Be Happy, Leafs Fan.
I remember 5-13-2013 better than I remember yesterday. It sucked major shit. We crowded MLSQ and down Bremner, we stood in bars and in front of our televisions as silence befell us. At 4-1, a euphoria. Hugs with strangers. Talk of plans to travel to New York City, to taste the air in Madison Square Garden. At 4-2, a hush and quiet murmuring brought on by the stark realization that the menacing Bears, Stanley Cup champions fewer than two years prior, had begun to claw their way back into the elimination match at the TD Garden, perhaps the loudest and most imposing playing environment in the NHL. At 4-3, the deep-rooted feeling of despair, of the inevitability of the tying mark. Wide eyes, drooped shoulders, heavy breathing; the earmarks of vulnerability. At 4-4, the realization that the cinderella Maple Leafs, they of nine years of playoff drought, would be struck down by a team whose chance at victory only nine minutes earlier was less than one percent. At 5-4, deafening silence. The droning, white noise of a post-apocalyptic city. Leafs fans left to walk or transit home to the soundtrack of a CP24 news “cycle” that was anything but.
We breathed a heavy, collective sigh of relief when Dave Bolland scored the (sort of) overtime goal to steal the day from the Bruins in the SCF. And the proceeding summer reintroduced optimism. GM Dave Nonis called new Leafs David Clarkson and Bolland prototypical second line players in the modern NHL, and promised we had our long-term starting goaltender in Jonathan Bernier. Reimer hadn’t been good enough in the playoff series, of course. If he were better controlling rebounds and stopping shots at the high glove, the Leafs would’ve been playing into late May. Or so we were told. Winter, 2014, cold reality strikes. Eighteen wheeler. The hockey twitter wars. What the fuck just happened?
It’s odd that the NHL locked out the 2014-15 season after locking out half the season only two years earlier. The Leafs never played a game in the first half of 2015. If they did, I must’ve erased it from my memory.
Here’s something that did happen first half of 2015. We’re on a family vacation in Florida two weeks or so after what would have been the end of an NHL season had the Leafs have played which, to reiterate, they didn’t. We’re standing in line for a ride at Universal Studios when I see an oddly shaped, dense man with poor posture approaching to pass us. He’s the average American man. Only he isn’t. He’s Phil Kessel. I am unable to control myself. I yell, “That’s Phil fucking Kessel!” in an absurd, projecting voice that garners his attention. He runs as fast as he can. The last thing he needs is pseudo-journalist hack Steve Simmons knowing he’s spending time doing something fun. He cuts forwards, backwards, and side-to-side through pedestrian traffic as if he’s taking on defenders in an NHL hockey game. Seven kids chase him towards a washroom, every theme park’s dead end. One of us says, “Phil Kessel, please take a picture with my family”. Like Toronto fans the night of 5-13-2013, his eyes widen, his shoulders droop, he breathes heavily and, after agreeing to the photo, he says to my lovely mother, “Nice shoes eh!”. She’s wearing Montreal Canadiens flip-flops. I’m devastated.
2015-16, more pain. But unfamiliar pain, not as sharp as the pains of the previous decade. Instead, a dull pain, and one easily survived under the comforting blanket of the new administration and team philosophy. A team led by Team Canada Olympic coach Mike Babcock. A team fresh off hiring analytics manager Kyle Dubas. A team that defied the odds to win the stats battle but lose the score war on a nightly basis. An aptly termed, “Dignified Tank”. A team that played in the Corsi Hockey League, ever-improving in the front office and elsewhere MLSE’s healthy wallet could make a difference unbeholden to league-imposed salary limitations. Players past their prime found themselves washed up on MLSE’s exquisite, totally legal Isle Robidas. $15M in long-term cap commitment walked out the door in what proved to be excellent trades sending Nice Shoes Eh Phil and team captain Dion Phaneuf to “contending teams” for cap space, prospects, and a fresh start. Even still, losing hurt. The Leafs finished the season with the same number of points (69, hell yes) than the current iteration has collected seven days into February.
Then, a volley of successes. Auston Matthews. Mitch Marner. William Nylander. Morgan Rielly. Frederik Andersen. Nazem Kadri. Jake Gardiner.
The fucking playoffs. Kasperi Kapanen scores in double overtime. We jump from our seats. Some of us (I) cry at our Easter dinners. Heartbreak in game six, but optimism clouds our minds. We are overcome with pride, our team fighting with such poise and bravado against the best the NHL had to offer.
The fucking playoffs again. A chance at redemption against the still menacing Bruins. A better team than the Leafs, probably, but one which was controlled for the better part of a seven-game series after a young Leafs team was made to look as such in the first two series matches, those matches ultimately costing them.
Summer, 2018, John Tavares comes home. New GM Kyle Dubas’ first smash hit as an NHL executive as he lands the most sought-after free agent in league history. The Leafs look like the better team in nearly every outing against top competition. They win many games and they lose some. They make a habit of playing down to competition. But they are very clearly a better team than the 2017-18 iteration. They control more of the shots, possession, and (maybe) earn what looks to be higher than average, sustainable PDO. Against playoff teams, they look every bit as competitive as the behemoth Tampa Bay Lightning. William Nylander signs a reasonable contract and returns to duelling choruses of boos and cheers. Kyle Dubas trades for bonafide first-pair back Jake Muzzin. The defence is suddenly…good?
Auston Matthews signs for $11.634M per season for the five seasons after this. The Maple Leafs superstar, on pace to be one of the greatest even-strength goal scorers of all time, a bold dresser, a dressing room character and noted leader, and a dominant playing force at 21 years old, commits to Toronto long-term.
“We can, and we will” is three quarters the way to becoming “we said we would, and we did”. The players maximized their earnings, yes. But William Nylander and Auston Matthews are on fair contracts. They are not, by my analysis, unfair to the team or player. We’d like Matthews to have taken one more year or one million less, but this deal isn’t precedent setting. It’s not dissimilar to what was handed to Geno and Crosby on their five-year deals, and the other comparables frankly aren’t the same category of talent that Matthews is.
Furthermore, this deal distinguishes two windows to win. Through the first window you have John Tavares, William Nylander, Mitch Marner(?), Auston Matthews and, for at least half the first window, Nazem Kadri, Freddy Andersen, Morgan Rielly, Travis Dermott, and Jake Muzzin. The second window begins when the young players are aged 26-27. This includes Travis Dermott, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and very likely includes Morgan Rielly, Freddy Andersen, and Marlies backs Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin. Through the second window, the team will compete under different cap considerations and with five years’ worth of talent evaluations. The Leafs were all in on winning the Stanley Cup the day the signed John Tavares to his mammoth contract. It makes perfect sense to me that they thus signed Matthews to a mid-term deal to suppress the AAV. This team looks to be a top-end competitor for the next five years. Barring something catastrophic, they are positioned among the best rosters at centre, right wing, left defence, and goaltender, with what is unequivocally the richest and most progressive operations staff in the league.
Matthews’ extra million or one missing year isn’t catastrophic. I mean, Jesus Christ, fewer than four years ago Phil Kessel was at Universal Studios commenting on my mom’s shoes when he should’ve been battling in the playoffs, and it was only five years ago that deafening, post-apocalyptic silence overtook the city. Boy, how things have changed. We’re set.
Be fuckin’ happy, folk’s.
You can follow Jake on twitter @jakebeleafs