You’ve probably run into the hit TV series and video game Pokemon once or twice in your lifetime, right? It’s a simple premise. You wake up one morning, Professor Oak asks you what your name is, and he ends up giving you your first Pokemon to being your journey as a famous trainer. Then you quickly leave home, catch more Pokemon to add to your team, earn all eight badges, defeat the Elite Four, and you have your picture hung up for all to see.
(If you need a quick reminder of what I’m talking about, listen to this).
The NHL is no different. Every team’s goal is to win the Stanley Cup one day, and you have to make the right moves, and most importantly, find the right players to do it. For comparison's sake, we’ll compare legs in the regular season to getting through the gyms and winning badges and each round of the playoffs being a victory over an Elite Four member.
There is one mistake some gamers make. In the show, there are certain trainers who choose to have only one kind of Pokemon. For example, you’ll see teams of only water or grass-types to get through the first gym. Sometimes this works, but it’s unlikely they'll make it all the way without a proper build.
So let’s have some fun and tie this to the Toronto Maple Leafs of NHL seasons past.
The Leafs 2013-14 squad is a clear example of having a one-dimensional build. That is all offence and little defence. Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk led the way with 37 and 30 goal seasons respectively, while Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul hit the 20-goal mark. We also can’t forget about top-pairing defencemen in Dion Phaneuf and Cody Franson who at the time were constantly praised for their ability to direct pucks to the net.
That year also saw the debut of rookie Morgan Rielly who finished the season with 2 goals and 25 assists in 73 games. Not a bad total. Other names on the roster that year just to make you say, ‘Oh yeah,’ or ‘Oh. Yeah’, include Mason Raymond, Jonathan Bernier, Colton Orr, and Nikolai Kulemin (shoutouts to Acting the Fulemin there).
Randy Carlyle had a system that season that relied on the Leafs using their speed and skill to win hockey games. It worked for a little while, as the boys in blue racked up enough points to have them in a playoff spot by US Thanksgiving, but coincidentally, that was also the beginning of their downfall. Why is that? Defence is the first answer. However, it also stems from the fact that the Leafs were firing at an unsustainable pace.
It was similar to how the Leafs were playing at the beginning of this season. Down by two early? Don’t worry, for Mr. Kessel swoops in to save the day. But if that isn't enough, Bernier and James Reimer are around to face 40+ shots a night.
The collapse was a foregone conclusion. As frustrating as it was to see the Leafs lose 35 of their next 59 games, including the eight-game losing streak in March, there were those who weren‘t surprised.
Not to worry though because the Leafs came back the next season with a similar crop of players and a new mentality to not have a devastating collapse near the end of the year. Thankfully that did happen, or we wouldn‘t be where we are today. However, that season came with a bonus of mediocrity.
Peter Horachek deserves a plaque for the turmoil he had to go through. For those who disagree, the Leafs went 9-28-5 in his tenure as in-term head coach. I mean, ‘Give a you-know-what metre,’ was probably one of the most used lines among fans that year.
By season’s end, the Leafs were 27th in the league, Kessel, JVR and Tyler Bozak were the worst defensive line ever as far as plus/minus goes (combined -105), and the foundation of the Shanaplan was continuing to be built (hello Mitch Marner).
For those two seasons, the Leafs took the easy route of focusing on scoring goals instead of overall play and execution. We can debate whether that was the player personnel or the system in place, but that was the reality.
Regarding Pokemon, management those two years took the grass-type Bulbasaur as their starter acknowledging that it would be easier to get through the first two gym leaders due to the type advantage. To ensure that they could do it, the Leafs stocked up on grass and/or water-types to help out (Bellsprout is generally a good option). Additionally, as their journey continued, instead of spreading the wealth throughout the rest of the team, they chose to focus on a set few Pokemon to level up.
You would need to invest in other types, especially when you have to go up against Blaine and his gym of fire-types. But a series of Revives and Hyper Potions can do wonders. If that doesn’t work, going back to your two main options and increasing their speed to ensure they attack first in combination with teaching them ground-type moves could win it for them.
Then the Leafs found themselves at the beginning of Victory Road, the final path before the Elite Four, with a level 60+ Venasaur and Victreebel. What happens next? Either they can’t clear it or are lucky enough to get a shot at Lorelei and get decimated. No matter how many times they try to qualify, it ends with a white background and them waking up in a Pokemon Centre.
Brendan Shanahan was the voice of reason that said, “Start over.” It’s always difficult to select ‘New Game,’ but sometimes it’s necessary. The Leafs learned from past mistakes and issues in building a winning club and did things the right way. Instead of making decisions based on specific circumstances, they considered the bigger picture.
Instead, they took that Charmander (Auston Matthews) from Professor Oak and remembered the others who could help. Perhaps they bring back Bellsprout (Kadri, JVR, Bozak, Gardiner, Reilly) for another round and also find Pokemon who aren’t going to be there at the end but will help get you through the gyms (Brad Boyes, Daniel Winnik, P.A. Parenteau).
The Leafs then start a new journey, having a much more stable and focused aspect to their team with many strengths. This time at Victory Road, you're confident that your Charizard, Alakazam, Snorlax, Jolteon, Lapras, and Vileplume. There’s also the possibility of adding a legendary Pokemon or two to your team, but you still need a strong enough team to get to that point.
Leafs management has done the right thing in following the second storyline of Pokemon Blue and White and have propelled themselves to a franchise year in points and back-to-back playoff-clinching seasons. Are they good enough to defeat all four members of the Elite Four yet (win the Stanley Cup)? Maybe not.
There’s a chance that some of the starting six need a few more levels to get strong enough, or perhaps there’s one more piece needed to complete the team. The thing that Pokemon and the NHL have in common is that neither are easy. You have to make a lot of tough but necessary decisions to get the team to their peak. However, once you see that final Pokemon fall allowing you to be included in the Hall of Fame, all the hours of work are instantly worth it.