Fall is in the air, and the Leaf season is on the horizon. Honestly, I probably don’t need to do an intro paragraph that runs longer than two sentences for a grab bag article, let’s go.
1. Over to you, Mike. Analogies between war and sports are mostly macho bullshit, but there’s one angle on the comparison that I think holds: like generals, sooner or later coaches have to win. As much as you might complain about odds and bad luck and so on, sooner or later, you win or you get fired. (Mike Babcock also can’t choose to play the Columbus Blue Jackets somewhere he’s entrenched on high ground. But y’know.)
In the four years under Mike Babcock as coach, the Leafs have finished last once and then gotten knocked out in the first round three straight years. I think he’s done a good job—good as distinct from perfect—but after a certain point that no longer really matters. Even for a process-focused GM like Kyle Dubas, sooner or later, you have to start winning playoff series. Going into Year 5 of the Babcontract I think we’re there.
2. What exactly is going on with Jake Gardiner? We’re into September and at time of writing, Jake Gardiner hasn’t signed with anybody. There are rumours that he wants to re-sign with Toronto. I a) want this very much and b) have no idea how the money would work.
Maybe at this point Gardiner is taking a one-year deal at a huge discount. Maybe the market was too thin due to his back injuries. But: a player who was one of the best two defenceman on a 100-point team really ought to be able to pull decent money on a one- or two-year deal. He’d make perfect sense for plenty of teams, like the Habs [vomits].
And still he’s unsigned. At this point, he wouldn’t be waiting around unless he knew something, right? As much as you love the city and the team, you don’t wait this long to go grab a few million somewhere else, especially when the Leafs aren’t capable of giving you anything like your market value without a trade. Unless there’s a handshake deal for an extension come January.
3. Cody Ceci is going to play and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. I wrote him up here. The short version is that he can’t be in a worse situation than he was in Ottawa and you’d expect him to improve just because he is no longer being chained up underwater like Hugh Jackman in The Prestige. But his results were very, very rough.
The Leafs are convinced they can fix Ceci into something viable. I’m hopeful they can elevate his play to something not-awful, because he’s probably he’s going to spend some time in the Top Four and Leafs Twitter is gonna implode.
4. If Auston Matthews can play 82 games he will contend for the Rocket Richard. This is obvious enough. I just wanted to say it.
5. Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if we just had the same top three in the Atlantic again? No? The Leafs, Bruins, and Lightning all have at least one major RFA unsigned, but otherwise they’re all still a lot like they were. The Bolts added Pat Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk on one-year deals I’d expect them to outperform, which will help cushion some of the loss of J.T. Miller and a regressing shooting percentage. The Bruins are basically the same and while Zdeno Chara is more washed than anyone seems to acknowledge, they still have the best top line in hockey. It would shock no one for them to go 1-2 in the Atlantic this year. And...
6. Did the Leafs get any better? I...don’t know. Kadri is a real loss, and so is Gardiner, at time of writing. If Kerfoot can fill Naz’s skates, that goes a long way, and Tyson Barrie is the best RHD the Leafs have had in at least twenty years. And there’s the possibility of internal improvement from Matthews and Marner, and the fact Nylander is almost certainly going to have a better year. The Leafs also ought to have improved at 4C, whether it’s Jason Spezza or Nick Shore who wins the job.
But is the team better? If I were guessing, I’d say they narrowly are, but they’re still on track for third in the Atlantic. The best argument against the dumb divisional playoff structure is that it feeds us the same thing year-in, year-out. Sooner or later the Leafs either have to get lucky in a draw or they have to slay the dragon.
7. Steady contention. There are three genuinely fun types of seasons, in my opinion:
a) The one where your team begins dynamiting the whole thing and you get to laugh in the overdue wreckage
b) The one where your team suddenly zooms ahead to exceed expectations and makes the playoffs
c) The one where you win a Cup
We’ve had a) and b) and now it’s a matter of hoping for c). That means the regular season can feel anticlimactic or worse, irrelevant, because all we’re thinking of is what happens in April. As well we should.
It’s worth remembering that these Leaf teams have still provided us with great hockey the last few years, with higher-quality offence than we’ve ever had and some of the best players in franchise history, who are still getting better. As much as we’re keeping our eyes on the prize, let’s not forget the truly great thing about hockey: it gives us something to do during the months of the year where this fucking country is too cold to do anything else.
Go Leafs Go.