Unlike last season, where Leafs fans were white-knuckling their way to the playoffs all the way through Game 81, the end of this regular season has had a feeling of anticlimax. The Leafs were extremely likely to finish third in the Atlantic in January, and lo, they are now going to finish third in the Atlantic. I’m not complaining, but it does take some of the drama out of the last fifteen games or so.
So: here are some random Leafs thoughts that didn’t merit full pieces:
1. Mike Babcock, progressive coach. Mike Babcock sometimes makes conservative coaching decisions that annoy people, like over-playing Roman Polak. This is fine. Criticizing Mike Babcock is fine. I am not going to be one of those hashtag weirdos who have made not questioning the Leafs’ coach into a Twitter identity.
But sometimes the criticisms seem to boil down to Mike Babcock being a conservative old stick-in-the-mud who happens to have a knack for building possession teams, but is still more or less a dinosaur. A good dinosaur, at best.
This is really, really odd to me. Mike Babcock played (all together now) six rookies in heavy minutes last season. He’s also taken Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner, the problem children of our previous coaches, and used them extensively. And look:
Babcock says Gardiner "is a way better defender than people think."— James Mirtle (@mirtle) April 3, 2018
In fact, last playoffs, Gardiner was his most-used defenceman and Kadri his third-most-used forward. Yes, this season, he’s taken his time to promote Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, and people figured Matt Martin had a spot for life (until Babcock dropped him a year and a half into his deal). Leo Komarov was locked in on the second line, until he wasn’t.
I occasionally read other fanbase sites, and I’ll tell you something: virtually all of them are mad at the coach over something, and with remarkably frequency, it’s because he’s playing a veteran whose value is known over a kid whose value is mostly potential. I often think they’re right! But more than once, believe it or not, I’ve seen them lament not having a coach like Mike Babcock, who trusts his young players and is willing to evolve.
This isn’t to say I totally agree with Babcock about Connor Carrick or Josh Leivo, or that I don’t want to play Andreas Johnsson over Komarov. I do. But if the idea is that Old Man Babcock is too damn stuck in the past to run the team right, well, that just ain’t so.
2. We’re the bad guys, and we know it. After the Sedins were announced to be retiring, Vancouver fans understandably basked in some nostalgia for a while. In the course of that, someone produced one of the most unintentionally hilarious threads in recent Hockey Twitter history.
Missing some names, obviously. Kesler, Burrows, Bieksa, Lapierre, Torres... But it’s a gross mischaracterization of Alex Burrows’ improbable career to make him a villain. Kesler was so damn good, too. And I don’t really know why anyone ever hated Bieksa, honestly.— Justin Morissette (@JustinMoris) April 2, 2018
It is an evil East Coast Media conspiracy that people did not feel sympathy towards Alex Burrows. This Alex Burrows. This Alex Burrows. The Alex Burrows who did this. And this. It’s crazy people didn’t appreciate Burrows’ improbable career, like someone kneed them repeatedly in the head or something.
Anyway, the real reason I brought this here is the odd, wistful desire for other fanbases to like them. You see this now and then, and especially around playoff time, when the weird “Canada’s Team” thing surfaces yet again. Why? It’s sports! Half the point of sports is for people to indulge in irrational tribal loyalties that we otherwise restrain so they don’t cause World Wars. Literally every other fanbase would vote for your team to be contracted tomorrow if it meant their team won a Cup. Do you really need to win the race for “team I watch to sustain interest in the playoffs until my team doesn’t suck anymore?”
One thing I have to say for Leafs fans: we really don’t seem to care if anyone else cheers for us or not. It helps that the rest of Canada and much of the northeastern US already hates us anyway, but it means Leaf fans understand the way things work.
a) We hope our team wins
b) And if you don’t like it, you can eat shit
3. Nylander vs. Marner. The wheel has turned again, and Mitch Marner has passed William Nylander in the popular fan rankings. Maybe Marner is better. I don’t know. But it is weird that anyone can act like it’s obvious now, or was obvious at some point in the past. If you’re convinced that isn’t true right now: Nylander is still well ahead of Mitch in 5v5 scoring, both in rates and in point count. Nylander has had to go stretches playing centre, sometimes with some less-than-offensive linemates, whereas Marner has—except for a weird sojourn with Matt Martin early on—had one 30-goal man or another by his side.
This is not a knock on Mitch. Mitch has done things since joining Nazem Kadri’s line that have taught us all what it means to love again. He seems pretty clearly on track to be--if he isn’t already—one of the best playmaking wingers in the NHL. It’s cool that we have him, and that he hasn’t even turned 21 yet (!) It’s just, you know, last year Nylander had all of the power play points, and those drying up is the only reason he doesn’t have 70 himself. It’s a legitimate contest! We have extremely dope players.
In short: they’re both great, let’s all hold hands and think about happiness.
4. Grant McCagg Interlude.
I'm not backing down on my prediction that Drouin is better than every Leafs forward except Matthews in the future with the possible exception of Marner. One season's point totals aren't going to change my mind. No Leaf forward was asked to play C for 1st time this year.— Grant McCagg (@grantmccagg) April 5, 2018
A note to 20-something advanced stats aficionado/twitter veterans turned "scouts" and journalists" in this social media age because of a built-up twitter following. I do NOT consider you my colleagues.— Grant McCagg (@grantmccagg) March 28, 2018
5. Josh Leivo. Do you ever just think about Josh Leivo? I dunno, man. Weird.
6. Cup chances. We might as well note this. The Leafs have a chance at a Cup. It’s not a good chance, and it’s far from the best chance, but it’s a chance. Dom “Lush Chicken” Luszczyszyn at the Athletic has it at 5%, at time of writing. You wouldn’t bet on that happening, but shit, I’ve had things happen that were a one-in-twenty shot.
If you want something to dream on, the Leafs have two prime things going for them: a goalie who has the capacity to zoom into super elite status suddenly (and I guess Frederik Andersen is pretty good also), and they have a lineup full of guys who can score. If you want a forward and a goalie with the game on the line, you could do worse than Matthews and Freddie. Sure, they still probably need a meteor strike at an opportune moment to actually get there, but that 5% number is bigger than it’s been in at least fourteen years. So I’m telling you there’s a chance, etc etc.
7. Firepower. This edition of the Leafs has more goals per game than any Leaf team since 1994, which was arguably the last season before the neutral zone trap emerged from the depths of hell and swallowed the human capacity for joy. The Leafs, I think, have a pretty plausible case for the deepest complete scoring lineup in the NHL, or at least, they’re running mighty close with Pittsburgh and Winnipeg. Whee!
8. PLAYOFFS. It’s felt like a foregone conclusion we’d make the playoffs for most of this year, but we spent a very long time not making them. It’s good to be here.
Why do you not love the Canucks?
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