Maple Leafs fans, it’s time for us to stop looking at our team and trying to fix inefficacies; please look at what is in front and you and acknowledge, for the first time in many of our lives (myself being 25), that we have a team that is completely stacked with good players. Or, as Mike Babcock and Steve Dangle would say “really good play’rs.” The more I heard Babs say it about Zach Hyman (bet you didn’t think that would be the first name I’d drop, but it is and it serves a purpose), Connor Brown and the way they did things, it made me think, way back in 2015-16 who are the “good play’rs” that I have seen with my own eyes.
I have a great memory of my father and I at a Leafs game, and getting a kick that, 1: we weren’t in standing room (love you dad), but that we had ridiculously uncomfortable bar stools as seats. The second funniest thing was that, 2: even though I was a child, I was accustomed to going to a game and seeing them play, and watching them lose 7-0 to Ottawa. I had seen that many times, visiting my aunt and being chirped hard by brash Sens fans who said my team sucked, because it did. Now my father and I laughed at the fact that the most purchased shirt at a Sens game was “Leafs Suck” and that it seemed strange to have another team’s name on your favourite shirt, but that’s an entirely different psychological argument; at this game, the Leafs didn’t suck. I think they won 5-0 or 5-1, but I was only ten years old and it was very long ago. What I really remember is all the hats that hit the ice when Alexander Mogilny scored his third goal and thought, “damn, he is a good player.”
I always knew Mats Sundin was an elite player, he was my favorite player, but I just expected him to be good. The Leafs had Bryan McCabe’s bomb from the point, but not a whole lot else. So we would go to games, I would hope they’d win, if they did I cheered with Maple Leafs fans alike at seeing our team do something right, and if they lost well…it was fun to go and thank one’s mother and father for doing this for their child, while we watched them get smashed 6-2. I was optimistic, but hardly ever delusional, unless my sister walked in the room with one minute left while they were winning, and that was truly her fault.
Fast forward to the greatest gift I have ever been given; my dad taking me to the 2009 World Junior Championships. I was in high school, just turned 17, was doing well, and I was fortunate to go to Ottawa from December 26th to January 5th. This was the greatest thing I had ever witnessed, the closest moment to my father, and my second experience with really good play’rs. As my dad and I transitioned from expecting the Leafs to lose to expecting Canada to win, I was able to watch for the best of the best. Three players on Team Canada caught my eye, and this is not revisionist history! The first was John Tavares. I had seen him before in Sudbury, playing with the Knights, but this was a different level. Tavares took Canada on his back to come back from a deficit to defeat the U.S. in the round robin, he scored a hat trick and at times totally took over the ice. That’s a good play’r.
The second was P.K. Subban. I could not ever remember watching a defenseman control the ice like that and when Dad and I looked him up and we saw he was a Montreal second round pick, I thought I have to love this guy RIGHT NOW because I am going to hate him for the next 20 years! Luckily, I only had to hate him until the summer of 2016 when we got Matthews and they gave away P.K; probably the best summer of my life, where I can now cheer for him. He was amazing and he still is, leading all D-men in points for the tournament and was a star in the gold medal game against Sweden, which because PK was so good, the game was really not close.
Lastly, but not lastly, Jordan Eberle. Anyone who was in that arena that night, who was behind Russia’s net and saw the play happen, like my father and I, Eberle is special to you. He did not flinch, and as a player who scored a game winning goal at the lowest level and cannot remember anything but just the rush of joy, I would love to hear Jordan talk about that moment. JT and PK only have gold medals because Eberle tied that game and gave them a chance.
I felt from that tournament on I could point out good players. Players who make plays and get the job done to win the team a game. I think about Crosby against the US on home soil in 2010. He scores that goal because he was not just a good player, he was the best player and he knows how to win. He makes the plays to win a hockey game, which is why Mike Babcock talks about team Canada, the best players who do what it takes to win.
Which after all of that digression brings me to the Leafs. I would look at Canada in 2010 and 2014, no Leafs to be found. Actually all the way back in 2002 Cujo, was a Leaf, but he didn’t play. These are the best players and we do not have any, maybe that’s why Ottawa was playing for the cup in 2007 and the Leafs were trash. The rebuild of this team has been all about collecting good players. Players who are the best at their level, at their position, and can go out and win you a hockey game when you need it most. I will mention many, but only go into detail with two.
When I observe Auston Matthews, all of my dreams as a child come true. I always wanted to cheer someone who is considered near the best in class on my team, and when the Leafs won that lottery, I finally knew there was a chance. I watched Auston as much as I could and was amazed over and over. I would watch highlights of Switzerland where he was popping bottles and dominating a men’s league as a teenager . MY SISTER, because I had a real job (grrrrr) got to see Auston live and play with Connor McDavid. I only watched on TV but I thought: wow he is actually that good. He can make plays, skate, shoot, SNIPE, and is a smart hockey player. This built the excitement to game one of 2016 where it was so surreal, I do not believe it sometimes. He just dominated that game and by the end he looked like “is this the NHL? It’s really not that hard” against the soon to be eastern conference runners up. All through the year he made key plays for the Leafs that a good play’r would make, big goals (Centennial Classic), important goals (finally beating Montreal), and lastly in the playoffs, his goal in game six still gives me goosebumps, because although we didn’t win, we are going to win with players like that.
The second player worth mentioning is Mitchell Marner, and his greatness is almost mythical. I watched all of the Memorial Cup and it actually brought me back to Tavares in 2009. He looked faster and smarter than everyone else. They didn’t loose a game for a month, not because of London’s strength at RHD, but if you took a penalty, you were scored upon. Every single time. I watched him control that section of the ice, with options, with the numbers of the analytics age; he will put it in the right spot and it might not go in the first time, but the third, fourth, or fifth shots are going in. To win a hockey game you must score more goals that the other team (WHAT THAT’S CRAZY) and Marner creates goals. 5v5, 5v4, 5v3, and 4v5; he can score in any situation. The Leafs had the seventh best power play in the cap era at a clean 25% last year, and that was 95% Mitch Marner. I know readers might say JVR and Bozak, but remember that the Leafs had those two veterans since 2012, and they only had the best PP when Mitch was with them. Now you have three elite shooters and hockey players that he essentially gets to choose from. This PP could score at a 30% rate, which has only been done three times in history: Montreal in 77′-78′ (31.9%), the Islanders in 77′-78′ (31.4%) and in 78′-79′ (31.8%).
This was the end of one dynasty and the beginning of another who dominated because of the sheer number of good players they dressed and could put on the ice. You look at the Maple Leafs and think this could be the most talented unit in the NHL, quarterbacked by the league’s most proficient power play specialist. And that’s pretty good, because it has a lot of “good play’rs.” Tavares (1st overall), Matthews (1st overall), Marner (4th overall), Rielly (5th overall), and Kadri (7th overall). That is an abundance of talented, highly drafted, skilled players. Consider that Nazem Kadri was picked the LOWEST at seventh overall.
The point is when you go up and down the Leafs lineup, they are loaded with good player after good player. Marleau and Tavares won gold in 2014. Mitch probably will be on the team in 2022, and has already been the CHL player of the year and captured literally every award including a Memorial Cup. William Nylander was the MVP of the 2017 World Hockey Championships while winning gold with Sweden, while earlier that year in January, Kasperi Kapanen scored the winning goal for Finland to win the tournament for only the fourth time. And lastly, Andreas Johnsson earned AHL playoff MVP while almost single-handedly carrying the Marlies to their first ever team championship.
The Leafs have a roster built to dominate, and have players like Hyman and Brown who will never be as skilled, but will be “good play’rs” in their own way by winning key battles and digging out the puck for our skilled guys. Look at what’s in front of you and be grateful for the sheer number of excellent hockey people running this present-day organization.
Maple leafs, I have been hurt too. I have been told things that are untrue and have looked at their decisions, and despite my better judgement agreed with them. Phil Kessel was an excellent player for the Leafs, he scored plenty of goals but was on the ice for far too many. I would have taken Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton, a #1 Center and #1 RHD. However, maybe if suspect moves like that weren’t made, Brendan Shanahan would not have his job, Kyle Dubas would not be our GM, and both Auston Matthews and John Tavares would not be on this team. For once, we actually caught a break.
Do not let the misfortunes of a tragic time and awful leadership worry you about what we have now. You are allowed to say that the Leafs are the best, and I absolutely will. You are allowed to say we can beat Boston because when David Backes has to play Matthews in Toronto during a home playoff game, I hope he can keep up. And I hope Brad Marchand doesn’t take too many penalties trying to stop third line centre and opportunist Nazem Kadri on home ice. You are allowed to say they can win the Stanley Cup, because their centre depth is better than Pittsburgh and the three-deep-centre model has won the last trio of Stanley Cups; one of which relied on Ron Hainsey to play top line minutes against Nashville -the best D in the league was subdued by Ron Hainsey! Uh-oh, I’d hate to see how they will feel about Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner passing the puck in laser fashion to Auston Matthews and John Tavares.
My point is, this is a good team. This is probably a great team. It might even be a historic team, but if it is, that is not because of luck. It will not be because we finally avoided that one back-breaking injury. When myself and Doug, my closest friend and second biggest Leafs fan I know, look at the roster, we just laugh and say: “we finally have good players.”
If the Maple Leafs win the cup, this year or soon in the not-too-distant future, it will not be luck…it will be because “good play’rs win games” and this team is loaded with good players.