Ah, September. The air is a little cooler, the kids are back in class, and people are having dumb arguments about pumpkin spice lattes. And I can feel my Leafs fan split personality rise to the surface.
Optimist: [cackling maniacally]
Pessimist: Well aren’t you awfully chipper this morning.
Optimist: I’m always chipper. It’s my sole character trait.
Pessimist: [rolls eyes]
Optimist: Is there a forward group in the league that will outscore this one? Literally one? The Leafs were the #2 team in the NHL in adjusted CF60 last year, and #2 in scoring chances for. They were already a machine gun offence, and it’s only getting better. Their best players are all aging towards their peak, instead of away from it. Auston Matthews is about to turn 20. Sidney Crosby just turned 30. The world is ours. And that’s without considering—
Pessimist: —speaking of guys aging away from their peak—
Optimist: PATRICK MARLEAU. Yes, he’s 38. He still scored 27 goals last year, and he’s got 508 of them in his career. He’s still got blazing speed and finish like a fine wood table. Spare me your whining about what the cap hit will be in 2020 (cough, he isn’t going to play that long, cough.) Look at the lineup now. There are three lines that can score like first lines.
Pessimist: Yes, look at the lineup now. Look at it and tell me who sits.
Optimist: We have the best forward depth in the league—
Pessimist: Bit early in the day for you to start drinking, isn’t it?
Optimist: —which means that not everyone gets as much ice as they would on a bad team. It’s called “being good.”
Pessimist: It’s called “Mike Babcock is going to overplay Hyman, Komarov, and Martin.” That dazzling offence is going to flag a little when Old Man Bobcat is giving 45 minutes a night to three guys who aren’t going to hit 30 points. Don’t worry, though, it’s important we have them, because allegedly they’re making up for our atrocious defensive flaws.
Optimist: Each of those guys brings something important.
Pessimist: Hyman digs the puck out but can’t put it in; Komarov gets power play minutes he doesn’t know what to do with; Martin lets fans who still think it’s 1974 believe in the fairy tale that he’s protecting our precious children. Stone Hands, No Goals and Tiger Rock! These are guys taking up wing spots. Sadly we don’t have room for Kasperi Kapanen, though. Just can’t make the space.
Optimist: Whoop-dee-do. They scored goals in bunches last year, whatever you think about how they did it. Hockey’s a goal-scoring competition.
Pessimist: Swing and a miss, sunshine. Hockey is an outscoring your opponent competition. And—oh, would you look at that? The Leafs were bottom quartile in shots and goals against. It’s amazing that Leafs fans can go full rapture on how talented their team is without noticing that said team made the playoffs by one point. If they were better they’d have done better, and where they weren’t better was in keeping the puck out. Some of that falls on the golden children, by the way.
Optimist: The golden children were the best group of rookies in decades, and you’re knocking them for not being better? Of course they’re going to improve. Defence is something learned and something being taught. Add Marleau to that group and they unquestionably have enough scoring talent; expect a modest improvement and they’re more than good enough to lead this team to contention.
Pessimist: What if they don’t improve but regress? Sophomore slumps aren’t unheard of, and guys like Auston Mathews and Connor Brown had mighty high shooting percentages.
Optimist: Because they got reams of scoring chances. And unless Hyman and Nylander keep shooting very poorly 5v5, you can expect regression to help us as much as it hurts us. This is an A+ forward group. No getting past it.
Pessimist: Getting past it is what opposing teams will do on their way to the Leafs’ zone. Speaking of which!
Pessimist: The Leafs put up a sieve of a defence group last year and added....Ron Hainsey. Who is approximately one billion years old.
Optimist: Who was an effective contributor on a Cup-winning defence and who played well for Carolina prior to that. Not every acquisition is going to be a unicorn 1D; look at him for the upgrade he actually is.
Pessimist: Oh, I’m very excited for him to tread water on the second pairing with Morgan “Shots Against” Rielly. Meanwhile Jake Gardiner (who only thrived in soft competition) and Nikita Zaitsev (who got killed in tough competition) are going to team up to...oh, I don’t know, I wonder what will happen there?
Optimist: They did well enough against Washington, who were a top team in the NHL, and that was with Nikita Zaitsev coming off a concussion.
Pessimist: Good thing concussions never have lingering effects. Anyway, this was a team that gave out goals like candy, that struggled to exit its own zone, and that didn’t meaningfully improve. The third pair will be Martin Marincin, who hot potatoes the puck away whenever he’s unfortunate enough to get it, and Connor Carrick, who as far as I can tell is here to wear glasses and take obstruction penalties.
Optimist: This is assuming Travis Dermott doesn’t make it.
Pessimist: omg holding my breath so hard for a middling AHL defenceman
Optimist: Even if he doesn’t, the Leafs have at least one quality puck-mover on every pairing, a solid defensive addition in Hainsey, and a couple of fancy-stat stars in Gardiner and Marincin. Yes, you don’t believe either is that good, whatever—they win the shots battle, and that’s how you win the game. Unless you’re still trying to argue against Corsi like it’s last decade.
Pessimist: They. Get. Scored. On.
Optimist: And they. Help. The. Team. Score. The Leafs are a Ferrari, and they’ll win with attacking speed. They don’t have to be the best defensive team in the NHL to win; the Penguins just won a Cup with Justin Schultz as their top defender. And having a defence than can keep up with your offence is worth more for Toronto than other teams. As you said yourself, it’s an outscoring-your-opponent competition. This team will win on net.
Pessimist: This team will be fishing the puck out of the net.
Optimist: Less often than they score the other way. And that’ll be enough.
Optimist: Frederik Andersen was a great starter last year, and McElhinney was a good enough backup.
Pessimist: McElhinney’s career save percentage is .905. He didn’t suddenly get better at age 33. It’s a fluke.
Optimist: He just has to be good enough. He’s a backup. He’ll do a competent job in twenty games this year and that’ll suffice.
Pessimist: Unless Andersen gets injured.
Optimist: Yeah if that happens we’re dead.
Pessimist: I often wonder what Mike Babcock would have to do to stop being lionized by the hockey press. Apparently overplaying a bunch of grinders doesn’t do it.
Optimist: When you take a team from last to the playoffs, yeah, you get credit for that. Sorry. Your irritation at a couple of choices for left wing pales in comparison to the incredible stuff he’s achieved. He put together a Jack Adams season last year.
Pessimist: He lost the Jack Adams to John Tortorella.
Pessimist: Okay, he put together a Jack Adams season last year. But the fact remains that he hasn’t had to clear a high bar yet. This year is going to be a tougher test than any he’s had with the Leafs so far. Those questionable little decisions hurt a lot worse when you’re trying to grind out the extra 2% that gets you to the top.
Optimist: In Mike Bobcat we trust!
The Front Office
Optimist: The foundation has been laid, and it looks great.
Pessimist: This front office lucks into high picks, uses its later ones to draft pylon defencemen, and adds questionable contracts around the edges. Auston Matthews has made Lou Lamoriello look good, the same way McDavid has made Peter Chiarelli look good. Neither of them really is.
Optimist: Even for you that’s a crazy comparison. Lou Lamoriello has signed no deals as nearly bad as Milan Lucic, and he’s made no trades nearly as poor as Hall for Larsson. He made one of the best cap-clearing deals in history in Phaneuf, and he’s signed multiple excellent RFA deals (Kadri, Rielly, Brown.) He acquired a contender’s starting goalie in Freddie Andersen. He got two seconds for Roman Polak at the 2015 deadline. He brought over Nikita Zaitsev. He’s left the Leafs with an almost perfectly clear cap sheet four years from now, with only very manageable commitments. He explored the defence market this summer and then knew when to walk away. He picked up a 25-goal man without giving up picks and without giving substantial term. He upgraded on defence doing the same. He has done a masterful job maintaining flexibility for a team whose window is just opening. In a decade you’re going to look back and thank God that Lou Lamoriello was running this team in the crucial stages.
Pessimist: Will I? Or will I wish in three years we weren’t paying $6.25M to a guy who’s 40? That deal won’t be as easy to get out of as you think, and the Leafs are poised to run through William Nylander’s ELC without making any major defence upgrade. I’ll bet they do the same for Matthews and Marner, and then it’s cap hell. Flexibility is a nice word for “not doing enough to take advantage of your opportunities.”
Optimist: No fatal mistakes. That’s the bottom line. Remember Nonis, signing Clarkson after a fluke playoff appearance? That deal was brutally bad, but more than a few GMs have gone crazy off scant evidence they were contending. The Leafs have everything to believe in but are still striking the right balance between aggression and caution.
Optimist: With a little more luck in shootouts and one-goal games, this team should easily clear 100 points and win the Atlantic division. After that? You need luck to win in the playoffs. But if they get it, well, they have a real shot at a Cup for the first time in fifteen years.
Pessimist: If either Matthews or Andersen goes down with an injury early, the Leafs are going to crater so fast you’ll wonder if that playoff series was just a fever dream you had. Even if their remarkable injury luck holds, this team was touch-and-go to make the playoffs last year and they’ll be touch-and-go again. They’ll narrowly try to outscore their problems and finish just on the wrong side of the line. 92 points, a miss, and some awkward questions start getting asked.
Optimist: When the engraver asks, that’s “Auston” with an o.
Pessimist: Or “Weber” with one b.
Optimist: [flying tackle]