The recent history of the Toronto Maple Leafs is a story about trying to find the perfect adult.
The Leafs have the vibrant youth part of the roster equation figured out. That part is easy – be bad, draft the guy everyone says you should, and pray.
The hard part is the steady hand to lead the children onto righteous playoff paths. The Leafs have taken so many swings at that over the past seven or eight years that it’s become a pinata party.
Brendan Shanahan is the original adult, and in many ways the only one that matters, but he can’t play. Lou Lamoriello was Adult #2. Mike Babcock was Adult #3. You see where this is headed.
You hire the right managers so they can hire the right players. Sexing up the Leafs executive goosed the recruitment drive. The new Leafs are never short of boldface names. Unfortunately, a lot of them were most boldfaced 10 years before they arrived.
Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, Wayne Simmonds, Ron Hainsey, Nick Foligno, Jake Muzzin, Mark Giordano – they’re all the same guy. Thirty-something, father-figure types. Even temperament, strong air of competence, history of winning. Not necessarily difference makers on the ice. A couple of them were just barely NHL-level anymore. But full-grown adults.
All the same versions of this same guy have produced the same result. None of them have worked out. No matter how much middle-aged authority the Leafs pack their dressing room with, the kids still dominate.
If you’re being kind, they are mercurial. If you’re not, they are flakes.
How do you stiffen up a bunch of wobbly-kneed types? You keep doing what you were doing until the plan works out (maybe) or you get lucky (that sounds more like it). The Leafs’ latest Locker Room Dad is Ryan O’Reilly.
This is one of those ‘the future is now’ trades – four picks for a guy who will be out of contract in a couple of months. One could argue it’s already been the future for a couple of years now, but better late than never.
The Leafs don’t desperately need another centre. What they need is someone, anyone, who wants to be in charge.
O’Reilly sounds like that guy. He’s not old (32), but he’s been around the NHL so long that he seems like he is. He’s won trophies. He’s scrappy in a way that fans of disappointing hockey teams love. He even seems to enjoy speaking. (The Leafs have to hope the Toronto media doesn’t beat that out of him before the playoffs end, because they will eventually.)
So far, so so for this experiment. First, an uplifting win against the Canadiens in which O’Reilly and another new addition, Noel Acciari, already looked comfortable in a different blue. Second, a deflating loss to Chicago that featured another hockey geriatric the Leafs have been linked with, Patrick Kane.
There’s no point in getting exercised about O’Reilly’s contributions right now. There’s only one point at which they will matter – in May. If it only goes as far as April, then it didn’t matter.
The consensus has been that this trade is a coup – a proven performer for some theoretical future ones. It’s not like the Leafs are going to draft the guy who’s going to put them over the top in the second round two years from now.
But having absorbed the lesson that nothing ever works out for them, the Leafs are already practising their defensive crouch.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe said this deadline acquisition was “different” from previous deadline acquisitions because “you’ve got a guy with such great versatility, such great pedigree.”
The pedigree on all those other guys was pretty good, too. But as long as you say the word pedigree over and over again, no one can ever say it was a stupid trade to make, even if it turns out that way. Because you got pedigree.
O’Reilly hasn’t had a great year in St. Louis, but – and this is another thing no one on the Leafs can stop talking about – he tends to be a better playoff performer than a regular-season one.
Okay, amazing, but this guy isn’t the most important player on the team. He isn’t even top-five. That’s not what he does. But because it’s Toronto, people are talking about him that way.
This trade isn’t about a skills bump. It’s about osmosis. It’s done in the hopes that Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander will look over at O’Reilly while he’s rushing back to cartwheel a guy into his own bench and think, ‘Oh, that’s what they’re talking about?’
Like all the men who’ve gone before him, O’Reilly isn’t there to lead, as such. He won’t be the one taking it on the chin when things go wrong. Nobody does that job for the Leafs. It’s an issue. But unless they want to put a letter on his jersey, it’s not O’Reilly’s job either.
O’Reilly is there to shame everyone else into trying harder. Failing that, he’s there to make them feel bad if they don’t. And failing that, he’s there to take the fall if things go sideways in the first round again.
There’s your real problem. Every other perfect adult has been a transparently temporary solution. If you were one of the permanent guys, how seriously would you take any of them? What’s the consequence when they don’t work out? There is none. Just more trades for more character types.
If professionals the calibre of Patrick Marleau, Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton couldn’t shift the Leafs culture, I’m not sure if it’s fair to ask O’Reilly to do it. You look over at the teams the Leafs will have to get past in the playoffs. They all have problems, but self-confidence isn’t one of them. They are proven winners who act like it. The Leafs’ only relationship with winning is that it’s a word they say a lot.
Expecting O’Reilly to convince a bunch of guys who haven’t won anything that they’re winners is a big ask. Expecting him to do it in less than two months is on a whole different level.
But seven years into the rebuild, with their championship window beginning to close, that’s where the Leafs are at. On paper, they’ve built a winning vehicle. They just can’t find a grown-up to drive it.