Every now and then I let the two sides of my personality duke it out over the Leafs. So here we go.
Optimist: We’re #1 (at time of writing!) We’re #1 (at time of writing!)
Pessimist: Whoop de doo. The Leafs can win one-quarter of the Presidents’ Trophy. It’s the true test of merit!
Optimist: What more are they supposed to do? They can’t win the Cup in November.
Pessimist: They’re supposed to look like they can win it in June, and does anyone in their right minds believe that? They’re a slightly above average shots team and a slightly above average expected goals team. Hooray.
Optimist: There are other metrics that have the Leafs as a top-three team.
Pessimist: Behind Carolina and Minnesota. Come on, no one believes this. The reality is that the Leafs are a slightly above-average team that’s going to face Boston in Round One and lose in seven games again. They’re in the toughest division in hockey and that’s going to doom them. That, and you can’t win with this defence.
Optimist: You realize Morgan Rielly is probably going to contend for the Norris, right?
Pessimist: Because he gets points. Our defence is a tire fire. This is still a bottom-five team in Corsi Against rate.
Optimist: And it’s top five in goals against. They’re limiting chances. They have a great goaltender. Stop expecting them to be the Lemaire Devils and accept that they’re a really good team in their own way. They’ve been without Auston Matthews for nine games now, and they’re still winning. Wait till he comes back.
Pessimist: Oh, yeah. Because he’ll be just the same, right? You don’t need shoulders to shoot in hockey. You do realize our golden boy is on the way to becoming Eric Lindros, right? He’s going to play 57 games a year and we’re going to get all excited when he flashes glimpses of what he should have been, and then he’ll get injured again.
Optimist: Because he’s been injured a couple of times in his life? Do you go Chicken Little when you get a hangnail in the morning? He’s missing a month in the least important stretch of the year and what we’ve seen of him this year has shown he’s close to the best goal-scorer in the NHL. That’s pretty good. I like that, I think.
Pessimist: Keep telling yourself that. Oh, and by the way: his running mate ain’t never coming back.
Optimist: I don’t think William Nylander is going to throw away his whole year.
Pessimist: You didn’t think he’d still be holding out in mid-November, did you? The situation’s all going to shit. The dream of the Leafs’ Big Four forwards is dead. They’re never going to play a game together.
Optimist: Even if that’s the case—it isn’t—Marner and Tavares are both on pace to break 100 points.
Pessimist: John Tavares and his right-wing-du-jour can put up inflated counting stats and lead their team to precisely dick-all. Ask the Islanders.
Optimist: Actually, leading the league in goals for is bad, I guess?
Pessimist: It’ll be less fun when Marner wants $10M a year and we get to go through the Nylander holdout again. This team is poised to score a bunch, get increasingly top-heavy and capped out, and to never get out of the Atlantic in the playoffs. Enjoy it. There’s your Leaf dynasty.
Optimist: There is not a team in the NHL better-positioned to contend in the next five years than Toronto. Nashville doesn’t have the forwards, Tampa is about to go to cap hell, everyone on San Jose is a thousand years old. I wouldn’t trade places with anyone. That’s just reality.
Pessimist: I’m sure we’re the envy of the NHL. Who wouldn’t want to continually get dunked on by the Bruins? Truly we are the chosen people.
Optimist: Anything can happen. But this is an incredibly promising start. Kasperi Kapanen and Travis Dermott have shown themselves to be legitimate NHL contributors who are poised to rise in the lineup. And again, this team can add two first-line talents in the next two weeks. The Atlantic and the League should be shaking in their boots.
Pessimist: The most Leafs fan thing ever is to get haughty about a middle-six winger on a shooting run and a third-pair defenceman. Other teams have good players too, you know. And the fact remains the Leafs’ right side D is as bad as any team that pretends to call itself a contender. Here, let’s play a game of “Which One Doesn’t Belong?” Subban/Ellis, Karlsson/Burns, Stralman/Sergachev, Trouba/Byfuglien, HAINSEY-ZAITSEV?
Optimist: The Bolts are actually playing Dan Girardi at 1RD right now.
Pessimist: Hahaha holy shit, really?
Optimist: Honest to God.
Pessimist: That’s ridiculous.
Optimist: I know, right? But also, the point is that no team is flawless. The Leafs are 3-0 in their games this year against those four teams, though they haven’t played Tampa or Nashville yet. No team is perfect or a prohibitive favourite in the modern NHL, and if you’re waiting for the Leafs to become that, you’ll be waiting forever. But they’re a legitimate contender.
Pessimist: Do they hang banners for “legitimate contender”?
Optimist: Oh, every now and then.
Pessimist: I mean like, I guess Nashville does it?
Optimist: No, you goon. The point is once you get into the contending tier, you have a chance, and that’s all you can ask for.
Pessimist: Is it? Is this all we can ask for? For our wonderboy GM to fumble away a star RW in an RFA negotiation, the way no other GM has done? For us to play the Cryptkeeper on our top pair while our 2RD tries to set some perverse record in flip-pass icings? For our supposedly brilliant coach to show little-to-no progress in teaching this team something approximating a competent NHL defensive system?
Optimist: THE SYSTEM
Optimist: OMG THE SYSTEM
Pessimist: Just hang on a—
Optimist: I CAN’T SLEEP AT NIGHT I’M SO UPSET ABOUT THE SYSTEM
Pessimist: Shut up.
Optimist: What in the sweet blessed hell does Mike Babcock have to do to get some credit around here? He’s built a team that’s leading the league in goal differential! He’s giving ice time to Travis Dermott and scaling up his responsibilities. He’s playing Josh Leivo for Christ’s sake. He’s winning despite being down two of his biggest weapons and, after years of disproportionate griping, he’s put together a third pair and a fourth line that dominate on the shot clock. And yet because not everything is exactly goddamn tickety-boo in Leaf land half of the nerds on Twitter want to fire him and replace him with a Speak-and-Spell machine that reads off a spreadsheet. This is ridiculous.
Pessimist: The team is treading water in shots, still! They did that the year they finished last.
Optimist: Yeah, and do you think those shots are the same quality as they were when our top RW was P.A. Parenteau? Yes, if you want to keep letting the perfect be the enemy of the great, you can make yourself miserable watching the best Leafs team since expansion. Or you can enjoy that now more than ever in our lifetimes the Leafs have a real, honest to God Cup chance.
Pessimist: Yeah I think I’m going to keep doing the first thing.
Optimist: You’re a real downer, dude.
How would you rate the Leafs’ season so far?