Take a moment to think about what a successful season for the Toronto Maple Leafs looks like this year. If the team dominates the regular season, winning the Presidents Trophy and setting all sorts of records but then once again fall in the first round of the playoffs, would anyone consider that a successful year? Even if the team went 82-0 during the season but once again got eliminated in game seven of the first round, would that be considered an achievement or would it only add to the team’s legacy of choking when it matters most?
Similarly, imagine if those same Toronto Maple Leafs struggled throughout the season, finished fourth in their division and barely made the playoffs only to finally slay the dragon and not just advance past the first round but perhaps go on the deepest playoff run this team has seen since The Scorpion King was in theatres. There’s little doubt that it would be seen as by far the most successful Leafs season in the salary cap era, and everyone would soon forget about the struggles of the regular season.
It’s become painfully clear that what happens this regular season doesn’t matter for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sure, the same could be said about any team really, as the nature of North American sports means that all the glory rests in the playoffs, but it feels especially true for Toronto this year. The only team with a second round drought longer than Toronto is Florida, and as they emerge out of a rebuild looking like a potential darkhorse, they still have some leeway to build chemistry and learn how to win as a team, Toronto has no such luxury, their minimum goal on the season is to make it out of the first round and until that happens nothing else matters.
Now, this isn’t to say the season is completely meaningless, instead the purpose of the season changes. This next sentence is one of the most bizarre sentences anyone could say about a professional sports franchise, so please take a moment to brace yourselves and do whatever is necessary to prevent an onslaught of rage; the Toronto Maple Leafs’ priority this season shouldn’t be to win as many games as possible.
I’ll give you a moment to collect yourself and clean up any coffee that may have been sprayed on your monitor after a comical spit take.
As absurd as it sounds it’s true, the Leafs shouldn’t prioritize regular season wins this year over all else. Instead they should work towards keeping players healthy, developing special teams, and testing out different line combinations for specialized situations, all of which are things that teams typically work on during the preseason. In fact, we’re already seeing some evidence of the team doing exactly this before the season starts with the announcement that Auston Matthews will be missing at least the first three games of the year as both him and the team want the franchise player to return to 100% over rushing him back in an effort to win a couple extra games in October.
With the Toronto Raptors we saw what load management can do for a franchise, as they chose to rest Kawhi Leonard through much of the 2018/2019 season, leading to the team losing a few more games than it should have throughout the year but ultimately winning their first ever NBA championship as the Raptors’ stars were able to stay mostly healthy through the playoffs while many other teams lost key players from the wear and tear of an 82 game season plus playoffs.
One of the biggest problems that haunted the Leafs last season was their powerplay drying up as the fanbase grew frustrated over the team’s unwillingness to experiment and try new strategies or powerplay line combinations. This season that cannot happen, the regular season should include a fair amount of experimentation and line juggling as the team seeks to not only find what works best, but also explore possible backup plans for when things start to go south. Should another star player go down in the playoffs again as John Tavares did last year, there needs to be someone who can confidently step up and take their place, that happens by giving players the opportunity to showcase their ability in the top six, or on special teams throughout the 82 game long preseason. Finding something that works good enough and sticking to it for six months with no backup plan would be a death sentence for any team in a sport as unpredictable as hockey.
As the season goes on there’s sure to be plenty of highs and lows, but rather than screaming with rage when the team inevitably loses 6-3 to a bottom feeder, or planning a parade route after a 4-0 dismantling of one of the league’s best teams, instead realise that none of it ultimately matters. Take a moment to think about what a successful season for the Toronto Maple Leafs looks like. Do those thoughts include anything that happens before April? The real season begins day one of the playoffs, everything until then is just development, the team showcasing what it’s capable of, and more importantly than anything else, learning from their mistakes so the past doesn’t repeat itself.
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