The Leafs are primed for one of the most interesting seasons in recent memory, as the new generation gets fully underway, and I am filled with conflicting feelings. I decided to try and resolve these feelings the way law school taught me: by verbosely arguing both sides.
Optimist: The future is now. The Leafs have not one, not two, but three rookies who could plausibly compete for the Calder trophy. There's Mitch Marner, who just wreaked unholy havoc on the OHL as if it had done him personal wrong; William Nylander, who put on a ridiculous amount of muscle after his year as a teen phenom in both Sweden and the AHL; and the lottery jackpot himself, the biggest, baddest, most unrelentingly serious-sounding star centre since Jonathan Toews, Auston goddamn Matthews. If you're a Leafs fan and you're not excited about those three players hitting the ice together, you're legally dead.
But it's not all just hot young things with something to prove. Nazem Kadri has turned into a productive and provocative centre, and we locked him off right after a year where unusually bad luck kept his goals--and his price--down. JVR continues to be enormous, cheap, and 30-goal productive, and he's going to come back at full health. Leo Komarov and Matt Martin will provide all the sandpaper you could ask for, and a mix of veterans like Laich and Bozak will be there to stabilize the rookies. Even better, the best of the kids from last season will all be competing for jobs, and several of them look like they have something real to offer. This group is going to be electric.
Pessimist: This team was twenty-eighth in the NHL in goals last season. They were where offence went to die, and then their sole 20-goal scorer walked in free agency because the Leafs still couldn't be bothered to hold onto him. But don't worry, they added Matt Martin, a man who generates shot attempts about once a decade. And then they have a bunch of dusty cap hits posing as hockey players: Laich, Lupul, Michalek, and Greening. The thing about salary dumps is they tend to be bad at actually playing. Yes, we're all excited to be free of the Phaneuf contract, but the guys we got back for him look like their greatest achievement will be out-producing Nathan Horton.
Ah, but the kids! The kids will save us, right? About three rookies a year score 50 points--league-wide. Unless the Leafs are getting eight powerplays a night, they're not going to have enough time to juice a bunch of second-and-third line kids. And this is without some of Babcock's--let's say "eccentric"--lineup choices. Martin and Matthews? Oh, you bet it's going to happen. Martin's going to have the best year of his career! Of course, to do that he only has to get twenty points.
The truth is that the Leafs are a team in transition, and this is the ugliest point in the transition. The Leafs have exactly two top-six forwards who aren't either has-beens or not-yets, and one of them's a 2C. This team will be electric as long as you imagine them scoring about twice as much as they actually will.
Optimist: I can't hear you over the sound of the future! 'Cause the future sounds like a goal horn. And there's gonna be a lot of those.
Pessimist: There's one good thing to say about this defence. Here it is: Jake Gardiner.
The Leafs have the thinnest defence core in the NHL. There's one guy who ought to be riding shotgun for a star 1D, and then there are a bunch of problems. Morgan Rielly is nice as long as you don't care if your defencemen play defence. Martin Marincin's talents include "big" but sadly do not include "ever getting points", but hey, he's got good Corsi, and it's not like we've got an alternative! After that, we've got Corrado and Carrick, who form a lovely mirror image. Corrado was the exciting, cheaply acquired, talented RHD from last season, and then, whoops, he was a healthy scratch half the year. Now it's Carrick's turn. No, it'll be different this time! We swear.
After a year serving as Morgan Rielly's lead balloon of a partner, Matt Hunwick is back to generally obstruct his own team's progress instead of his opponents'. We also made the crucial decision to bring back Roman Polak, apparently because watching him get absolutely turnstiled in the playoffs was no disincentive for the Leafs to pay him higher-third-pair money. And then there's Nikita Zaitsev, who will of course be a success, like every player who jumps from the KHL. They all work out perfectly, don't they? Hey, what's Petri Kontiola doing these days?
The Leafs defence is abysmal. You know it. I know it. The reason people are so excited about the new defenders is because they're all too familiar with the old ones. It's also the reason the Leafs will be in wait-till-next-season mode by Christmas.
Optimist: All. According. To. Plan.
The Leafs have done exactly what they ought to do in a rebuild. They've locked in their key pieces at reasonable rates--look at the Gardiner and Rielly contracts--and they've been looking for bargains with potential to round out the group. They've found two such undervalued pieces in Corrado and Carrick. If they don't work out? Fine. If they do? We've got them RFA next season--and no one who saw Carrick in the Marlies' playoff run is going to sleep on the chance of him breaking through. Marincin is inexpensive and useful as hell, unless being big and driving possession went out of style in this league while I wasn't looking.
Zaitsev is no small-pond superstar. He was a stud defender for CSKA Moscow and he skates like a dream; plus at 24 with considerable pro experience, he's ready to come in and rock. And again: he's RFA next year. If the Leafs have found gems, they're positioned to keep them. If they haven't, they'll keep looking. They used experienced veterans to help man the fort while they look for the future. It's exactly what you'd want a team in their position to do.
And Gardiner and Rielly? Gardiner's HERO chart is art. He's magic. Any team would be salivating over having him, and we've got him for three more seasons at a discount. Rielly is "just" a 22-year-old who produces points at a top-pair level and is phenomenally athletic, and he's been enduring a season played mostly on his off-side with a bad partner. Now that the Leafs have balanced their handedness on defence, Rielly is primed to get even better.
Pessimist: But you basically agree with me that the defence isn't good right now.
Optimist: I'm an optimist, not an idiot.
Optimist: At long last, the Leafs' goaltending controversy is over. No more Bernier-starts-Reimer-starts. Just Frederik Andersen, who is a good starter, backed up by Jhnoas Enroth, who is a good second-stringer. The Leafs found a guy who can stabilize the net through the rebuild and backstop the finished version. He's rock-solid and he's signed. The Leafs have a guy who's capable of starting 50-plus games, and playing them competently. This is the best the goaltending has been since the heyday of Ed Belfour.
Pessimist: How can anyone who follows this team put any faith at all in the predictability of goaltenders? We've just spent years watching Reimer and Bernier swing from Vezina-calibre to NHL fringe time and time again. But no, this time will be different, just like every other time.
Worse, this time doesn't even have the appearance of being different. We took a hot-looking goalie who's looked good in limited work. Remember when that was Bernier? Remember when that was Reimer? Hell, Andrew Raycroft looked good his first year in the league. The difference with Andersen is that we've made a bigger financial commitment than the Leafs have to any goalie in the last decade. So if it goes wrong, we're locked in for the next five years.
Optimist: Man, you're a real drag to hang out with sometimes.
Pessimist: The Leafs made me this way.
Pessimist: I'm going to let you in on a dirty little secret: Mike Babcock is the most overrated coach in the NHL.
No, wait. Look at this team last year. This team finished dead last. They were 28th in goals-for and 25th in goals against. They were awful. If you want to blame that on the personnel, fine. But you're admitting that Mike Babcock could have done anything last season and you'd think he was brilliant. So Mike Babcock is invincible. He's signed forever and he's trusted implicitly, and who cares if he plays Byron Froese all the time, or puts Hunwick with Morgan Rielly? Sure, those decisions didn't seem good, and they didn't work very well, but....well, we believe in him, because the alternative is too unpleasant to contemplate.
And don't look too closely, but the Red Wings didn't get out of the second round of the playoffs during the last six years he was there. What a pleasantly mediocre performance. You know, maybe, once you take away the best defenceman of the last generation, prime Zetterberg and Datsyuk, and a great supporting cast...he's just a guy coaching the worst team in the league.
Optimist: Are you serious right now?
Optimist: You. Are you serious? With the things that you're saying.
Pessimist: Look, I have a job to do here.
Optimist: Fine. Mike Babcock has made the Stanley Cup Finals three times. He's the only coach in the Triple Gold Club. Ever. He was the most sought after free agent coach in the history of hockey. The only reason he hasn't won the Jack Adams yet is because that's an award for PDO--look who he came second to in 2014--and Mike Babcock has to settle for merely being incredible at the actual parts of his job under his control.
Pessimist: Yeah, I guess--
Optimist: I WILL TELL YOU WHEN I'M FINISHED.
Mike Babcock coached Team Canada to two gold medals. Before you harrumph about Team Canada being an All-Star team: did you watch in 2014? They allowed one goal against in the last three games, and it was a trick play from the Latvians. The whole tournament was like watching a boa constrictor strangle its prey to death with puck possession. Puck possession is useful. If only there were a coach with a historical mastery of puck possession. That would be a good coach to have.
Pessimist: I agree, it's--
Mike Babcock took a team that had lost its best offensive player. He got half a season of his best remaining scorer. His 1C had a shooting slump to rival an Imperial stormtrooper. His 2C missed 25 games. His 2LW missed 36. His GM conducted a firesale at the deadline that left him playing a skeleton crew of rookies and throwaways. His starting goalie got injured and then got traded. His second-string goalie turned into a pumpkin. His third-string goalie put up a save percentage of .893. His defence was made entirely out of paper mache.
And Mike Babcock led this team to a one-point improvement over the previous season.
I could point to the fact that Babcock led this team to an absolutely spectacular possession improvement, that their special teams improved markedly despite extremely limited personnel, that damn near everyone who was paying attention thought, "Holy shit, how is he doing this?" But the greatest testament to Mike Babcock's skill is that he took a team that was more or less openly tanking for a draft pick, and he was so good at his job he almost ruined it. And if you could ask nearly any GM, privately and frankly, they'd all tell you they'd switch coaches with the Leafs in a heartbeat.
Pessimist: ...well, they still finished last.
Optimist: [attempts murder]
The Front Office
Optimist: This might be hard for Leafs fans to admit, but the truth is: we have nothing to really complain about.
Oh, sure, some people think Matt Martin's overpaid. Boohoo. You know who was really overpaid? Phaneuf and Clarkson. Those guys who are off our books now. We have a ton of young talent on ELCs, we have Gardiner, Rielly, JVR and Kadri on absolutely lovely deals, and we're about to have enough cap space to buy the universe at retail price. Leafs fans are so twitchy for something to fret over we took a two-week delay in signing our star rookie as a sign of impending doom. That's a sign of something: that our front office has done all the big things right.
Pessimist: But be honest: you're a little worried, aren't you?
Pessimist: A little worried.
Pessimist: Just a teensy, tiny, little bit worried.
Pessimist: I KNEW IT.
Optimist: I DIDN'T SAY ANYTHING!
Pessimist: Your eyes said it, even though this is a dialogue in text. The Martin signing. Bringing Polak back. The Middleton pick. Sure, all of them might be fine. None of it's serious by itself. But that dream of the perfect, modern, analytic front office--well, a lot of people had to wake up this summer. It makes you wonder: once this team gets all those assets and cap space, will they know what to do with them?
The truth is, up till now has been the easy part. The Oilers have managed to liquidate their bad contracts and draft star forwards. As of 2016, they've done it several times. Look where it's got them. When the going gets tough, this FO is going to have to make smart, economical moves, and there are hints that instead they're going to pay for hit counts.
Optimist: Except this FO has shown us time and again that they do value things that matter. Look at the Rielly and Kadri extensions. Look at the highway robbery trades they made at the deadline. And you might notice they didn't give up on drafting small, talented forwards; they've just diversified. You can say this has been the easy part, but you can only play the games in front of you, and this management group has been nailing them. Enough that we can trust them to make decisions, even when they don't always seem obvious at first glance. So you know what? For the first time in a long time, I really am not worried.
Pessimist: Not even the teensiest, littlest bit--
Pessimist: This team is going to be just better enough to hurt their draft position. Expect 75 points and the 6th overall pick, and expect a summer where the fanbase starts to realize the path forward doesn't necessarily go up.
Optimist: This team is going to scrap for a playoff spot. They were an average possession team with barely any personnel. With an injection of offence, an improvement on defence and stabilization in goal? This team is going to shoot into the low 90s and the wild card.
Pessimist: Leafs fans are delusional.
Optimist: Yeah, they're never happy.