Leafs fans found themselves repeatedly asking the same question after many games this season: who are these guys?
On paper the Leafs have an immensely talented roster, which made the results we saw this season all the more alarming and bewildering. It is one thing to be able to chalk up your struggles to a lack of talent, but when that talent is clearly there, it makes it all the more frustrating.
We are a curious species: we gravitate towards trying to make sense of the insensible. But the 2019-20 Leafs are a hard bunch to peg.
Context matters. Let’s do a quick recap of everything that has happened since July 2019:
- Fan favourite and valuable cap commodity Nazem Kadri was traded after back-to-back first round suspensions. The trade felt like great value at the time but fans soured on it over time.
- Mitch Marner’s contract negotiations became ugly and public, causing damage to his reputation and resulting in a down year (by his standards)
- Auston Matthews was charged with disorderly conduct while spending his offseason in Arizona
- There was clear dysfunction and disagreement between then-coach Mike Babcock and the front office around player use and tactics
- Hometown guy and respected veteran Jason Spezza was scratched for the home opener
- Tyson Barrie was miscast from the outset by Babcock and never seemed to fully regain his game
- Michael Hutchinson invented new #-holes to let pucks through
- The team absolutely folded in front of rookie netminder Kasimir Kaskisuo, allowing him to be completely embarrassed in his NHL debut against Pittsburgh on Hockey Night in Canada.
- Babcock was fired 23 games into the season after the Leafs started 9-10-4 and was replaced by GM Kyle Dubas’ clear first choice: Sheldon Keefe
- A report came out soon after Babcock’s firing that he had asked then-rookie Mitch Marner to rank his teammates by their work ethic, then showed the list to his teammates. Marner uncomfortably confirmed the story when asked by media.
- The Leafs got off to a great start under Keefe but regressed quickly afterwards and continued their inconsistent play
- Frederik Andersen had a rollercoaster season, his worst as a Leaf
- The Leafs rarely started on time (tied for fourth-last in games as first team to score – 31 of 70 GP) and thus found themselves chasing games early and often
- Injuries piled up for key players (Hyman, Dermott, Tavares, Marner, Mikheyev, Johnsson – twice, Rielly, Muzzin – twice)
- They lost a game to a team that was using an emergency backup goaltender for the final half of the game
- They often played down to their opponent and at times seemed disengaged, including a disastrous Western U.S. road trip where they took one out of six possible points from three bottom-feeder teams in California
- A pandemic struck, pausing the season for four months
- Auston Matthews contracted COVID-19 and had his positive result reported by a weasel-faced unnamed Toronto media member, which angered the player
Looking at the above, it would have been, and may still be, reasonable to answer “who are these guys?” with “a mess”.
Some of the common themes we’ve heard some Leafs fans use to describe this team during this season are: they’re immature; they don’t know how to win; they’re a collection of individuals as opposed to a team; their stars were paid too handsomely too quickly; they have no mental toughness, they’re not committed enough; they’re not big game players; etcetera.
Most of these are hyperbolic, reactionary statements borne of frustration with what feels like a lack of execution by a talented team. After the Blue Jackets scored to make it 3-0 with six minutes left in Friday night’s Game 4, you could almost hear the frantic clattering of keys as fans rushed to air their frustrations and grievances with a team they felt had so much more to offer.
But then something miraculous occurred. Those final four minutes of regulation and Auston Matthews’ overtime winner resulted in a cacophony of backspacing. We saw the Leafs reach a new level in those roughly seventeen minutes of game time: guys sacrificing their bodies, winning puck battles, moving their legs, showing actual discernible urgency. Playoff hockey.
The Leafs enter Sunday night’s Game 5 with the opportunity to re-write the chapters of a book that has already been written about them by many: the tale of perennial disappointments, burdened by the expectations of a fervent and success-starved fan base. The sports equivalent of Charlie Brown trying to kick that football.
There’s one way to shut down all those narratives, to put a lid on that bubbling volcano of acrimony, to silence the eager dissenters: Win.
So, Maple Leafs: Will you rise to the occasion? Will you start on time? Will you sacrifice? Will you fight for your season to continue? Will you re-write your assumed destiny?
Show us who you are.