Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Is This The Year?

 Forgive me, I am a little giddy.

Every year, I hold out hope that the Toronto Maple Leafs will end the Stanley Cup drought that's been ongoing since five years before I was born.

I am not a young man.

It's a running joke -- kind of the way the Leafs themselves have been for so long -- that whenever the team wins three games in a row, fans start planning the parade. (Lose three in a row and it's time to fire everyone. By which I mean set everyone on fire.) It's not exactly a stable, even-keeled fanbase.

And we have been hurt before. Countless times.  We didn't even make the playoffs last year, which was a pathetic underachievement for the roster we had. Prior to that, we'd lost in the first round three years running. In two of those years we did take the series to seven games; one opponent went on to win the Cup, and the Bruins are an elite team. But still. You kind of like to see progression. And this team often feels cursed.

I am not, therefore, going to announce that the Toronto Maple Leafs will win the 2020-2021 Stanley Cup. I will, however, echo many NHL analysts who are smarter about hockey than I'll ever be, and suggest they're never going to have an easier path. 

Because of the pandemic, they re-jigged the divisions such that all the Canadian teams were grouped in one place, and everyone plays each other (and no one else) over and over. As much as I'd like to measure this team against the Colorados, the Tampa Bays and, yes, the Bostons of the world, I have to say the format has made for some very exciting hockey. I particularly like these baseball-style miniseries, where you play three games in a row against the same team. It tends to drive the animosity up, which makes for a high-intensity game. 

It's a weak division in that it has two rebuilding teams in it (Ottawa and Vancouver). It also has the Calgary Flames, who are floundering on account of hiring entirely the wrong coach for the team they have. And Edmonton, which has the two biggest offensive threats in the game...and next to nothing else. That leaves Montr√©al and Winnipeg. The Canadiens beat us tonight, but even their fans say we're the better team. Winnipeg is the only competition in our division that gives me pause, because their goalie is otherworldly and more than capable of stealing a few games. 

For the Leafs, the shortened season has had three distinct segments. They started like a house on fire, with an all-but-unstoppable power play: at one point it was humming along at an incredible 42%.  Then everything dried up and it was tough sledding for ten games or so. Since then, even though the power play has been beyond cold, their play at 5v5 has carried them to a 9-1-1 record in their last eleven. Much of that can be attributed to Jack Campbell, the backup goalie who is no longer the backup goalie. He lost tonight, but set an NHL record with 11 consecutive wins to start a season. 

But it really isn't just Campbell. Practically everyone on the team, from the vets to the new additions, has played very well...and very differently from any Leafs team in recent memory. THIS TEAM PLAYS DEFENCE!

It's a top-to-bottom commitment, and it starts with our superstars, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. 

It is an absolute joy to watch these two on the ice together. I mentioned Edmonton's two headed monster of McDavid and Draisatl, and nobody's catching them for the points lead, but I'd honestly rather have Matthews and Marner...because they both play a 200 foot game. Neither will bruise you, but both are extremely adept at picking pucks out of tangles of skates, and Marner reads the game so well he's always in place to break up passes. Barring something awful, Matthews is going to win the Rocket Richard trophy this year as the player who scores the most goals (he's eight goals ahead of McDavid with 14 games to play). Marner should get some serious Selke consideration as the best defensive forward. 

I have never seen a wrist shot like Matthews'. Ever. His release is lightning fast, and he varies it such that you can never be exactly sure when the puck is going to come off the stick. He has hands of velvet that let him make almost imperceptible adjustments to his shot at full speed. Marner? Makes passes most players can't even contemplate...usually to Matthews. The chemistry between the two is unreal. 

I'd like to single out a few other very valuable players, starting with Zach Hyman. 

Hyman has been our first line center, or 1C, for a few years now. He is a puckhound extraordinaire: his job hasn't been to score goals, it's been to get the puck and give it to Matthews or Marner. As such, many Leaf fans felt he was in well over his head. I have always disagreed, and I no longer have to because Hyman has shut the naysayers up. His game has improved by leaps and bounds, and the coach feels comfortable just slotting him in on any line than needs a spark. Some nights he's 3C -- probably the best one in the league. 

T.J. Brodie came over here from Calgary to replace Tyson Barrie. Barrie's gone off this year, leading the league last I looked in points by a defenceman. But Leafs fans don't care about that, because Brodie is a better defenceman that Barrie ever dreamed of being. He's the ideal partner for Morgan Rielly, whose offensive prowess can't be denied but who isn't so hot on his own side of center. I can't count the number of 2 on 1s Brodie has calmly defused. I love the guy. 

And one more call out to Jason Spezza. He used to be a Senator, an integral part of their team. Actually, when he broke in, back when dinosaurs skated, he was more than a little like Mitch Marner. Now he's 37 which is 74 in hockey years, and he's actually leading the team in points per 60 minutes played. Coach Keefe shelters Jason, for obvious reasons: his 25-minutes-a-night games are behind him now. But used sparingly, say 10-12 minutes a game? Spezza still produces. And he's revered in the room. The guys call him 'Vintage'. Here's how much he loves being a Maple Leaf: the team put him on waivers earlier this year. That's usually done to players you have no use for, but in our case it was all about the salary cap. We're right up against that cap and we've had to employ a lot of creativity to stay compliant. Helps when you hire the guy who WROTE the salary cap for the league.

Anyway, Spezza went on waivers, which opens him up to being claimed by any other NHL team, starting with the worst. But he announced through his agent that if any team claimed him, he would immediately retire. Nobody claimed him, he's still here, and we love him. 

This is not to leave anyone out. Justin Holl has gone from Marlie to dependable top four shut down D-man. Ilya Mikheyev has provided solid defence, with the odd goal to spice things up. Even "Jumbo Joe" Thorton, who at 41 came here looking for the Cup that's eluded him in his otherwise stellar career, played quite well for us before hitting a completely expected wall halfway through. 

And GM Dubas is clearly all in this year. He has provided Nick Foligno, another Hyman type who can play anywhere with some grit; Riley Nash, the 4C that killed us playing for Columbus last year; Dave Rittich, who played for Calgary until yesterday and who stoned us as recently as a week ago. Depth, endless depth. Somehow it's like we have a roster and a half, and all we gave up were picks. Some of them will be recouped, I have no doubt. 

I mean, I'm cagey. Us Leaf fans have to be. But I really like our chances. GO LEAFS GO!

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