Okay, here we go.
Picture a box of cereal placed vertically onto the conveyor belt at a grocery store checkout. It is a tall, proud, imposing figure, like the stone wall Whomp character in Mario Party games that just shows up and goes, “EHR-URGH” as if it is trying to cough up a dinosaur, and forbids you from passing.
Surely, it cannot be upended.
The conveyor belt jerks forward, suddenly, and the cereal box immediately falls backward. Down goes Frazier! It then must endure a slow, humiliating ride passed all the pretentious sunbathing breath mints and candy bars, who can’t help but snicker. It finally reaches the cashier, but they’re too busy with something else, so the box gets stuck, while the conveyor belt keeps going.
The cereal box is finally placed in a bag and sent packing, wondering why it couldn’t go through self-checkout like everyone else.
Now, run that scenario through your head again, except replace the cereal box with the Toronto Maple Leafs and – even if you know nothing about hockey – you’ll understand what keeps happening to them when they reach the first round of the playoffs.
I don’t say that to be mean, or to insult anyone. It is, simply, the truth.
My mind operates in analogies; it is a tad frightening to me how quickly I landed upon this one.
The Leafs have finished three of the last four NHL regular seasons with a top seven record. And it didn’t matter because they could never win a playoff series.
But this isn’t a post to talk about what-ifs, or what-should-have-beens. Time has passed, the wounds have (kind of) healed, and frowns have been turned upside down by Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
A new season of Maple Leafs hockey is upon us. This will always be an exciting time, no matter how the previous season ended.
It is carte blanche. A clean slate. Everyone has a flashy new duo-tang and an endless amount of blank pages, waiting to be filled with whatever story this season has to tell.
It’s sports – anything can happen, right?
As a fan, yes, there is absolutely an abundance of fear and trepidation right beneath the surface of excitement and optimism. I’d be lying if I said otherwise.
The Leafs will be judged based on how they perform in the playoffs. We know this.
It’s like we’re sitting at graduation, listening to all the lengthy speeches, waiting for that moment when someone gives us the cue to stand up and go on stage. That’s when the show begins. That is the playoffs.
The team is back in the Atlantic division this year, so it will be nice to compete against teams outside of Canada again. It was starting to feel too A.L. East-y last year (insert rant about how we don’t need 76 baseball games against the same 4 teams every year).
Anyway, let’s talk about the roster. And by that, I mean I’ll probably mention two or three players and move on because this isn’t an “analyze their stats and skills” post.
For all the flack the Leafs get for acquiring “small players”, I only see two players on the roster listed as shorter than 6’0. The team is bigger than they have been in a long time. That is a good thing.
Now, I’m aware of the “wink-wink nudge-nudge” that sometimes goes on with these things. You round up, and then round up again. All of a sudden, 5’10 becomes 6’0 and who is to know otherwise? However, the Leafs have some legitimate size on the team.
I wrote a post at the end of last season, where I listed a bunch of players I thought the Leafs should “take a look at signing”. Five of the players I mentioned were signed by the Leafs.
So, thank you Leafs brass for reading my blog.
One of those players was Nick Ritchie. He’s a guy who fills out his jersey number. It’s a billboard. Other guys, it looks like their number is wrapped around a street post.
I’m talking about back width, if you didn’t know. Highly underrated hockey intangible.
I think Ritchie is set up nicely for a career year. He’s going to be playing the Gary Roberts role, previously held by Zach Hyman. I’m excited to see what he can do on the top line.
I also love the Petr Mrazek signing and not just because his goalie pads and mask combination is elite. If Felix Potvin and Corey Schwab morphed into one, it would be Mrazek.
Do yourself a favour and YouTube his “antics” at the 2012 World Juniors, as a member of Team Czech Republic. That’s when I first became a fan. Not only was he daring enough to wear #2 as a goaltender, but his celebrations were incredible.
He was an exuberant guy, who has (seemingly) grown into a calm and confident presence. Also, he’s not afraid of playing in Toronto. That earns some bonus points.
John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander will always be the four-man faction that garners the most attention. They’re like Evolution in 2004. Tavares is Ric Flair, Matthews is Triple H, Marner is Batista, and Nylander is Randy Orton.
For the record, Orton was the first one to be kicked out. I’m not alluding to anything, relax. I like Nylander and am extremely curious to see how he’s going to be on the penalty kill this season.
Trying out an offensive player on the penalty kill is the preseason hockey equivalent to a outfielder taking ground balls at first base during Spring Training and the Manager saying, “versatility is important”.
I hope all four of those players, and as many other Leafs as possible, are named to their respective Olympic teams. I think it would be an enriching experience for the young Leafs, in particular, to share a dressing room with the very best talent in the world, while participating in a high stakes tournament.
I don’t think Matthews, Marner, or Nylander have reached their ceiling yet. They aren’t even swinging on the chandelier yet. I’m glad the front office hasn’t given up on them yet. There, I said it. Let them grow up.
Heck, let their brains fully develop.
As soon as one of those four is traded, I feel like it’ll take two or three additional trades to full replace them. Unless, they somehow pull off a coup for Matthew Tkachuk. In that case, you throw the kitchen sink, water heater, front porch, and patio furniture at him. That’s purely a hypothetical – Calgary should never get rid of him.
Do I think President Brendan Shanahan or General Manager Kyle Dubas should be worried about their jobs if the Leafs don’t win a playoff series this year? No. I don’t see MLSE making that move. I think Shanahan and Dubas are still bulletproof, which isn’t something you normally say about a management group that has zero playoff success.
It’s just how I feel.
I think MLSE, at this stage, value stability and see Shanahan and Dubas as two pillars and culture-setters of their organization, who are well-respected on a personal and professional level. I think the roster is more likely to go through sweeping changes, before those two are shown the door.
And I’m good with that.
Look, this season could very well end in another heartbreak. What do you want me to do about it?
That’s why we watch sports, right? The ending is never the same, even when it feels like it is. Something different can always happen. The impossible is always possible.
Optimism and disaster rest on each shoulder, with heartbreak somewhere in the middle.
This is Toronto.
It is the weight of the world and a bunch of expensive concession items on top.
It is the lights turning on for the pre-game warmup.
It is 19,800 people yelling, “Shooooooooot!”
It is the smell of popcorn cutting through the crisp air.
It is all the banners that were first hung in the Gardens.
It is the history engraved deep in our soul, passed down from generation to generation.
It is our Saturday night.
It is still the passion that unites us all.
It is Toronto and Montreal on Opening Night.
It is carte blanche and blue.
They are the blue and white.
And it all begins again, tonight.