If the Toronto Maple Leafs managed anything significant last season, it was proving they know how to play the Spartacus game.
After the whole thing had imploded again, everyone was in a great rush to stand up and take their licks. It was widely agreed that the pivotal error was allowing William Nylander’s contract negotiation to bleed into mid-season. That needless drama unsettled everyone and everything.
“The blame for the situation going that far has to go to me,” general manager Kyle Dubas said afterward.
“I just wish that I had been here from the beginning,” Nylander said.
Unfortunately, they were not in the same room as they said it, so could not do so while hugging each other and weeping softly.
Once those cathartic moments of responsibility taking were over, it was on to Mitch Marner and doing the exact same thing all over again.
What’s up with Marner, the team’s standout individual last campaign? Who knows? He isn’t signed. He cannot currently be signed, owing to his own demands and the limitations of the salary cap. He may be signed on Day 1 of the season once space is cleared by pushing broken pieces of the roster off the books, but that’s not certain. This could be Nylander Redux, albeit with a more important player in a far more important season.
In April, after they’d been shrugged off by the Boston Bruins, the Leafs had finally used up all of their rebuilding mulligans – and they’d taken a few. No more easy rides in the media. No more pulling a sad face and expecting fans to forgive them.
Their options for the 2019-20 season were reduced to three: a) win something meaningful; b) lose and start pushing bodies overboard; or c) lose and return to the cycle of excuses and decline that was once the operating principle of this organization.
In June, the Raptors won an NBA championship and it got worse.
In terms of unlikely accomplishments, this was like flying a hang glider to the moon. An NBA team labours under essentially the same regime as an NHL club – 30-or-so competitors, salary cap, draft system.
But compared to the Leafs, the Raptors have several structural disadvantages – no top picks; no pull with free agents; no widespread local affinity for the game (and if you’re throwing up a corrective finger on that last one, we won’t know if things have really changed until next spring).
Despite these disadvantages, the Raptors won anyway. And so it should now be asked, why can’t the Leafs do that, too?
In July, Kawhi Leonard left. That was bad news for the Raptors. It was a nightmare for the Leafs.
In another world – the one in which Leonard stays – the Raptors soak up all the attention next April. The Leafs will always be the Leafs in this town, but deep in their tortured sports souls, Torontonians are front-runners. They’d have stuck with the proven winner.
Last June, the Leafs PR department visited an NBA Finals game at the Scotiabank Arena. They were trying to get a feel for the logistics of the occasion.
“Can you imagine how crazy it would be if both teams were in a final right now?” one of them said to me.
Not any more, I can’t. The Leafs are the only championship-calibre outfit left in town. Just as expectations shot off the charts, the Leafs lost the only other team that was out there running interference for them.
So based on nothing but feel, how is Toronto doing this off-season?
The team has made some moves, throwing out expired or defective materials (Patrick Marleau, Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, et al) and returning some top-end defensive help (Tyson Barrie). That’s an aggregate good. These should be boom times. With less than a month to go before the beginning of training camp, we should be hearing a lot of excited chatter about next year. Mostly, what you hear out there is a nervous silence.
A few things are dampening enthusiasm – history, both recent and ancient; the Raptors hangover; the pervading sense of doom that is as much a part of Leafs mystique as Stompin’ Tom or Bill Barilko.
But the big problem is the Marner situation and its echoes of the Nylander fiasco. It is the sense that even when the Leafs get things right, they eventually find a way to turn them wrong.
As yet, there’s no rush to blame Marner for wanting to maximize his value. Nobody’s pillorying Dubas for being unable to give Marner money he doesn’t have to give him. When no one was looking, Leafs fans got reasonable.
But wait for it. The meltdown is coming. In Toronto, it always is.
If the Leafs feel like anything right now, it is a band that’s talking about breaking up and going solo because it made the cover of Rolling Stone, but hasn’t yet had a No. 1 album.
Some outfits are too big to fail. The Leafs feel like one that is too big to succeed. They will feel like that until the moment they do.
If Marner signs once the season begins, all will be forgiven again. Right up until he goes eight games without a goal or the team loses five in a row – things that will probably happen at some point. If Toronto’s permanent hockey hysteria gets hold of the narrative early, it will not let go. Too many things have gone squirrelly in the last little while for people to apply rationality to the situation.
We know to something close to a certainty that the Leafs will face either the Bruins or Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round next year. One can already envision the pent-up anxiety that will attend either match up
The Bruins have history backing them up. The Lightning have the best man-for-man roster in the NHL. And the Leafs have a few million people standing behind them with a finger in their back saying, “I dare you to screw this up.” The next eight months are all a prelim to that moment.
If it works out, there will finally be joy in Mudville. But right now, you’d have to say that Mudville is preparing itself for the other thing.