August 06 2014 11:12AM
Hey did anyone hear if there’s been any hockey news while I’ve been out of town?
As we all know, hockey is virtually void of an offseason. The Stanley Cup Final goes into late June, followed quickly by awards, the Draft, and the carnival that is the kickoff to free agency. Sometimes there’s a bit of a lull after a week or two but this time, in Leaf Land anyway, there was a big kaboom. Multiple signings, two executives fired, and a new cunning Assistant GM who probably still gets ID’d at the bar.
If there’s no offseason then that means that the new season is right around the corner. Don’t roll your eyes and say “it’s August.” You’ll blink and it will be training camp. So let’s get ready for the season, shall we?
Every season brings a new and exciting set of storylines and hot takes. This will be my eighth year "covering" the Leafs and I’m 26 so this will also be my 26th year of fandom. I think I’ve been watching this team long enough that I can predict what some of the headlines might be this upcoming season so I’m going to give it a shot.
Kyle Dubas the Future
Obviously when the Leafs hired a 28-year-old to their front office staff it caused a bit of a stir. Just wait until the season starts.
If the Leafs come out of the gate hot, or better yet make the playoffs, look for people to sing the praises of Dubas in every octave they can hit. Dubas had feature spreads written about him in The Hockey News and Sportsnet Magazine (to name a few) after being hired as the GM of the Soo Greyhounds at age 25. Just imagine the hype that will surround him if he succeeds with the NHL’s most ravenous fan base.
Will it be warranted praise? To an extent. I’m thrilled that the Leafs nabbed him but I know Rome wasn’t built in a day. Dubas will do his part but media is show business, after all. Hyperbole is king. If the Leafs do well, look for Dubas to get the same saviour treatment James Reimer received when he broke onto the scene.
This is just the reality that surrounds Kyle Dubas. He’s new and unknown territory for most. In the storytelling business that’s called “exciting.” Plus the guy’s got a smile that could sell toothpaste. Editors can’t wait to put his face on the cover of their paper and producers can’t wait to put his face on the screen.
Kyle Dubas the big idiot nerd math dummy
Of course, hyperbole works both ways.
If the Leafs stumble to start the season or miss the playoffs for the ninth time in ten campaigns, look for some to call Dubas’ hire a “failed experiment.” Hell, if Dubas is considered a failure then analytics as a whole will be considered a wash, too. Success and failure change perspective. If the team stinks, a hire that was deemed young and exciting will quickly turn to “Who the hell does this kid think he is?” I’ll even write up the headline for you: “New direction, same result.” They might throw a word or two in there but that’ll be the gist of it.
Here’s something that could be a fun (or totally not fun) subplot: What if the Leafs’ analytics improve from last season but they do worse in the standings? Twitter should be a hoot. “I remember the Corsi wars of 2015. We lost a lot of good people out there.”
Dubas represents some things that some people don’t agree with, don’t understand, and frankly, are afraid of. The lineup of people who want to tear him down at the first chance they get won’t be short.
David Clarkson: The Comeback
I still remember last summer when David Clarkson dawned the cover of The Hockey News. Head lowered, eyes determined, and a fresh photoshopped cut on his face dripping with blue blood. The Maple Leafs’ official Twitter account tweeted a silhouetted Clarkson on dark ice with the simple header “He’s coming.” Fans bought truckloads of his jerseys before he (or John Scott) ever hit the ice last season. A lot of people wanted him to succeed and just as many will be hoping for him to make a comeback.
I’d love to wax poetically about David Clarkson, the great hometown hope, shutting down all his naysayers, returning to 30-goal-scoring form, and rescuing the princess on a majestic steed made of magic and pop rocks. I won’t say that, but you know, a 15-goal season from David Clarkson isn’t entirely out of the question. That would be an improvement but that's such a boring word.
"Comeback." Now we're cookin'.
Many were critical of Clarkson's signing, and that criticism was well warranted, but very few predicted the utter catastrophe that 2013-14 was for him. A (perhaps deservedly) reduced role, debilitating injuries, and 12 games worth of suspensions saw Clarkson score just four goals in his first season with the Leafs. Assuming he’s fully healthy, it’s reasonable to hope for at least a an improvement - excuse me- a comeback.
The “comeback kid” angle will be a popular one with fans and local media alike if Clarkson can impress in his sophomore season in Toronto. Even a mini hot streak would be worthy of a feature article from most outlets. Maybe even a one-on-one sit-down with Elliotte Friedman. Sad music with black and white or sepia toned footage showing his struggles, maybe even use that gross shot of him getting stitched up from 24/7, followed by brightly-lit goals, trumpets, celebration shots, and shouts of triumph.
Everyone loves a comeback story and the story writes itself. It’s good theater.
You know what? Singling out David Clarkson’s potential comeback isn't fair. You could write a redemption story about pretty much any player on this team.
Phil Kessel lead the team in scoring last year but quotes of his were published just this past week about avoiding yet another late season tailspin. How about Dion Phaneuf? Can he comeback from almost a calendar year of trade rumours? What about Leo Komarov? He literally came back. Petri Kontiola is trying to make an NHL comeback of his own. Mike Santorelli was on pace for a career season in Vancouver before suffering a season-ending arm injury. David Booth is looking to get his NHL career back on track after a stint with the Canucks that made Carlo Colaiacovo look like an ironman. Can Jake Gardiner finally focus now that he has a five-year deal instead of a pile of trade rumours? Can James Reimer return to form and hopefully avoid anymore traumatic blows to the head? Can newly-signed Stephane Robidas bounce back from yet another serious leg injury at the age of 37? Can Nazem Kadri go longer than five minutes without getting blamed for something?
Go up and down the roster and there are more potential redemption stories on this team than there aren't. A writer's delight! What'll it be: A change of scenery? Bounces going their way? A new diet? A big offseason? A new inspiration? Getting back to basics? August through October should be chalked full of stories like this so be on the lookout!
A lot of comeback stories are just fluffy people-pleasers. Easy on the writer, easy on the subject if they're interviewed, and most readers like reading anything positive about their team, especially if their team is known for their recent history of failure.
David Clarkson: The Buyout
Ok so let’s assume he’s still brutal. I could probably even give you the timeline:
Clarkson starts the season with an increased role many people dispute; let’s say right wing on the second line with Kadri and Lupul. His minutes start decreasing, maybe he gets demoted down a line, and maybe a few of the guys playing on the third or fourth line begin to flourish. Then people start wondering whether or not he should be a healthy scratch and before you know it he actually becomes one.
In a salary cap world you simply can’t afford to be paying a guy $5.75 million (for this season and the five that follow) just to eat popcorn. It’ll sting but the Leafs will need to legitimately explore how they could buyout a contract that is, by design, pretty damn hard to buyout. The “I told you so” line will look like the auditions for American Idol and everyone will be in the hot seat with Dave Nonis at or near the top of that list.
Randy Carlyle's So Definitely Maybe Getting Fired
Speaking of comeback stories...
“Randy Carlyle finally has a team he’s happy with, he’s got things under control, the Leafs are doing just fine, and he’s here to stay.”
The so-called "old boys club" would love a story like that kind of angle. Not only is it a comeback story but it's also a "he's still got it" story.
I personally have a hard time believing Carlyle will be with the Leafs long term based on the team’s actions. Yes he was extended but change is in the air. Dave Poulin and Claude Loisselle are already gone. New management (Shanahan) usually means a change of the guard. Assistant coaches have already been hired and fired. At this point it doesn’t seem like a matter of if but a matter of when but don't let that get in the way of a good story.
Of course, if the Leafs are doing great to start the season then why would they fire the guy? They wouldn’t. Even if it were the right move to make the optics would be terrible. Besides, nobody would get to write the “return of the fearless leader” narrative. “Hard-nosed former Stanley Cup-winning coach cracks the whip, returns to grace, and stands victorious over the defeated bodies of his blogging naysayers.
Here’s one to look for in the blogosphere: “The Leafs give Carlyle a team capable of better possession but he has no idea what to do with them.” Actually that’s been the story for a few years now but expect it to hit a fever pitch after a summer full of possession-friendly Leafs moves.
It will be an interesting mix when it comes to Carlyle. Some will obviously criticize or defend him no matter what, but like I said earlier, new is exciting. Watch for some guys you might expect to be more Carlyle-friendly to start calling for change because change sells.
The BERN-ing Question
HOT TAKE: GOALTENDING IS IMPORTANT! Hotter take: Goaltending could be the be all and end all
of the 2014-15 Toronto Maple Leafs. Can Jonathan Bernier repeat or even improve
upon the .923% save percentage he posted in his first season as a Leaf? If he can, the Leafs are in great shape. If he slips just a bit the Leafs are screwed, especially if Reimer can't reach those numbers either. If both goalies slip, get ready for this little guy:
"The Leafs must acquire goaltending help."
Oh that's right! You heard me!
While James Reimer signed a very affordable and very tradeable deal, if neither goalie can give the Leafs above average to elite goaltending next season look for people to start calling for or "asking the question" regarding a Leafs move for a starting goaltender. Guess what the kicker will be - it's a contract year for Jonathan Bernier! "Was Bernier's success last season just a flash in the pan? The Leafs need to decide now because he's got no deal for next season and the trade deadline is fast approaching!"
I doubt that story ever happens but oh baby if it does! Realistically though, Bernier's expiring contract will be a very hot topic regardless of results until pen touches paper and the possibility of a Reimer trade will be a hot one, too.
There you have it, Leafs fans! Now you're all set for the 2014-15 season. I look forward to you all tweeting this post back at me if any of these headlines actually end up happening, or more realistically, I'm hilariously wrong.