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The Leafs Are Good And I’m Still Pissed Off

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Working through some hockey frustration.

NHL: Calgary Flames at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a good team. Even after a gross, tedious loss to the Calgary Flames, they were still leading the Atlantic at close of business Monday night, though they’d also played more games than the competition. Winning twice as many games as you lose is an excellent way to seed yourself highly for the playoffs, and lo, it is this that the Leafs have managed through twelve games.

No one in Leaf Land seems to be enjoying this at all.

There are reasons, obviously. The Leafs are down two star forwards, a loss they’re only able to survive because they have another three left in the lineup. (Nazem Kadri is a star. Fight me.) But if you were to tune into Leaf Twitter on Tuesday, and as someone who does this regularly I don’t recommend it as a lifestyle choice, you would notice something: the portion of the TML fanbase represented online is less happy than it was during the year the team finished last.

This is understandable, but also sad. It’s time to work through our feelings through the most effective of all therapy methods: blogging. (Statement not endorsed by Health Canada.) What’s wrong with this team and/or us?

The Nylander Thing

I’m so fucking tired of the Nylander thing, guys. I’m tired of refreshing Twitter hoping for that stupid Leafs PR tweet and finding out they demoted an ECHL player to the FCHL or wherever the fuck. I’m tired of the tail-chasing speculation published by Dreger and Kypreos based on something “a senior NHL executive” (that is definitely Dave Nonis) told them. I’m tired of people turning the negotiation into a Lord of the Rings story of good and evil where Lewis Gross is just a malicious burning eye on top of a tower who wants $8.3M AAV. All of this sucks.

I’m tired of still not having gotten to see the best Leaf forward lineup in my lifetime playing all together, and the dark whispers that this has to end with a trade, echoed by dumb fans who think we should unload Willie for whichever 3RD led the West in blocked shots per hit last season. And yeah, I just want Willie to sign the damn contract even though I get intellectually it’s down to him what he wants to do about it. Oh, and fuck the salary cap, while I’m at it. Fuck!

There’s no conclusion to this section. That’s it. Fuck.

The Matthews Thing

Auston Matthews was a decent threat to win the Rocket Richard this season and he started out on an unbelievable hot streak. But because we can’t have nice things in this household, he got his shoulder wrecked by Jacob Trouba. I can’t even get legitimately mad at Trouba because it was a perfectly clean hit. It just went the wrong way and now two segments of Auston’s upper arm are living separate and apart while they work on their relationship.

Independent of how the team does overall, Matthews charging up the scoring ladder was one of the things to watch for this year. Since the 2005 lockout our biggest stars were a) late-stage Mats Sundin who had no help and b) Phil Kessel, who God bless him, was not exactly a complete player. For once we have something really good, someone who is closer to being the best player in the world than any Leaf since Teeder Kennedy, and now he’s going to miss a month. We all get to worry about his ongoing career and whether he’ll still be what we hope he can be. If you’re a Leafs fan who has been alive and awake during the past couple of decades, you suspect deep in your heart that after all the glorious excitement of the last couple seasons we’re just being set up to be knocked down again. And it’s falls from a height that really hurt you.

Okay, though. Shoulder injuries are bad, there’s no getting past it, especially for an elite sniper like Matthews. But he didn’t reinjure the same shoulder as last year, and by early accounts the injury is towards the lower end of severity. The Leafs are going to be sensible with their franchise meal ticket, and the injury occurring in October rather than March means he should have plenty of time to come back at something like 100%. The Leafs even have the depth to survive the absence. It just makes things tougher and less fun for a month. Now is the winter of our discontent, but we can recover, and we’ll still be a playoff team.

The Systems Thing

OR WILL WE?

Mike Babcock put up the best Leaf season in history by points last year, has a winning record now, has had the team above water in CF% and pretty good by expected goals, and people want his damn head.

The problem, you see, is that when the Leafs win they sometimes look as if they did it by accident and when they lose they look as if they’re doing it on purpose. Or put another way, the victory is attributed to individual skills and the failures to the coach and his system. When Toronto gets stifled by a team with a good forecheck, heavy pressure, and the ability to clog the neutral zone (see Calgary, St. Louis, and to some extent Montreal) they look less like a legit contender and more like the soldiers in every X-Men movie who think they can win by pointing metal guns at Magneto. You gotta change tactics sooner or later, guys.

Some of the criticism takes the form of bleating about the stretch pass without much else (worth noting Mike Babcock himself has said the forwards need to come lower.) Some of it is better fleshed-out than that, and you do want to see the Leafs do better when the opposition has an answer for Plan A.

Still: the Leafs are solidly above water in shot attempts and in expected goals, as per Corsica, and you can expect this team to shoot and goaltend a little above average when healthy. Combine that with a deadly power play and warts and all, this is a good team. They are not perfect, they are not healthy right now and we want them to improve. All the same: the results are not as bad as some people would have you believe.

Also, he’s got four and a half years left on his deal, so...he’s probably going to stick around a while yet.

Attempted Optimism

There is a possibility, and it’s not that outlandish, where in a month we’re enjoying life a lot more than we are now. William Nylander has returned to the lineup. Partly rejuvenated by him, the Leafs have weathered Matthews’ absence and are in good shape to welcome back #34. Travis Dermott has recovered from sickness and/or disfavour and is taking more ice-time, while Igor Ozhiganov settles in. Nikita Zaitsev has learned to locate teammates to pass to via a GPS.

Aside from the last thing, all of that is possible. In the sober light of day, I might even say each of those things is more likely than alternatives. I don’t expect this, because as a Leafs fan I have C3PO syndrome.

But somewhere between optimism and pessimism is rationality, and the fact remains the Leafs are in better big-picture shape than they have been since at least 2002. And as much as we want/need/pray for this team to be the one that redeems all the sports misery we’ve endured, the misery means we’ve had it a hell of a lot worse. I watched Joffrey Lupul go point per game and then have all of his bones explode while the team lost 317 consecutive times to close out the season. I watched the Leafs somehow have failures associated with both toast and waffles within a couple of seasons like they had some sort of breakfast food curse. I even watched that weird Game 7 in Boston where the league mysteriously cancelled the third period. Past me would have killed just to have a team with John Tavares on it, much less everything else we now have.

So in the end, as frustrating as some of these things are, this team has a lot to like about it. It has talent and the promise of more talent to return soon. At its best it’s genuinely exciting. When you think about that, well, things aren’t so bad.

Unless they lose on Thursday, and then we’re all going to jump in the lake.