Funny. For me, it was all about the three straight first round playoff exits. No, really – that was all I needed to understand the lay of the land.
Before we grasped the seemingly pernicious scope of what the former coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs had irreparably done to a ballyhooed eight-year plan that suddenly devolved into four and a half years of social media tomfoolery, it was abundantly clear to anyone paying close attention to this hockey club that it lacked the je ne sais quoi as advertised. Not even close.
After all, Mike Babcock was supposed to be the saviour, the zen master, the alpha and the omega who would finally bring a Stanley Cup to the wretchedly multi-generational legions of fans who found themselves embarking on yet another season armed exclusively with undulating utopian hopes and an endless geyser of elite drafted talent bent on ending 53 years of championship futility. This was to be an epoch like no other; a real, legitimate shot at showing the fans that their beloved hockey team was in the hands of real movers and shakers.
On paper, it was as dauntless as it seemed exciting. A former player, NHL executive and hall-of-famer at the helm (Brendan Shanahan), a terrifically young and promising general manager with coveted drafting success (Kyle Dubas), and what was generally regarded at the time as the best coach in the league who had won a cup, a gold medal, and the awesome privilege of writing Lidstrom, Zetterberg and Datsyuk into a lineup, night in and night out for many years.
What could possibly go wrong?
Except that just about everything did..and right from the start. Too many cooks in the kitchen with Uncle Lou Lamoriello and that ruthlessly ambitious draftmonger Mark Hunter, and suddenly the power play was on at the executive level before the players barely managed to hit the ice. How many times have we seen a general manager at odds with a coach he didn’t pick that ultimately ended in brutal disappointment? What should have been a natural progression of fundamental ideals from the top trickling down to ice level turned into an annual battle between splintered factions of MLSE influence. It was obvious to anyone firmly ensconced in the game of hockey that this engine wasn’t working the way it should. Something to do with the sparkplugs and a lack of winter tires.
Then you had the fact that Babcock inexplicably did everything he could do during his tenure with the Leafs to come across as profoundly unlikeable as possible. The media was nothing to him but an instrument of tepid accountability to be tolerated as he continued to do things his way or the highway. His irreverence towards the steadily mounting criticism of how he handled his players, his defensive alignments, his philosophical raison d’être – all seemed to be pointing at a man on an island. The benching of Jason Spezza to start the year in front a home crowd and against his former team was all the proof needed to convince spectators that something was irrefutably wrong. Just ask Chris Chelios how he felt about that.
Granted, year one was considered a glorious mulligan based solely on the franchise need to do what desperate NHL teams do best when it comes to draft picks; shamelessly tank, expect your fanbase to pay top dollar for a ghastly on-ice product, hope you can land Connor McDavid, and then find yourself walking out with Auston Matthews. As far as consolation prizes go, the Maple Leafs found themselves in a position of utter strength after finishing dead last. Fine, I get it – dirty deeds done dirt cheap.
But once the gruesome task of expecting fans to pay full price for shambolic hockey was over and the faithful became primed and ready to accept the prospect of genuine competitive play around these parts, it just never materialized. And yes, you could easily argue that successive 95, 105, and 100 point seasons were bona fide signs of growth and evolution, but back-to-back-to-back first round departures was all the evidence needed to affirm that this current roster of players simply don’t have what it takes to get over the proverbial hump. Gone was any semblance of consistent offensive flair, real leadership or gritty toughness; this team started as jello and found itself transformed into hockey’s equivalent of turkish delight – it’s sweet to the taste but you won’t remember it after dinner is over.
In the end, an old-school coach attempted to imprint his philosophy on this team and was unceremoniously rejected by a cadre of millennial players who simply refused to buy whatever he was selling. The very notion of disciplined, defensive-oriented, positional play seemingly escaped this team on an annual basis as the fans were left to witness the painful labour pains of an on-ice product which refused to be born. It almost seemed as if every October and November of high-octane, free-flowing entertainment which resulted in a bevy of wins and endless fan adulation was immediately replaced with the vice grip known as Babock’s way; he not only reeled in his horses, he turned them into veritable pack mules that catered less to their strengths and more to his preordained vision of on-ice success.
Gone was the spark of on-ice creativity and locker room resolve that initially played on the natural gifts of a Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Rielly and Tavares – replaced ominously by an archaic and personalized system that they all simply refused to buy into when it mattered most. And although the argument is constantly made that they could have beaten two of their last three opening opponents in the playoffs (especially with their stellar 5v5 play), the point is they failed to show the gumption that their vaunted coach embodied as a consequence of his mercurial reputation and ideologically granite vision for this team. You don’t get paid $6.5 million dollars a year to qualify for the playoffs; you’re paid that much to demonstrate the progress necessary to be considered a true cup contender, and these Maple Leafs were never taken seriously by their opponents or the rest of the league as time wore on.
No matter how many rumours fuel the notion that Shanahan and Dubas were contemplating making a coaching change before the year started, there can be no doubting that the damage has already been done when it comes to appreciating where this team stands heading into an uncertain future. The fact remains that their cap management has been nothing short of atrocious (how exactly does an NHL team end up with the two highest paid players in the league during a cap era while paying an additional winger $10 million dollars?!) and that with both Muzzin and Barrie not likely to return next year along with Morgan Rielly in need of a serious ($10m!) raise, it’s safe to say that fans could easily find themselves going back to the very same drawing board that was presented half a decade ago. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose indeed.
As if the stinging pain of a foiled plan weren’t enough, we later discovered that Babcock’s approach was rife with contentious elements that no longer fit the modernity of a highly-sensitive world. I’m not discounting that his practices were antiquated and caustic in nature (what was done to Marner was beyond unfortunate and could have easily stunted his growth as a player), but the fact that they were sanctioned by the organization (indirectly or otherwise) should make you seriously wonder if the leaders of this franchise were ever on the same page. They wanted to build a winner, they said, and what they got was a fragmented group of players who won more often than they lost but could never find a way to win when it mattered most.
And so now it comes down to Sheldon Keefe, a rookie coach who has familiarity with nearly half the roster and knows what it takes to win exclusively at the minor-league level. How this could possibly translate into any measure of enthusiasm after witnessing the Babcock era in full force is something that fans will need to reconcile in their eternally sanguine and insufferably delusional perspective of this team. But regardless of your age and background, one thing is certain: what should have been two steps forward, one step back into a brave and bold new future has resulted in a broken ankle caused from slipping down the blue and white banister yet again.