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Leafs Nihilism

Nothing matters!

2022 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic - Toronto Maple Leafs v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Imagine your dad is a failed comedian. He comes and goes, disappears to go do standup at places named The Chuckling Beaver for weeks at a time, and he routinely flakes on promises to take you to baseball or Chuck-E-Cheese. Whenever he’s confronted with yet another of his myriad broken promises, he feigns surprise and tells you that he was just kidding. It wasn’t a promise; it was a joke.

It’s your birthday in May. Dad says he’s going to take you to Wonderland.

Are you going to circle the date on the calendar?

Christmas Is Cancelled

The drift of the little pop-psych intro up there—for the record, my dad was always great about putting in fatherhood time and to my knowledge never tried an open mic—is to get at why this Leafs season is such a fuckin’ drag, man.

I feel it. You feel it. We all feel it. No one is skipping merrily towards the television to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs by now; they’ve been conditioned by perpetual disappointment. There are two fates in hockey that extinguish joy like this: playoff failure and bad goaltending. The current misfortune of Leaf fans is that they both loom over Toronto at once.

Playoff failure is, obviously, the premiere source of despair. An eminently forgivable loss to the Washington Capitals gave way to bitter, hard-fought losses to Boston, which gave way to comically stupid defeats at the hands of Columbus and Montreal. Even this year I’ve seen people lamenting that Leaf fans just can’t appreciate The Best Team In Our Lifetime*, as if there’s supposed to be no impact whatever from the team having gotten eliminated in the first series they played five years running.

*If you were born in the 20th century, they’re not.

Playoff defeats are bad enough, in that they invalidate months of play in a matter of days. Goaltending mimics that experience on the micro level: periods of good play can get wiped out in seconds. Jack Campbell and Petr Mrázek have been—there’s no delicate way to say this—absolutely awful for the last two months.

Yes, the Leafs are defensively imperfect, because we always have to acknowledge that, but come on. You could make clones of Nik Lidstrom and Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer and Bobby Orr, raise them from childhood, have them play as the top four on the Clone High Hockey Team, and then plop them on the Leafs defence at the ripe age of 24, and they wouldn’t be able to win a goddamn thing if Campbell and Mrázek keep letting pucks leak through. No defence group can allow zero shots.

Just Kidding

What’s sad (or, if you’re one of the many non-Leaf fans, funny) is that this is all happening in what is probably the greatest individual season by a Toronto Maple Leaf since expansion. Maybe ever. Auston Matthews is legitimately worthy of the Hart Trophy; at the least, he’s in a dead heat with Connor McDavid and Igor Shesterkin for it. The last time a Leaf won MVP was 1955. Matthews is in the process of running away with the Rocket Richard while playing strong defence, a very rare combination. And...

...so what?

It’s not fair, but that’s where we are. There have been too many just-kiddings at the end now. Too much confetti that turned to ashes as the team tripped over its own skates. With the goaltending the way it is the Leafs aren’t going to beat anyone. The hope is that two NHL goalies with decent track records just can’t keep being this bad for long, and that seems to have been Kyle Dubas’ thinking. But with the trade deadline staring him in the face, he’s got to be feeling pressure to try and preserve what chance this team has.

Here We Go Again

I don’t know anyone who’s really got their hopes up for this team. I know some people who resolutely insist that nothing is a big deal and the team is good in the macro picture, and even those that quote the point pace as if anyone gives a shit. I know a lot of people who are anxious for Kyle Dubas to do something, anything to fix the goaltending, because if they have to watch Petr Mrázek go swimming in Lake Faceoff Circle another time they might just snap entirely.

And there are people doing what you might expect: tune out. Maybe you’ll see what happens in May, but living or dying over this team in the season feels silly when any success seems ephemeral and every collapse seems inevitable. I’ve missed more games this year than any since Randy Carlyle was fired, and while I still watch most of them, I can’t say it’s with great enthusiasm.

There’s no moral to the story here, no recommendation for what Kyle Dubas should or must do. I thought his plan of platooning two decent goalies made sense, and the fact both of those goalies have simultaneously imploded doesn’t mean he should have foreseen this or cleared cap to pick up Marc-Andre Fleury. (There was a sizeable Toronto contingent in mid-November that would have voted Jack Campbell for mayor. Things change fast.) It’s just an acknowledgement of where I think a lot of Leaf fans are at: Toronto has a talented team that is too much trouble to get invested in. There hasn’t been enough payoff; too few memorable moments to compensate for the disappointments, too much collective failure outweighing individual accomplishments. The team will still sell tickets at prices ordinary people can’t afford, and they’ll still draw audiences for a long time to come.

The reality, though, is that after so many letdowns, people stop caring so much. See you when we see you, Leafs.