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The Optimist/Pessimist Look At The Leafs

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Split personality analysis.

2019 NHL Draft - Round 2-7 Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

On occasion, I split my brain in two and have the halves argue about the Leafs. Now seemed like a good time for another occasion.

What Happened In The Playoffs

Optimist:

Pessimist: Say something.

Optimist:

Pessimist: Come on. Say something.

Optimist:

Pessimist: I promise to let you finish if you say something.

Optimist: Th—

Pessimist: THEY BLEW A 3-1 LEAD TO THE FUCKING HABS. THEY HAD THE EASIEST PATH THEY’LL EVER GET AGAINST THE OLDEST, MOST IMPORTANT RIVAL IN THE HISTORY OF THE FRANCHISE AND THEY PISSED IT AWAY LIKE BAD BEER AT A FRAT HOUSE. THEY MADE JOHN TAVARES—JOHN TAVARES WHO CHOSE THIS UNWORTHY FRANCHISE ABOVE ALL OTHERS, WHO CAME HOME, WHO BARELY ALLOWS HIMSELF TO HAVE EMOTIONS—THEY MADE JOHN TAVARES FIGHT LIKE HELL TO COME BACK FROM A FREAK INJURY ONLY TO WATCH AS HIS TEAM SHOWED ALL THE SCORING PROWESS OF THE BALD EUNUCH IN GAME OF THRONES EN ROUTE TO LOSING IN THE FIRST ROUND. THEY TOOK THE BEST OPPORTUNITY AND HANDED IT TO THEIR WORST ENEMY. I HATE THIS FUCKING TEAM.

Optimist:

Pessimist: All right, I think I’m good now.

Optimist: Look, no one’s going to deny that that loss was painful. It was unpleasant—

Pessimist: IT WAS MORE THAN UNPLEASANT

Optimist: —and we all wish it had gone differently. We wish John Tavares hadn’t gotten hurt on a freak play, that Nick Foligno and Riley Nash had been healthy, that Alex Galchenyuk hadn’t made the worst play at the worst moment in Game 5, that the offence hadn’t gone cold at the most important time. These things suck. But.

Pessimist: Let me check my notes. But they dominated in expected goals. They actually outscored Montreal. They had an uncharacteristically low shooting percentage at just the wrong time again. They had injuries, a thing no other team experiences. Gosh, it’s a miracle they show up for work in such adverse circumstances. I guess that explains why when Game 7 came, they didn’t.

Optimist: The temptation is going to be to overreact to another playoff loss. This team had great regular season numbers and lost in seven games by a hot goalie. That can happen to any team. Look at the Washington Capitals in 2010.

Pessimist: What is with this “playoffs don’t count” routine? We care about the playoffs. The playoffs are what we’re here for. Then when the team fails in the playoffs—this is 17 years and counting without a playoff win—we say, oh, small sample. What are we doing watching this sport if we care this much about a crapshoot?

Optimist: It’s not that it’s a total crapshoot, it’s that it’s noisy. Things can happen in seven games. If you had Team A and Team B with no names, and you looked at the series, you’d say the better team lost to a hot goalie.

Pessimist: Do the Leafs get to hide as Team A or Team B at this point? After all the money and hype and blown opportunities? No one is judging them for just one playoff loss. They’re judging them for five years of them. Is the most likely case that this is a really good team that just has the worst luck every spring? Or is it that there’s something genuinely wrong?

Optimist: As painful as it is? Yeah, it’s luck. Tavares getting hurt like that and Matthews and Marner going silent is not what you’d typically expect to happen, even if they do struggle against good defences. Sometimes bad outcomes happen to good teams. It’s painful to accept, and the lost opportunity against the Winnipeg Jets makes it harder. But it’s true...

The Core

Optimist: ...and Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan know it. They’re not panicking into a Marner trade—which, thank fucking God. He was fourth in the league in scoring this year. Trading Marner now would be the panic move to end all panic moves. After years begging for a player who genuinely, honest-to-God plays at the very highest level, we get one and we want to flip him off a couple of rough playoff games.

Pessimist: Two years in a row now. And be honest: has your eye test ever really convinced you he’s a superstar? Yes, yes, he produced really well with Tavares and Matthews, two players who I’m sure would never score a goal otherwise. He has great stats on lines with those guys, or when he was sheltered in a warm blanket with Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk. The fact remains he goes long stretches without seeming to do much, and when we really need him to do something, suddenly Mitch isn’t quite a $10.93M player anymore.

Optimist: That’s fuzzy memory and hurt feelings. He’s a fantastic player any way we can measure, and teams would line up around the block for him.

Pessimist: For him, maybe. For his contract? Because Mitch Marner has a bigger cap hit than all but six players on the planet, two of which are his regular centres. No one with a brain is saying Mitch Marner is bad. No one with a brain should say he’s worth that contract, either. And when the team fails again and again, mostly with Marner not doing much and also without most of the other players doing much—you face the reality. It’s one thing to have an overpaid superstar, or a player who isn’t quite a superstar. It’s another thing to pay a just-very-good playmaker as if he belongs in a pay grade with Hart Trophy contenders. That’s with a team that got no discount on Auston Matthews and paid full UFA rates for John Tavares. Toronto has doomed itself with these deals, and Marner’s is the most luxurious, flashiest, heaviest albatross of them all.

Optimist: Okay. Say he’s overpaid by a couple of million. Look at all the teams in the league that have $2M or more they’d rather not be paying. Do you think the Leafs are the only team with a contract a little more expensive than they’d like? Every team from Vegas and Colorado on down has bad money somewhere. Most of them aren’t giving it to anyone in Mitch Marner’s universe. Stop pissing and moaning over a bit of extra money and try not to throw away the 90-point winger because Carey Price played well for a few games.

Pessimist: The definition of insanity—

Optimist: Is to overuse that stupid quote about doing the same thing for different results. If you roll a die once and it shows a five, you don’t assume it says five on every side, even though rolling it again is the same action. The result this year combined bad luck, bad timing and even more bad luck and it stings. If one bounce had gone the other way in overtime—either overtime—you wouldn’t be thinking about trading Mitch Marner for pennies on the eleven million dollars. You’d be waiting for Game 1 of Round 3.

Pessimist: This is it again. The playoffs matter, or they don’t. If they matter, where’s the evidence this team is remotely good enough at them?

The Outlook

Pessimist: But Kyle Dubas agrees with you. He believes in this core, probably because he’s responsible for its oversized cap hit, and he’s going to run it back. The team has no first-round pick, a couple of decent prospects it won’t trade, and limited cap space. How does next year’s team look any better than this one?

Optimist: Nick Robertson and Rasmus Sandin will come in, for one thing.

Pessimist: Are we ever going to stop talking about Robertson and Sandin like they’re magicians? They’re pretty decent prospects. Robertson was not NHL-ready this year. Sandin looked, to put in charitably, uneven in the playoffs. There is no universe where these two are walking in and changing the makeup. Not in a way that compensates for the loss of Zach Hyman or Alex Kerfoot or Travis Dermott or whoever else. Oh, and the Leafs are going back to a division with Tampa Bay and Boston and Florida in it, replacing all those joke teams from Western Canada.

Optimist: They’ve also been a playoff team—or good enough to be one—every year since drafting Matthews, even in that division. They even broke 100 points in it a couple of years back. This team has been consistently good, and it’s going through the battle-testing process to become great. It’s painful. Lots of teams lose painfully before they win. But it’s a process.

Pessimist: For plenty of teams, it’s not a process. It’s a result. Lots of losers just keep losing.

Optimist: Writing off a team whose best players are 23-25 seems really dumb. The Leafs had some cold shooting and a couple of bad nights in May. That doesn’t erase years where they were really good, or even a season where they were, really, very good. The powerplay is likely to be better because there’s no reason for it to be this bad, and we have several years of good Toronto power plays to trust in the talent. And more than that: the Leafs have a better idea what it takes to succeed in the playoffs. They will be better next year, because they’ve gone through this.

Pessimist: We sure keep racking up learning experiences, don’t we? Once the Leafs have finally lost in every possible way in 2035, then we’ll finally be ready to contend!

This is not a team that has the luxury of living in the future anymore. John Tavares is turning 31. T.J. Brodie already is. Jake Muzzin is 32 and the team has repeatedly struggled without him in big games due to injury. Matthews and Marner should be at or near their peaks by now. The simple reality is that this core had the easiest playoff path it ever will, and it showed itself inadequate. That’s a bad sign for lost opportunities and a bad sign for the core. There’s not really much else to say.

Optimist: You’ll be back in September, though.

Pessimist: I will, sure. But I’m not going to be very excited for anything this team does in the regular season. And neither will you.

Optimist: My character is actually explicitly written so that I’m going to be excited.

Pessimist: I hate you.