable Leafs fans will accept that if the team sticks to the rebuilding plan. It’s not going to be pretty, but it hasn’t been for a long time. That faint glimmer of hope on the distant horizon is all we have to go on right now.