That's so weird, I know. You're not supposed to. You're supposed to hate them or be bitter about them or jaded or resigned to them being so Leafy ha ha. You're not supposed to just like them.
I liked them when Mike Babcock was coach, and they played a more open style offensively that suited the players they had. I liked them most of the time since Sheldon Keefe has been coach as they got good goalies who weren't injured occasionally and their defensive execution improved by about 1000%.
The only time I really didn't like them was right after the loss to Montréal in the playoffs because that was one long protracted unforced error.
I really liked the Leafs when they gave me that moment against Tampa when I could feel that they had enough to win, and they did win. I liked them when they took the face-saving win from Florida and avoided the sweep. They were beat. They were beat in Game 2 when they collectively – as a team all of them not one guy or one player or four players – had no answers for Florida's brand of hard-core chaos and hot goalie substituting for defence.
I unexpectedly liked Luke Schenn, likely because I have no baggage from the past associated with him. I loved Noel Acciari. I like the guys who really work hard, who never stop working. For some weird reason hockey lore (aka the bullshit masculinist stereotypes commentary trades in) has it that work ethic, and a commitment to play the game full-on exists in opposition to skill. That the more skilled a person is the more lazy they are.
I actually know where this nonsense comes from. It's largely the propaganda of the British class struggle that the working man is stupid and should not be educated, that the upper classes are smart and should not get their hands dirty. It's one of the many amazing things about modern life that a relic of 18th century British industrialization is parroted so comfortably by Canadians in the 21st century who are Marxists online.
You know who is the man I think of first in hockey when you talk about hard work, dedication, commitment, giving his all every game? Well, actually Patrice Bergeron, but the other guy plays for Kyle Dubas.
So, is that Auston Matthews? Is that Mitch Marner? Is that William Nylander, or do these kids today just not understand commitment and how hard it is like they did in the olden days when Bergeron and Crosby were at their peak? The "kids today just don't try" is even older bullshit than these stupid class distinctions that plague me in the discourse. The kids today have played more hockey, been to more practices, worked on more skills, put more of their young lives into the sport by the time they are drafted than even Crosby did wailing pucks at the dryer door in his basement.
Have none of you heard the stories about Mario Lemieux stubbing out cigarettes on the ice before he'd do 10 minutes of shooting drills before he quit for the day? Have none of you ever heard the lore of Brett Hull, the man who really did coast on his shot and nothing else?
It is extraordinarily weird to constantly hear the Leafs, or the hot young stars on other teams, called lazy. The kids today really don't understand something, though. Same as the kids of any day. Time is finite. You do seem to have to get to a certain age to really know that. I could make you a narrative right now about how Dubas's problem is he's just too young to feel the cold breath of the grave on the back of his neck, and to understand he has to hurry. I could tell you that Brad Treliving doesn't have toddlers, he's got two daughters who are about to launch into the world as adults – the same age as all those hockey players you call kids. He knows time is short.
That's called fiction, technically fanfiction, since it's made out of scraps of a canon of an existing story and I didn't make up the characters. If you start taking it too seriously you are said to believe in your head-canon. For whatever reason, the head-canon believed by so many is that the Leafs are bad, should feel bad, are lazy only care about money and if only they loved us more, they'd win. Oh, and they won't check and only play on the perimeter.
Which is a little whiney when you lay it out like that, isn't it? I see the players on the Leafs as too dedicated, too professional, too committed to fit this narrative. I called this tone of disapproval being the square dad from a Gidget movie the other day and three people over 55 got the joke. But there is a desire to run down the players in very specific ways, and it's really hard not to hear it as generational jealousy.
The Leafs are good guys. Extremely talented players, and not one of them is in the NHL by default. They work hard, they play a smart game. They have amazing skills. A lot of them are paid less than they could get at market rate, and all the talk about the big four salaries ruining the team is bunkum, absolute bunkum. Auston Matthews is going to be the highest paid player by AAV in the NHL in the not too distant future, and that's not because he's bad or evil or greedy or cashing in before anyone notices he can't play. It's because inflation is a real thing no one seems to grasp. The salary cap is going up (massively), salaries have not flattened out while the cap was flat. They will rise even more. He is not taking a pay cut, he is getting a raise. You want stars in the NHL? This is how stars act. Oh, sorry, you only want players to say incendiary things about Gary Bettman, not actually get paid. Tough.
The Ottawa Senators are going to be sold for ~$1 billion. Your meme about Bettman running the NHL into the ground, no one watching on TV, the revenue drying up, tickets going unsold, and everything is so, so bad is also absolute and total bullsh, er fanfiction with unrealistic characterization and unpleasant, possibly subconscious, stereotypes.
The Leafs might choose, and I'm going to say this really loudly, CHOOSE to trade a high-salary player to rearrange their cap structure under Treliving. They will not be forced to. They aren't, for the eighteenth millionth time, stupid or unable to do addition. They are not going to trade away a player as punishment. Players, by the way, are not traded just because a team hates them and wants to dispose of them. The Leafs aren't making emotional decisions. There's going to be a whole bunch of new players added. New contracts signed at the very least. There is wide open opportunity for new faces on the Leafs.
Is it frustrating that the Leafs get to be beat by the Stanley Cup Finalist over and over? Would life be easier in a different division? Wouldn't it be better is there was no cap and also magically the NHL isn't just 8 teams with a total salary of $20 million, and the Leafs could win every year? Wouldn't it be neat if the Leafs were the only hockey team, and they just got a new ring on the Cup by wrote each summer. I don't pine for hollow victories.
Kyle Dubas has had a lot of influence on my thinking about hockey. I think he's one of the smartest guys in the sport. He's not some lone genius without parallel, but he brought a process mindset from business to hockey. He professionalized the Leafs just as much as Lou Lamoriello did. And he never stopped building the Leafs. Brad Treliving is going to keep building the Leafs.
The Toronto Maple Leafs that lost in the second round of the 2023 playoffs are the best team Toronto have put on the ice in the modern hockey era. They are an organization with an ongoing process to build the best infrastructure, find the best players, get them in positions to succeed and to keep working to make the team better and better.
Someone said in a comment that most GMs are fired after they make a bunch of desperation moves and leave the team with big problems: the Flyers, the Penguins, the Canucks, the Oilers 75 million times, the Panthers a few years back – they all are guilty. The Leafs haven't done that. They aren't about to do that, and that's one of the biggest reasons why they're so easy to nitpick and fuss over. There are no big problems. They are not a bad team, and people who claim they are bad are either interested only in a particular style of hockey the Leafs don't play or they just know all the words to woe is me, my team is so bad, no one knows the troubles I've seen (except for how I won't stop banging on about it).
This is a good team. And I'll grant you it's too bad they weren't the best team in the NHL this year, so they'd win the Cup next year, but that's how it goes, you keep working the process and building.
Actions not Words.