Who's the face of the new Leafs?
The obvious choice is best player and first overall pick Auston Matthews. Matthews works like a dog, says the boring right thing in interviews, looks like a tired twenty-five-year-old instead of the teenager he is. He's a coin flip to be the next captain and he's a lock to lead the Leafs in goals until he looks his age. The lottery where we won him was the biggest, greatest moment of We Can Have Nice Things Again, for a Toronto fanbase that spent a decade alternating dull pains and sharp ones.
You could make a case for William Nylander, too. Nylander was the Golden Child we worried we'd pass over in favour of muscle. He's almost a parody of the skilled, slick, pretty-boy who's too talented to be trusted. But two months after we hired Brendan Shanahan, General Manager from the Stone Age Dave Nonis drafted Nylander--maybe with Shanahan holding a gun to his back, but he drafted him all the same. He was the first step up And despite TSN insisting Willie be traded for shot-blocking every month, it looks like the Leafs are going to keep him.
But I think the Leafs are Mitch Marner.
Some of it's his personality, which hockey players usually get surgically removed sometime in their junior careers. He looks fifteen and has a goofy sideways grin, he wears flamboyant purple suits and occasionally dresses like a Jazz Age detective. He gets Auston singing Bon Jovi with him on the bench. He plays for a team whose recent history includes idiot nontroversies like Salutegate and whose leadership usually looked like it was trying to pass a kidney stone. And Marner looks like he's enjoying himself.
There's more to it than that, though. Marner, you remember, needed to go back to junior for another year or five, because his game wouldn't translate to the big leagues yet. He was Too Small For The NHL™, and he needed to put on twenty-five pounds of muscle to make up for being indecently short. Rob Schremp scored a lot for the Knights too.
Unlike nearly every high pick, Marner almost looked like an underdog. They won't usually admit it now, but an awful lot of people were very confident he wasn't close yet. Maybe in three years, if you're lucky! It was going to be a long time before we saw Mitch Marner play a regular NHL shift.
Mitch Marner is on pace to brush 70 points.
This year is a special one for the Leafs. Maybe they'll sneak into the playoffs, maybe they won't; I hope they do. But the Leafs are enjoying something that they haven't had in a long time and that they can't expect to have again: they're almost underdogs.
As Jeff Veillette will tell you, most everyone expected this team to be a slightly improved pile of garbage. Not last again, probably, but not much higher. Bottom five. Development year, another high pick, gather those assets. Half the preseason talk was which veterans could be flipped for seconds at the deadline. I really thought Brooks Laich had more to give, to tell you the truth.
Instead, they've been almost good. Actually good, some have said at heady times. They're in the hunt, they're above average in some of the metrics, and if they could just abolish that damn shootout, they'd win more than they lose. Every game day, an opposing player offers a hat tip quote about how Toronto is a team on the rise. Fast, exciting, getting better. Teams are taking notice, we say proudly.
Kinda ridiculous, isn't it?
The richest franchise in hockey, in the biggest hockey market, with that huge, obnoxious media presence that pisses off the country so much, is just happy to be here It makes sense looking at our recent past. It makes no sense looking at our location and resources.
The New York Yankees are not just happy to be here. They either win a pennant and the World Series or it's a bullshit season that needs rectifying. They're the Evil Empire, and they're loathed throughout Major League Baseball. And win or lose, they dominate their sport.
The Leafs have had so many years of mismanagement, from the cartoon villainy of Harold Ballard through the stop-hitting-yourself idiocy of Dave Nonis. It's obscured what this team, with its money and its scope, ought to be, and can be if it makes smart decisions. Long-term, Toronto doesn't have an excuse to settle for scrappy underdog. Toronto should be aiming for dynasty.
Toronto sports, in recent years, have finally gotten a chip on their shoulder. Masai Ujiri opens a playoff series saying "fuck Brooklyn." Jose Bautista flips his bat like he's flipping the other team the bird. The Leafs, richer in their league than the Raps or the Jays, have never stopped being unpopular with the rest of the country. But they've been pathetic, a giant who keeps tripping himself up. There are finally, now, early signs that the giant's smartened up. This year, that's the scrappy underdog. Next year, it ought to be a playoff team.
The year after that ought to be a Cup run.
Mitch Marner scored two points a game in junior during his draft year. The year after he did it again. He regularly did what can only be called "video game shit", playing easy keepaway with opposing defenders and dancing in for goals. He won damn near every trophy you can win in junior. If Connor McDavid didn't exist, he might well push for the best player in the 2015 draft. You could see it coming, you can see it now.
Look at him then.
Look at him now.
If you take out the bias against his size, there was no way for Marner to be anything but a star. If you move past the last decade, there's no reason for the Leafs to be anything but a perennial contender. The Leafs are a cocky up-and-comer in a loud suit. And if you think he's too small, or the Leafs are too hapless, you've missed the point. The Leafs, and Marner, are going to be giants.