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Photo Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t overthink what could’ve been for these Leafs, and this city

Plain and simple, you hate to see it: the Boston Bruins are playing in the Stanley Cup Final, and currently hold a 1-0 lead over the St. Louis Blues.

It sucks, and if you meet a Leafs fan who tells you otherwise, well, they’re probably lying to you. No one outside of Massachusetts wants another Boston championship. Sure, it’s been six years since the Bruins made the final. And it’s been eight since they’ve won it.

But we all know the success stories of the Red Sox and the Patriots and the Cel- well, the older versions of the Celtics and damn, hasn’t Boston had too much success for one city?

On this side of the border, the Toronto Raptors are now the first big-4 Toronto sports team since 1993 to make it to a final. It feels great if you’re a pretty casual fan, and it feels unbelievable if you’re a diehard. And despite whatever mentality you want to take into it or whatever Kevin Durant injury you want to point to, the Warriors are basically the real-life equivalent of the Monstars from Space Jam. Winning three rounds was a grind that took blood, sweat, luck, bounces and tears. We’re witnessing the greatest Toronto sports achievement in a full generation or two, regardless of what happens next. Maybe it’s a silver lining loss to the inevitable Warriors win.

And yet, you can’t help but overthink that the Leafs should be playing for a championship too. Whether you’d like for it to happen or not, they are now the only one of four teams to win their first game in their playoff matchup against Boston. They’re the team with the best regular season record that Boston will face in the playoffs. They had the lead in Game 6, a matchup on home ice. Frederik Andersen was standing on his head. Auston Matthews scored five playoff goals. The series was the Leafs’ to lose, and well, they lost it.

But even though everyone is thinking the what-ifs, my main take here for the Leafs is: just focus on next year.

Why?

Well,  let’s look at this generation of Toronto’s men’s professional sports. We’ve got uh, the Bat Flip from an ALDS game, a fun Donaldson slide from another ALDS game,  a walkoff Edwin Encarnacion homer from a “get-into-the-ALDS” game, a history of getting owned by LeBron James, a second round winning buzzer-beater from Kawhi Leonard, a couple big dunks from… Kawhi Leonard. There’s a few notable Toronto FC moments if you’re into that, a few lucky-as-hell Grey Cup runs by the mediocre Toronto Argonauts that sort of killed the idea of how to actually build a good CFL team, and hey, the Toronto Rock and Wolfpack both have their fair share of moments. And we assume you’ve got it just about memorized what’s happened to the Leafs.

The city, the arena, the culture around the Raptors Game 6 win over Milwaukee that moved them into the Finals is something many have been waiting to see from the Leafs forever. And while the hockey team might just edge out the NBA in terms of popularity in the GTA,  it’s undeniable that victory provided much more success and euphoria than the Leafs have provided to nearly a lifetime of fans.

Sure, you can watch Kasperi Kapanen’s double overtime goal against Washington as many times as you want. You can set up a TV party and watch William Nylander score in Game 1 against the Bruins over and over again. It doesn’t change the fact that being a Leafs fan has been an unenviable hell for much of the past 15… 20… 52? years. The franchises come from different places, but really, for a 23-year old such as myself, both of them have been just about the same level of failure. As someone who was born just months prior to the Raptors’ first game, there’s really little difference between a 24-year Championship hiatus and a 52-year Stanley Cup drought.

And in my adult lifetime, none of the top five or ten greatest Toronto sports playoff moments involve the Leafs. They’ve made an undeniable impact on this city and have. But there hasn’t been a single goal that you can look back on and say, “hey, that helped us win a playoff series.” And for that reason, the Leafs have been largely forgettable.  So whatever comes next for this Toronto hockey squad will be the moment that defines this team. Plain and simple, we haven’t had one of those yet in the time it takes to enroll your child in kindergarten and then watch them graduate high school.

The other key takeaway is that it shows an incredible amount of disrespect to assume that the Leafs would just waltz through the rest of the Eastern Conference. Sure, Toronto finished with higher point totals than each of Boston’s next two opponents. But eight playoff wins is still eight playoff wins, and it’s not like Carolina and Columbus were weak opponents at all. Toronto would’ve walked in as the favourite, but as these wacky playoffs showed, nothing should be a guarantee.

And right now, the Raptors are providing Toronto and its fanbase something the Leafs can’t, or at the very least didn’t.  So the Raptors are in the NBA Finals, and maybe the Leafs could have been playing for a championship too. Maybe the Bruins take home the big cheese, and we wonder what went wrong and what a missed chance it was.

But we shouldn’t. Even though it might be overkill considering I just wrote an  nearly thousand-word ramble, the fact of the matter is the Leafs still have 82 regular season games to play like everyone else next year, regardless of whether Boston wins the Stanley Cup. They still have John Tavares and Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen and William Nylander locked up, and Kyle Dubas still has to jump through hoops and ladders  to figure out how to manage everyone else’s contract situation.

There are of course, great moments that make it all worth it. And moving forward, the Leafs’ future looks as bright as mostly anyone. Maybe, if you’re lucky enough, you can just block out Leafs talk until the NBA Finals are over.

There are countless fun things that’ve happened over this generation of Leafs team, which mostly everyone would agree began in that roller coaster 2016-17 year. So, maybe the Boston Bruins win the Cup in a chance that the Leafs could’ve prevented. Maybe we could’ve had Toronto’s greatest ever double-party if Mike Babcock wasn’t so stubborn and played his stars a little bit more. There’s a lot of unknowns out there, and a million different what-ifs to keep playing in your head. However you slice it, the Leafs suffered another first round exit in a fantastic Cup window.

But what we do know is there will be some sort of playoff success almost inevitably with a core this young and this good. And whether you’re a huge Raptors fan or not, we’re witnessing something special at Scotiabank Arena, continuing Thursday night. Don’t forget to enjoy that.

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  • Stan Smith

    You are correct in that dwelling on the “what might have been” is a futile endeavor. From the way game one of the final looked, odds are the Leafs got beat by the Stanley Cup champs. They can take solace in that they took the Bruins to the limit, and outplayed them for stretches in that series. There was a reason the Bruins were favourites against the Leafs though. Ultimately they were the better team.

    I don’t think the Leafs would have gotten much further than the first round anyway. Two of their Defense and one forward were all walking wounded, and weren’t going to get healthier. How much gas did the rest of the team have? It was obvious Matthews was suffering in game seven. It was by far his worse game of the playoffs. There was a number of times Marner looked like to be having problems picking himself off the ice. Heck, in game 7, the 4th line looked like it was playing better then either the 2nd or 3rd lines.

    Looking forward to the immediate future might not look really promising either. By my calculations the Leafs need to shed about $6M in cap space. Odds are they won’t be a better team after that. Their best bet appears to be magically making Patrick Marleau, and his $6.25 cap hit disappear. If they can hold their own next season, or Dubas pulls off a few miracles, things should look better in two years. I think that will be the Leafs first really serious run for the cup. But, anything can happen in the meantime. It will be interesting.