There’s never much anyone can agree on when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs, but going into this off-season a consensus had formed – time to stop messing around and get some stuff done.
Every summer, the Leafs come home and become that teenager who tells you that yes, yes, he is looking for a job and then sleeps until noon every day. Everyone’s so exhausted from yelling at them through May and June that they don’t have any energy left when July stretches into August.
By the time September rolls around you realize that, oh well, I guess nothing’s changing. Again. But maybe it’ll turn out different this time.
So far what have the Leafs managed this off-season?
They secured the services of their second-choice general manager (because they offered the job to another guy. He futzed around for too long, which upset the bosses, who yanked the offer before he could refuse it. Then he said he wouldn’t ever, ever work anywhere else and took another job in a week.)
They locked up their second-choice coach (because if Sheldon Keefe was the team’s first choice, the Leafs wouldn’t have dangled him for weeks after the arrival of new GM Brad Treliving, and then ‘welcomed’ him back minus an extension. A pair of rules in sports and elsewhere – if they don’t extend your contract as soon as that is possible, they don’t want you; if you accept that insult, you don’t have anywhere better to go.)
They made a bunch of second-choice roster additions. New Leafs Max Domi, Tyler Bertuzzi and John Klingberg are all serviceable NHLers. But aside from the early Aughts nostalgia conjured by the Domi name, does anyone believe they are the secret sauce this team needs?
More concerning is the fact that the veteran rentals the Leafs acquired for the playoff run – Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari and Luke Schenn prime among them – went screaming for the free-agency exits as soon as they had a chance.
Just a few days earlier, these guys had been standing in the locker room listing off all the reasons why playing in Toronto is their No. 1 lifetime dream come true. Meanwhile, the limo was idling outside with instructions to run all red lights on the way to the airport.
O’Reilly turned down the can’t-miss Leafs and signed with the Nashville Predators instead. In a ranking of teams from Tennessee most likely to win a Stanley Cup, the Predators come in somewhere behind the Titans and the Volunteers. Having got a good look at the Leafs’ set-up, O’Reilly, a proved winner, decided to sign with a loser instead.
That’s another second-choice problem – as a potential employer, the Leafs are everyone’s backup plan. At best, they are the team whose interest you leverage to make the team you actually want to play for jealous.
Which brings us back to the really big problem of the summer (and the fall, and the winter, and eventually the spring) – the expiring contracts of Auston Matthews and William Nylander.
Both players have one year remaining on their deals. Their no-trade clauses have kicked in. So you either sign these guys, trade them in a deal they are steering or watch them leave for nothing.
In any other market, this would be a morning, noon and night topic of conversation. That’s the role fanbases can play – applying ambient pressure to hurry unavoidable problems to quicker conclusions.
But not in Toronto. Why? Because Matthews said it’s all going to be fine.
“My intention is to be here,” Matthews said at locker-clearout day back in May. “It’s important and I think that will all work itself out in due time and just kind of go from there.”
In Toronto, this was reported as though a new deal was a fait accompli. He said ‘due time’, didn’t he?
But what else is the guy supposed to say? “The winters are a drag and this team is filled with bums, but $15-million a year might change my mind?”
Of course he’s going to say he wants to stay. That’s why it’s called a ‘negotiation’ and not a ‘confession.’ If Matthews has an ounce of sense, he’ll be saying he wants to stay more than anything in the world right up until he leaves.
That’s what Kyle Dubas just did, and O’Reilly, and Schenn and on and on and on. The modern history of the Leafs is guys saying they want to stay and either rolling the team over on a ludicrous deal or minding not to let the door hit them on the way out.
The Leafs don’t do Bruins-type deals – negotiations that end before anyone realized they had started. In Toronto, it’s all out in public, generally fraught and often ends up terribly. But the loser is always the Leafs, never the player.
Given that, why would Matthews and Nylander be in a hurry to re-sign? They know management will fold. The longer they wait, the more lucrative the surrender.
While we wait for due time to arrive, the big news this week was that the Leafs plan to shift their permanently injured goalie, Matt Murray, onto long-term injured reserve. That way, the overpay on his salary does not count against their cap.
Never mind that Murray was, according to Keefe, healthy when the playoffs ended. Maybe he slipped out of a hammock and tore however many rotator cuffs he has in his body.
It wasn’t the move – which is just this side of sneaky – that caught your attention, but the reaction to it. People who follow the Leafs too closely were alight with joy. Toronto has finally figured out how to leverage the letter of the law so that one of its many roster mistakes can be ameliorated. Hallelujah.
Only in this town could managing to crawl out from under the house you collapsed on top of yourself be mistaken for a construction project.
Sports franchises that aren’t moving forward are slipping backward, ipso facto. Right now, does it seem to you as though the Leafs are getting somewhere? Or does it seem more like they are struggling to stay where they already were?
That hasn’t been good enough in the past. But because it’s Toronto, the good news is that things are always getting better, even when they’re not.