Amazon Primes’ All or Nothing Maple Leafs moves through two episodes and some of the worst parts of the Maple Leafs season focusing more on the players and management than coaching. It gives the series less of a plot than it had in the first episode, but has more enjoyable moments — sort of like speed dating the non-core members of the team and management staff.
Downtime and Down and Out
Kyle Dubas with his son on the SBA ice is truly adorable. Justin Holl and Jake Muzzin on a golf date in Muzzin’s backyard is fun — largely because they make no effort to differentiate this bit from any other PR bit they’ve ever filmed. And John Tavares with his uncle John Tavares, the greatest lacrosse player ever in Canada, was a really interesting interlude about an athlete aging in his career.
Episode two is a compare and contrast with Jimmy Vesey and Ilya Mikheyev. It’s the tautology of player evaluation — if only they had more skill, they’d be better. Both players are presented as a problem of emotion, and the prevailing feeling is disappointment. Keefe is disappointed in Vesey, and Mikheyev is disappointed in his ice time.
You see Keefe try with Vesey, but he’s obviously checked out, and asks in the first conversation if Keefe is unhappy and he’ll be cut. You can take that as a read on Vesey’s character, or you can wonder about whatever came before all of that as Keefe played Vesey on the top lines while he continued to be Jimmy Vesey— a shooting percentage on skates.
There’s a clue in the later scenes around the arrival of Alex Galchenyuk, that points to Dubas as the man who doesn’t want a player who has offensive skill and nothing else put on the bottom six to fail. He doesn’t want Keefe to put Galchenyuk in the mix right away and have him fizzled as he’s done everywhere else. Of course, this scene happens in front of the whiteboard in the little meeting room that has sprouted a few new props, but still looks like the stage set for a community theatre production of Murder in the Arena, so it could be just more PR staging.
Keefe asks Vesey what he wants to be, and talks about skating or being a pest, and it was all a bit odd. Jimmy Vesey has never hid who he is, likely not even from himself. He has a shot, and he has consistently put in more goals than you’d expect, and the rest of the time he does nothing. He has no defence, he can’t add anything offensively to a top line, and every savvy fan in New York state could tell you this. It remains baffling, as this show tries to make this one about Vesey not caring, why the Leafs were ever confused when this leopard showed up covered in spots.
Mikheyev, and later Galchenyuk, are stories of players who care a great deal. They work very hard, they don’t make waves, and they are both, in their individual ways, very limited players who only have part of an offensive game, and not much else. We all get that, that’s what the Leafs are, a team that fills in the puzzle with pieces that are missing parts off of them, in the hope that the full picture produced by the core six to seven players is enough.
The show tells us how much these other two guys care that makes them succeed. And yet, the viewer lives in a world where Galchenyuk took a PTO and hasn’t signed a contract yet, and Mikheyev wanted a trade in the summer. Vesey is also on a PTO, and none of them can care their way to being better.
Everyone Loves a Goalie Duel
All this caring and confidence and emotionalism is given full flight in the goalie-centric episode three where the saga of mismanaged injuries gets rewritten as a stirring tale of heart, ya gotta have heart. Campbell playing out a game after he’s torn his groin is celebrated, while Frederik Andersen slowly rehabbing is viewed stealthily by Dubas and Keefe through a window, while they seem disgruntled that Andersen is not better faster.
Andersen’s rehab is presented with eyebrows raised, and an air of, “uh-huh, sure, whatever,” whenever his status is discussed. We’re supposed to read something into this, some lack of emotional commitment to the team in Andersen, who can handily be interviewed while Danish in a way that fits with the theme of him as just not having the right affect for success.
The climax of the goalie tale is the triumphant return of Jack Campbell — spoiled a little by how bad he is occasionally. But the emotional heart of the goalie plotline is a scene after that game, you know the one, where the puck gets by Andersen off of Muzzin’s ass, Dermott’s pants, and the Leafs look like fools and lose. Like that’s new.
Keefe and Steve Briere, the goalie coach, re-enact our recap comments from that game complete with a “you gotta have one of those” and a “fuck off” - “fuck you” exchange, that should have got Keefe popped in the nose.
The alarming thing to me, having a long memory of mysticism instead of player evaluation being used to pick the playoff goalie rotation for the Marlies, is that if this is an accurate depiction of how Keefe views goaltending, then the process man with the long view turns into an angry, emo, blame the goalie fan when the team makes him looks bad. Looking bad is Briere’s concern. He doesn’t like how Andersen’s bad game and Keefe’s emotional outburst reflects on him.
Are You Sure You Want This Scene Left in?
That theme of entitlement inside the bubble of their own rarified world runs through the parts of these episodes where Covid is met head on. There is a montage of players discussing the situation that includes Robin Lehner’s tweet about being stuck in the hotel all the time. Dubas gives the team a talking to about how hard it is they can’t all golf. While I am sure they were all bored and in need of mental stimulation in their downtime, it’s hard not to picture someone who really had it tough watching that segment and throwing tomatoes at their television. Some of you, came to mind, those who had to go out to work, those who worked in health care.
Dubas is also upset about the scheduling and compares the Leafs health and safety to the recovering Vancouver Canucks in a way that is valid only if you forget about the state of health of those Canucks. Considering the Leafs go out and play like ass and lose to them, it’s not a surprise that’s not quite the part of that equation that is emphasized.
After all of this entitlement, emotionalism, the themes of compete and confidence and momentum, we see the team playing very badly. Keefe is struggling with what he sees (and I did at the time) as lack effort from the skaters, largely the forwards. He has a kick their ass coaching scene that will rub some people the wrong way. But while I would absolutely have complained to my boss over the “fuck off” bullshit, and the underlying dismissal in front of the rest of the staff of Briere’s expertise, the coach isn’t required to be nice all the time. These guys needed that kick in the ass. I don’t like Keefe, particularly in these episodes, but I agree with him most of the time.
While this show is focusing on the goalie melodrama that I remember living in real time in our comments — right down to glossing over Campbell’s bad games while becoming operatic in response to Andersen’s every move — Keefe is approaching the real meat of their problem time and time again. The Leafs can’t punch through offensively when they face a good defensive team. He comes right out and says it. [ominous foreshadowing music plays]
There is a team meeting where Jake Muzzin, when given the floor for some video analysis. He looks a little bland, like the laidback California life agreed with him, and you rarely see him angry or even elated in a game or presser. In this meeting, he reveals the sharp mind for the game he hides behind the placid exterior as he talks about the way the offensive unit applied pressure, the relentlessness they need to think of as the default way to play, and I wasn’t expecting to love Jake Muzzin more than anyone else in this show, but I do.
But again, this show leaves that plot line hanging, unresolved, unanswered. Murder in the Arena is never going to be solved.
Post Hockey Ergo Propter Foligno
The final drama of episode three is the trade deadline. The ground has been laid with a quick scene with Brandon Pridham where they admit the salary cap is a thing. Dubas laments Andersen’s mysterious injury, where he says they’ll be limited in what they can do at forward if they have to get a goalie at the deadline.
The deadline scenes are all about the trade for Nick Foligno, and the line that I’m sure will aggravate the susceptible is the one where Dubas says “whatever” and shrugs off having to add a pick to the deal. He doesn’t seem to try hard on this sweetener. The Leafs paid the going rate plus extra for Foligno, and Dubas says he doesn’t want to ever regret not giving up a fourth-round pick.
The sequence ends on the ominous note of Kristen Shiton accurately laying out the reality that whatever Dubas does at the deadline, however his moves seem to be the right choices, he will be judged on how the team performs in the playoffs.
And so it came to pass, and it never will matter that throwing in a fourth-round pick is fine, that late-round draft picks aren’t as valuable as fans think they are. No one will ever care that the need for Rittich precluded any player with a higher cap hit than the artfully reduced amount of Foligno’s. It will never matter that Taylor Hall didn’t seem to be the prescription for the cure as Dubas and Keefe saw the disease. All that matters is the outcome.
It’s a results business, as people like to say, even about the King and Crown Prince of the process.