His qualifications? He’s old, fun to listen to, can find Toronto on a map and, on the basis of a single game’s worth of ice time, projects to score 82 points next season. I don’t want to jinx anything, but Foligno may become the greatest Toronto Maple Leaf in history.
Foligno got off the ice after Thursday’s win over the Winnipeg Jets and said all the sorts of things that make Toronto melt.
“What I’ll remember most is the win. That’s what I came here to do, and help. It’s just so fun to battle with these guys. You could tell their attention to detail and how much …”
Anywhere else in the world, they like a little razzmatazz from their athletic stars. But in Toronto, they want to hear how average you are, and how happy you are with your averageness.
If aliens landed in Toronto, the right play would be popping out of the spaceship and saying, “We come from Alpha Centauri. It’s not that far. It’s nothing, really. We just wanted to be here with the boys because we love your attention to detail.”
Two weeks ago, goaltender Jack Campbell was the guy who was going to save the Leafs. His qualifications? Young, fun to listen to, can find Toronto on a map and, on the basis of 11 games, the best shot stopper since Wonder Woman.
Then Campbell had a couple of rough nights and the good times ended. In the space of three days, Toronto went from celebrating the reincarnation of Terry Sawchuk into a DEFCON 1 goalie crisis: “Why can’t the Leafs find a decent goalie? What’s wrong with Sawchuk over here? Why does he hate us so much?”
Before Campbell, it was Joe Thornton. Before Thornton, it was Jake Muzzin. Before Muzzin, it was …
You get the drift. Toronto can’t just be happy with good players. It isn’t even satisfied with the occasional great one. Toronto needs a player who will guarantee he can lift the city’s hockey curse singlehanded, and preferably in the next couple of weeks.
The main qualification for the saviour role is that the player be new. New is untainted. New means boundless potential.
It doesn’t matter if the new guy’s been mediocre elsewhere (generally speaking, a prerequisite for ending up in Toronto). This city’s gentle care and attention (e.g. shattered nerves and stalker-level surveillance) will turn him into the player he was meant to be.
Every year, there are two or three of these guys who are going to push the Leafs over the line. Remember Tyson Barrie? Because he’d prefer you didn’t. Try to forget that the defensive end of things was secured for the foreseeable future (until it wasn’t).
It’s hard to say what’s worse in this situation – being great to begin with, or falling flat on your face.
If the player is great, he is built up into the next Gordie Howe by the local press. If he is terrible, then he somehow scammed his way into town.
The best way to make a debut in Toronto is in such a manner that no one notices you. Let yourself blend in for a year or four, and then people can begin to hate you for being here so long with nothing to show for it.
Any way you figure it, it wrings guys out.
Auston Matthews is having a hell of a year – one of the best individual seasons in Leafs history. His talent level is close to best in league. He is everything the club hoped would happen when it began its tank six years ago.
But nobody talks about Matthews saving the Leafs. Not in the same way they might talk about Connor McDavid saving the Oilers or, better still, the way Sidney Crosby used to save the Penguins.
Because Matthews was anointed saviour ages ago and – here’s a surprise – couldn’t live up to that billing as a 21- or 22-year-old.
Now he shares the taint of Leafsness with all the others. He lost a couple of times, so he can’t be counted on to win. Someone else has to provide that magic. Someone new.
The person needn’t even be a player. If the Leafs win this year, coach Sheldon Keefe might get the saviour tag. He still has enough of that new-car smell.
That’s an “if” and a “might.” But I will guarantee you that if the Leafs lose, every good thing they ever do in the future will be despite Keefe. That’s the cost of coaching where people care.
Eventually, someone will be lucky in their timing and end up being given all the credit for something he had next to nothing to do with.
Maybe that guy is Foligno. All he has to do is score a goal everyone remembers in the playoffs, beat someone up at a critical moment or give a notable mid-game speech ahead of a famous come-from-behind victory.
Then it won’t be Matthews, or Mitch Marner, or Kyle Dubas or any one of a dozen other guys who built this team back up from the studs who get the credit. It’ll be the cool, new guy who changed the temperature in the dressing room. He’s the lucky charm. Give him all the Canadian Tire ads.
They don’t do this sort of thing in, say, Boston or Tampa. They don’t fall in love with a shiny penny every five minutes. Everyone has their role, but their stars are their stars, as opposed to the last guy who scored four games in a row or said something really funny after the morning skate.
Those – and this may be a coincidence – are places where they win at hockey. Could be something to that.
Expecting much less from any one player, and much more from the entire franchise, might be a better way of going at it.
But it wouldn’t be very Toronto. Nor, historically speaking, is winning.