Trying to keep up with where the Toronto Maple Leafs stand in public estimation has become meteorology – wait a few minutes and it’ll change.
Four weeks ago, they’d beaten Tampa and entered a new era of baseline competence. Everyone loved them again.
Two weeks ago, they’d lost in five to the Florida Panthers and were lower than a snake’s belly. Everyone hated them again.
Today, Florida has just swept the Carolina Hurricanes to make an unlikely Stanley Cup final and the Leafs are where exactly? Somewhere in between.
Toronto’s problem isn’t goaltending or that vicious streak that all great teams have (though those are problems). The Leafs’ problem is in-betweenness. They don’t know what they are.
Figuring out what to do with the Core Four is an important consideration for Toronto’s next general manager. Figuring out who this team is, who it should be and how to get there is much moreso.
A model the next GM might want to consider as the team works on that is one attributed to a fantastically named Weimar general, Baron Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord.
Von Hammerstein-Equord held that there were four types of people. He favoured the first three as colleagues – clever and hardworking; clever and lazy; stupid and lazy.
Clever and hardworking was suited for leadership. Clever and lazy was best in a crisis. Stupid and lazy – the vast majority of people, in von Hammerstein-Equord’s estimation – did the unavoidable drudge work.
It was the last type that could not be tolerated – stupid and hardworking.
According to von Hammerstein-Equord, the stupid and hardworking man “must be got rid of, for he is too dangerous.”
What better description is there of the Leafs organization over the past few years than stupid and hardworking?
In theory, they are a brilliant team. Just ask them. In that final media availability of the year that put the whole franchise on tilt, players kept coming out to say that over and over again.
“My belief in our core players, and the guys who have been here, has never wavered,” Auston Matthews said. “I still believe in that.”
Why? What evidence is there to support this unwavering belief?
The only thing the Leafs have to show for all their striving is the regular season. If that’s the judge of things, then they’re right. They are a regular-season steamroller. Except they’re wrong.
What have the Florida Panthers taught the NHL in the past couple of months? That a team without stars can win. That ruthlessness goes a long way. That consistency is overrated until it isn’t. That it’s nice to have a goalie who has gone so far into the zone that Tarkovsky would have made a film about it.
But mostly what the Florida Panthers have taught everyone is that the NHL regular season doesn’t matter any more.
It’s a six-month-long training camp. You play it at 80-per-cent intensity. You don’t have to be good – just good enough. The goals are peaking near the end and avoiding ACL ruptures.
What would you call a team that keeps winning in the phony season, losing in the real season and coming out afterward to say that things are headed in the right direction? I wouldn’t call it clever.
The Leafs are playing the same game as everyone else, but they haven’t read the updated instructions.
The media and fanbase share the blame. If the Florida Panthers lose six of seven (as they did in November) or seven of 11 (as they did in December), nobody in Florida cares. It’s the Panthers. Call us when they’re good again.
But if the Leafs do it, it’s a civic emergency. (Everywhere we write Leafs here, you can sub in Edmonton Oilers. They have the same issues.)
The Leafs had a Panthersesque regular-season blip in October. They lost four in a row. Four substandard games near the beginning of the season isn’t great, but it’s not a disaster. You’ve got 70-odd more tries to figure things out before you have to get serious.
How did Toronto treat it? Like a disaster.
The coach gently chided his best players. His best players chided him back less gently. A bunch of stories popped up saying they probably shouldn’t fire the coach (which is a sneaky way of saying, ‘Hey, should the Leafs fire their coach?’).
For a moment, the franchise was in disarray. Then Toronto won a game and everything was fine again.
If you were a Leafs executive, coach or player, what lesson would you draw from this? Probably that the regular season matters. That acting like it doesn’t is a good way to lose your job.
What’s the result of learning that lesson? Hard work.
So now you’ve got the Leafs living and dying in games played in January. Down in Florida, they’re all, ‘No rush. Let us know when you feel comfortable trying.’
Boston shared Toronto’s problem this season. When every person with a pencil and notepad within a thousand clicks is flooding into your arena to write, ‘Is this the best team ever?’ stories, how do you think you’re going to play? All out, every night, so as not to disappoint anyone.
You’re working so hard that half your guys belong in an ICU by the time the playoffs start. In the first round, you face a team that half-assed it until March before finally deciding to roll out of bed and begin the season.
The NHL playoffs is a two-month-long crisis. Florida over Boston, and then Toronto, and then Carolina is the victory of clever and lazy over a whole bunch of stupid and hardworking.
So should the Leafs be upbeat about the fact that, once again, they were beaten by a team that ended up in the finals?
Only if they like feeling stupid.