New season, new scattered musings.

  1. Tolerate the process.  There’s a decent chance this will be obsolete by publication, but if it isn’t: the Nylander negotiation is a process and it’s ongoing.  That process involves pretty standard bargaining tactics, including “opening at a higher number than you expect to get” and “pushing closer to the deadline in order to put pressure on the other side.”  This is business.  You don’t have to enjoy it by any means; it’s not fun waiting around for contract details.  But it’s not unprecedented.

At the same time, fans are starting to get mad at Nylander for, uh, trying to earn money at his job.  I get it.  We cheer for laundry, as the saying goes, and it would be convenient for our chosen brand of blue and white clothing if Nylander would sign for term at a steep discount.  At the same time, the chatter around the deal is bananas.  William should be grateful to play a sport at which he’s pretty definitely one of the top 100 players on Earth.  He should sign a hometown discount for Toronto because, well, we like it here and he should too.  He should sign for cheap because he hasn’t proved anything in the playoffs (Nylander has more playoff points in the same number of games than Auston Matthews, who I assume therefore deserves to make $3M a year or something.)  He’s a wimp, so I’m told.  He should voluntarily take less money, a thing I’m sure all of us would be excited to do at our jobs.  He makes millions so he should take whatever the organization feels like giving him.  The fact that the organization could light Nylander’s annual salary on fire tomorrow and not blink doesn’t seem to enter into this.

Nylander is in a system that artificially limits salaries in general, both through the salary cap and the HRR agreement, and that limits his salary further by heavily restricting his bargaining rights as an RFA.  It commits him to a team that claimed him four years ago.  And if you still want to insist on player loyalty to the team, say Nylander takes a hometown discount and the next day the Predators offer to trade PK Subban for him.  How long do you think Kyle Dubas would sit and ponder that before accepting?  Ask DeMar DeRozan how far player loyalty goes when there’s a winning trade on the table.

None of this means you have to think William Nylander deserves $7M a year in some global sense, or again, that you have to like this.  I hope he signs and it’s not a wild overpay.  But William and his agent are exercising just about the only leverage he has in a system that mostly doesn’t give him any.  If your attitude to the Kessel trade or letting JVR go was “that’s business”, well, yeah.  This is business.  Don’t take it personally.

2. Psych with Mike.  Now that I’ve gotten my lefty ranting out of the way, let’s move to our coach’s ranting about a couple of left shooters.  Mike Babcock indicated that Andreas Johnsson and Travis Dermott need to “win a job”  in camp; they weren’t just going to get handed one on arrival.  There was some disquiet about this; Johnsson and Dermott are two of our most exciting young players.

Mike Babcock has been an NHL coach for a long time, and further to that, he is always coaching.  If you listen to his quotes, he’s almost always trying to motivate his players.  He’s reapportioning credit to the players he feels are undervalued (see: Zach Hyman and Connor Brown).  He’s giving a push to players he thinks need it, as above.  He’s complimenting the guys on the fringes to encourage them (he did this with Miro Aaltonen and Calle Rosen last year; you might have thought those two were locks for an NHL job if you listened to him.)

I’m not sure where Andreas Johnsson fits in the lineup (3LW vs 4LW), but he’s going to play if he isn’t injured.  Ditto Travis Dermott.  The Leafs do not have enough good young defencemen to sit him.  Babcock wants the two of them to earn it, and they will, but this is his usual style.

3. Jitch Tavarner! I’m pretty convinced John Tavares and Mitch Marner are going to annihilate the NHL this season.  Like, this is going to be mean.  They’re going to do bad things to unsuspecting goalies and laugh gleefully/stare expressionlessly on the bench after.  You could probably have guessed this just seeing the two names on the line together, but Jesus lord that is an unfair accumulation of talent on what is nominally a second line.  Holy sweet Maria.

4. I think Pierre Dorion may have sinned in a past life and this is his personal hell

5. The defence logjam.  I think the 3RD is going to be Connor Carrick, but Babcock doesn’t especially seem to trust him, and my lord are there a lot of options for that job.  Andreas Borgman can bash, Calle Rosen can skate, Justin Holl can confidently project to an 82-goal season, Martin Marincin can capture the hearts of nerds everywhere with his Corsi.  So many options!

The thing here is that Ron Hainsey is getting up there in years and playing 195 shorthanded minutes a night seems like it might kill him before long.  The ideal would be for Travis Dermott to step up and play on his off side, but that doesn’t seem imminent.  Is there some sort of new possibility for the defence?  Can somebody play with Nikita Zaitsev and bring him to greater heights?  Could we even see the Rielly-Gardiner pair?

The reality is the Leafs will likely start with Rielly-Hainsey, Gardiner-Zaitsev, and Dermott-Carrick.  But if that doesn’t impress early, and Mike Babcock decided to start experimenting, he’s going to have one hell of a lot of options.

(whispering) Marmar will rise again

6. Odds.  In some quarters the Leafs are the betting favourite to win the Stanley Cup.  This is heady air (the Leafs were that for a brief period last season too, it’s worth noting.)  Betting odds, as people will tell you, are meant to drive betting traffic as much as they are to reflect actual chances.  Even a mug like me knows this doesn’t necessarily mean the sharp folks think the Leafs are the best team in the NHL.

How far back are they, though?

I think Tampa Bay is definitely the best team in the NHL.  After that I think there’s a tier of teams including Winnipeg, Nashville, and yeah, Toronto.  The Leafs have never in my lifetime been the best team in the NHL; this is the first time in over fifteen years they’ve been even close to being the second-best team.  It’s too bad we share a division with Tampa and Boston, but that said—the best team does not always win the Stanley Cup.  I don’t think Washington was as good a team last season as we have it in us to be this year.  So I don’t think we’re favourites.  But we have a chance.  That’s pretty great.

7. The True Test of Merit.  Every year at least a couple of teams get absolutely crushed by injuries or bad goaltending (the second one is always the Carolina Hurricanes).  I really hope those things don’t happen to us (aggressively knocking on wood). Beyond that, there’s really no reason for the Leafs to miss the playoffs.

Seeding still matters—the idea of avoiding the Bolts and Bruins in Round One is very appealing—but the fact remains that this Leafs season is going to be defined by what happens in April and there’s some prospect of the preceding months feeling like a whole lot of foreplay.  Toronto was locked into the third seed after January last year, and things were a bit dull once the fear of 18-wheelers abated.

The reality, though: we have the chance this year to watch the best forward group the Leafs have iced since at least the Original Six era.  We have, hopefully, the chance to watch Mike Babcock hone that lineup into a killing machine.  And by the grace of God there will be nights where we just absolutely torch the hapless defences in Ottawa, Montreal and Buffalo.  That’s pretty great, and in the darkest days last decade we’d have killed just for that.  We’re all hoping for a long playoff run, but this season should hopefully give us a lot to get excited about on its own.

8. Pod stuff.  If you haven’t heard, my colleague Arvind and I do a podcast called Back to Excited where we talk about the Leafs and make fun of Rasmus Ristolainen.  After a year-plus of going on a biweekly basis, we’re going to weekly podcasts for the regular season.  If you’re looking for some hockey nerd chatter to fill your commute, give us a whirl on here on Soundcloud or look us up on iTunes.  Thanks to everyone who’s been listening to us so far, we really appreciate it.