Two significant things happened to the New York Islanders after the 2017-18 season.
They lost their franchise player in free agency and were left with a general manager who’d been involuntarily retired as his replacement.
That summer, you’d have said the Islanders were close to being the sad-sackingest team in the NHL. They were a sort of down-market Edmonton Oilers.
Like the Oilers, the Islanders had once been great. Like the Oilers, they no longer were. However, unlike the Oilers, no one cared anymore.
The hero in that moment was the Toronto Maple Leafs. They’d swooped in on a rope to catch hold of John Tavares around the waist and rescue him from a lifetime of Long Island strip malls and irrelevance.
Showing more personality in one social-media blast than he would for the next three years combined, Tavares posted a picture of himself as a kid, asleep in his Leafs jam-jams. Adorable.
Having picked the Islanders clean, the Leafs left their junk behind – former GM Lou Lamoriello – and headed back north.
You can imagine how that must have felt to fans of the Islanders, all 30 or 40 of them. The iconic Canadian franchise getting the runty American one in a headlock and picking its pockets.
Looking back on it, the Leafs did one thing indisputably right during that switcheroo: they didn’t gloat.
It must have been tempting. It must have felt like Tavares’s arrival had gotten them across the Rubicon. All they had to do was give him the ‘C,’ plug a few wires into Kyle Dubas’s pulsating hockey brain and they’d be winning like crazy.
But management and Tavares said all the right things about the Islanders club they’d just gazumped. Which is to say, they didn’t say anything at all.
Because if the Leafs had gloated, even just a little, even by accident, what is now a very, very bad look would be an untenable one.
Three years later, the Islanders are still playing in June while the Leafs would have been better off disbanding in April.
Facing what is pretty clearly the most talented club in the league, the Islanders are in with a puncher’s chance. On Tuesday, they lost 4-2 to Tampa Bay. You feel fairly sure they will come back slugging on Thursday. The Islanders are that sort of team. They hit back.
The Leafs are not that sort of team. They’re more of a “get down in a protective crouch and wait for everyone to lose interest” sort of team.
It’s becoming more and more apparent that the Islanders are the Leafs’ nicer, smarter, more attractive doppelganger.
The Islanders are the team the Leafs thought they would be. They are the team Lamoriello might have built had he stayed. Most importantly, they are a reflected version of all the things that have gone wrong in Toronto.
The Islanders didn’t get contractually worked over by their young stars. The Islanders don’t waste energy getting into slapping contests with the media. The Islanders haven’t built a cult of personality around management. The Islanders don’t talk a lot. The Islanders don’t fold up like a lawn chair when the playoffs start.
At the centre of all those little things that have gone wrong/right sits Lamoriello. I’m not sure the guy owns a computer, never mind knows how to use one. But his old-school approach to roster building, franchise management and media relations is lapping the new-school version Toronto went all-in on.
Lamoriello was already a legend when he was hired by the Leafs. But since Toronto got rid of him, he’s starting to look like some sort of hockey Gandalf. The Leafs ought to be the first team he thanks in his hall-of-fame speech.
Nowadays, you can play a game of WWLHD with all of Toronto’s decisions (‘What Would Lou Have Done?’).
Would Lou have let William Nylander flip MLSE on its back and tickle-torture it into agreeing to a US$7-million a year deal? No, Lou would not. Lou would have said, “Enjoy making zero dollars in Sweden. I hear Ornskoldsvik’s not lovely this time of year.”
You can do this for days, pick apart everything that’s happened since Lamoriello left. Is that nice? Of course not. That’s why it’s so much fun.
Still, a couple of weeks ago, you’d have said the Leafs had gotten away with it again. Team president Brendan Shanahan’s refusal to budge on the issue of change wrong-footed the hysterics who make up most of the fanbase.
What do you say when the hall-of-famer in charge tells you you’re being ridiculous? You feel a bit ridiculous. After a few days, everyone in Leafsburgh had convinced themselves that sticking with the current bunch of muppets was their own idea.
But then the Islanders kept winning. Beating the Penguins was one thing – everyone beats them nowadays. Beating the Bruins was something else entirely.
Lamoriello, Tavares, three first-round losses since then, the collapse against Montreal, the Islanders’ baseline competence – if it ends here, it already looks bad.
But if the Islanders make the Stanley Cup final, that will get the same Toronto fans who’d been pacified just a few days ago thinking again. Hey, why did we get rid of Lou? What exactly have we bought into here? Why exactly are we doing it again next year? What would Lou do now? Can we ask Lou? Does anyone have Lou’s phone number?
If the Islanders win the Cup, then forget it. That’s all the Leafs will hear about forever. That frustration will lead to more media meltdowns, more lobster-claw grips on sticks, more pressure in the playoffs and more calls to make major changes long before we get back there. People will climb up on management’s back like a million deranged monkeys and never get off.
Two weeks ago, this problem had been taken care of. In particular, the GM’s and coach’s job were safe. Everyone had another calendar year before they had to call down to maintenance and tell them to get the guillotine out of storage.
But now? Now that’s up in the air again. How it turns out is kinda up to Lou & Co.