FORT MYERS, Fla. – Josh Donaldson heard something vague about an emergency goalie playing in an NHL game, but didn’t know the precise details of David Ayres suiting up for the Carolina Hurricanes and beating the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"That was against them?" he asked incredulously inside the Minnesota Twins clubhouse. "Crazy."
Without a doubt Ayres’ performance is one of the wildest sports stories in recent memory, the everyman-makes-good-on-a-once-in-a-lifetime-chance narrative making it widely relatable. That it happened against the Maple Leafs magnified the spotlight and opened a door for the torrent of snark that inevitably flooded social media.
Gang, that was some of the finest chirping we’ve seen.
Seriously, though, watching the Maple Leafs from a distance this season, you can see some parallels between them and the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays, who spent half that year as an uber-talented but underperforming club continually undone by its small foundational cracks.
That season, Donaldson made one of the more important declarations in recent Blue Jays history, when in the midst of a four-game sweep by the Astros in Houston, he memorably said, "This isn’t the try league, this is the get it done league. Eventually they’re going to find people who are going to get it done."
Eventually, former general manager Alex Anthopoulos did find people to get it done during a remarkable roster remake ahead of the trade deadline, beginning with the transformational acquisition of Troy Tulowitzki for Jose Reyes and three prospects stabilizing what had been a porous middle infield. The addition of David Price provided the rotation with an ace, the pickups of Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins lengthened the bullpen, and Ben Revere gave the power-laden lineup a speed element it lacked.
The collective changes patched up the flaws that had caused the Blue Jays to vastly lag their expected win total. Once augmented, they stormed to an American League East title and an epic division series win over the Texas Rangers, before losing to the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series.
Really, they should have won the World Series.
"Ultimately, it was a change of personnel that took us to the next level, so actually what I said was true," Donaldson, who signed a $92-million, four-year deal with the Minnesota Twins this past off-season, said Sunday morning. "There were little things that tended to become big things, and the more little things that are awry, the bigger the problems become. But it’s more than just performance. It’s being able to come together as a team, being able to pull for one another, being able to have each other’s back."
"The environment when I first got to Toronto was very individual-based," he continued. "Like, ‘Hey, I’m going to do this,’ or, ‘If I’m an all-star, it’s OK, and if we don’t win, maybe we’re not that good.’ At the end of the day, on any team I’ve been on that had a chance to win, there are sacrifices to win that have to be made. One of those sacrifices is having communication between everybody so that the mindset is always on winning and has nothing to do with individual accomplishments."
Up until the deadline, the Blue Jays were at risk of squandering peak-level seasons from Donaldson, who was named American League MVP, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Russell Martin and Marco Estrada, among others.
Similarly, the Maple Leafs have been unable to fully leverage dominant seasons from Auston Matthews, in particular, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander and Frederik Andersen.
Defensive issues for the Maple Leafs have been as corrosive on the ice as they were on the field for the Blue Jays until Tulowitzki and Revere not only started making the plays that should be made, but regularly stole hits, as well. The recent pickup of Jack Campbell potentially offers the type of relief in the Leafs goal that Lowe and Hawkins provided the Jays bullpen. Finding a way to turn Tyson Barrie into a defenceman that better fits the puzzle could be the hockey version of swapping out Reyes for Tulowitzki.
There are significant differences between the situations, of course, first and foremost that the Maple Leafs operate in a salary cap league while the Blue Jays do not. Anthopoulos had a loaded farm system to trade from while general manager Kyle Dubas has already dipped into his cache of prospects and draft picks, and must be wary of stripping it too far down.
Still, the key point of commonality is in a talent base not being optimally utilized, and in the potential to unlock all that ability by addressing underlying fault lines.
"When Tulo came in, the sense of respect that everybody had for him as a player and what type of player he was, we were excited to say the least," said Donaldson. "Then to add David Price right after that, I still remember when he arrived and to this day, it’s one of the coolest moments I’ve had walking into a clubhouse. I remember going to the sound system, putting some Drake on, and then I look around and we’ve got Troy Tulowitzki, we’ve got David Price, LaTroy Hawkins, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Kevin Pillar, all these other guys – I don’t want to leave anyone out – and I’m like, holy crap, this team has a chance. I started getting chills, the hairs on my arm started sticking up. That jolt of energy pushed us all to go even harder."
Anthopoulous spent lots of time identifying the issues on that Blue Jays team and then developing an executable plan to fix them before the deadline. Dubas, no doubt, knows exactly what external adds are needed to correct the Maple Leafs’ flaws, but whether he can navigate his way through the club’s salary-cap challenges and pre-deadline market competition is another matter.
Either way, in the 2015 Blue Jays, there’s a potential conceptual model, if not a direct blueprint, for Dubas to follow as he ponders how to save a Maple Leafs season on the brink.
"There are certain key elements on playoff teams – you have to get battle-tested," said Donaldson, who’s been to the post-season in seven of the past eight years. "In 2015, early on, we stunk. We got off to a terrible start (23-30 on June 2) and all the media were saying there are no teams that go to the playoffs that are this far back. That puts it in the forefront of your mind and it’s like, shoot, if it’s up to them we shouldn’t even finish the season.
"That’s when you start to bond together, and for us, it became a reality that we were fighting to come back. But we had the understanding that this is a long season, things are going to get blown out of proportion at times because that’s just the immediate reaction. As players, we had the narrow-minded goal of, ‘I’m going to play to win today. If we don’t win today, let’s learn from that, and have this perspective that we’re playing the long game – there’s no short-game, freak-out mode. We have to stay mentally sane and it’s important to know what to focus and what not to focus on.’"
After failing to beat an organizational Zamboni driver, with the walls closing in tighter and tighter, those are some apt words for the Maple Leafs as they seek to rescue their season, the way Donaldson and the 2015 Blue Jays so memorably salvaged their summer.