Last year was unique for Leafs fans. Not in the sense that the team was terrible – we’re used to that. It was unique in that the only thing that mattered was the individual development of a few key players. When Jonathan Bernier let in three stinkers to ruin a winnable game for the Leafs, it didn’t really matter. When Michael Grabner flubbed two breakaways in a period, it didn’t really matter either. They weren’t in the long-term picture. And neither were 80% of their teammates.
As a result, it was easy to not care too much about wins and losses (notwithstanding the desire to see the Leafs improve their chances at Auston Matthews), and that was reflected in numerous ways. TV ratings famously declined, and while multiple factors were involved, it seems quite clear that a key one was that it’s hard to get people engaged in a bad team where the vast majority of players are interchangeable flotsam. Ticket sales were relatively low, a continuation of 2014/2015 season. Even on PPP, as traffic and comments soared, activity on game-day threads was as low as we’ve seen it. All of this is to say, as a whole, fan engagement in the on-ice product was depressed in the 2015/2016 season.
In theory, that should change this season. Enough words have been written about Auston Matthews, so I’ll just state that he’s a pretty good hockey player and leave it at that. The full-time addition of William Nylander and perhaps Mitch Marner will get people excited. Beyond the prospects that will be arriving at the ACC, the Shanaclan made their first moves to actually build up a team this off-season, as opposed to tearing one down. Long-term deals were handed out to Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri, Frederik Andersen, and Matt Martin, indicating that the Leafs don’t plan on finishing bottom-five for the third straight year.
These are generally positive changes. I’ve long argued that the Leafs should finish this coming season closer to the wild-card bubble than the first overall pick going forward, and it seems like the front office agrees. At the same time, this introduces some fear into me as a fan. Until this year, all the Leafs had to do was try and shed salary, avoid long-term commitments, and use the free agent scrap heap to plug holes on the team and become draft assets. To their credit, they did that masterfully, the Phil Kessel trade aside. Now, the moves the Leafs make have a higher degree of difficulty, and a higher degree of importance. Now is when the tough part really begins.
But now, the team is looking to build. You don’t hand out four-year contracts to free agents and five-year extensions to goaltenders if you’re still looking to suck and collect top five picks. As a consequence, the results actually matter now. No longer is the NHL season solely about seeing if the Leafs’ myriad of talented prospects can translate to the NHL. It’s now about the team as a whole, and ensuring that they’re making year-over-year improvements.
In a way, that makes this year (and the coming years) a little scarier. When you’re in the process of tearing down, it’s all upside. You find joy in the small things, and selectively ignore the negatives (of which there are many). You cherish seeing Jake Gardiner run a breakout, ignoring the forward who can’t handle his passes. You chuckle as Nazem Kadri draws his umpteenth penalty of the game, and then ignore an ugly power play that has Leo Komarov as a primary offensive option. All the poor play can be justified with “well, we’ll fix that when we build a contender”. This year, fans should be more engaged because of the optimism surrounding the team. Naturally, that leaves room for severe disappointment.
As we start to actually build a contender, we have to deal with the potential upside of yesteryear not being realized. There may come a point where Morgan Rielly’s defensive ineptitude can’t be explained away with age. It’s a distinct possibility that Frederik Andersen makes no more progress to solving the Leafs perennial goaltending issues than James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier did. Perhaps most scarily, there may be a point where we realize one of our holy trinity of prospects hasn’t panned out the way we would have hoped. That’s a tough thing to stomach as a fan. We’re led to believe that the years of tearing down will be rewarded with commensurate time on top of the heap. You only need to look at Edmonton to realize how untrue that is.
That makes the excitement surrounding this team a bit of a double-edged sword. There’s a lot to look forward to with this team. There’s also a lot that may let us down. As Leafs fans, we’re quite accustomed to the latter.