This article originally appeared in the September 22 edition of Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.
The headline at NHL.com brimmed with optimism: “New Leafs management sees bright future.” For those who forget how the rest of the cycle goes, here are the headlines that will inevitably follow during the coming season:
• Leafs management thrilled by quick start
• Leafs management urges patience as team swoons
• Leafs management baffled by epic losing streak
• New Leafs management sees bright future
For hockey fans outside Toronto, there is nothing better than pre-season Leafs optimism. It’s like watching Charlie Brown try to kick the football or Stephen Harper try to smile. SURELY THIS TIME IT WILL ALL GO PERFECTLY!
The basis for the confidence is always the same: blind hope. The players we signed will be great. The players who sucked last year will be better. The bluebirds of the forest will land on our shoulder while chirping a jaunty tune. The Leafs are like that friend who makes terrible life choices but is always convinced he’s finally got it figured out.
– Guys, I’ve got my act together! This is going to
be a great year for me!
– Terrific! Tell us all about it.
– Sure, but first I gotta lend my credit card to this
hobo and text my boss a photo of my genitals!
The occasion for the NHL.com story was an appearance by president Brendan Shanahan and his management team during the recent Leafs Nation Fan Fest at Air Canada Centre. (Adult tickets to the event cost $56.75—which seems like a lot, but you can’t put a price on standing in the very room where coach Randy Carlyle repeatedly sighed loudly and rubbed his temples in frustration.)
Speaking to fans, Shanahan ventured that the Leafs are “built to win right now.” Is there any reason to doubt his word? Probably not, but just to be sure let’s quickly revisit the past three seasons.
2011–12: Leafs endure a late-season collapse that then-GM Brian Burke describes as “akin to an 18-wheeler going right off a cliff.” The experience is so traumatic that Burke permanently loses the ability to knot a necktie.
2012–13: Leafs suffer a historic, soul-wrenching loss to Boston in game seven of the first round of the playoffs. Everyone outside Toronto spends the entire summer dancing around like a middle-aged man in a Viagra ad.
2013–14: Leafs lose 12 of their final 14 games, securing the fate of coach Carlyle. Because these are the Leafs, his fate is a two-year contract extension. If they’d lost all 14 games, he’d have received a five-year extension and a pony. (Factoid: During 2013–14, the Leafs recorded the worst shot differential in the NHL, which wouldn’t be so bad except they play in the NHL.)
So why, in the face of this recurring and abject misery, are Leaf bigwigs so upbeat? One main reason: They think they’ll be much stronger at forward this season. As GM Dave Nonis put it: “We felt last year our depth wasn’t where it needed to be.”
This is weird because exactly one year ago another guy named Dave Nonis—it couldn’t possibly be the same fellow—declared: “Our top nine forwards will be competitive. And our fourth line will be very hard to play against.” That’s some pretty subpar talent evaluation. Dave Nonis should definitely fire that Dave Nonis guy.
For the record, Leafs management is not alone in its optimism. With the season still weeks away, the local tabloid in Toronto has already attained new levels of buoyant thinking, musing that David Clarkson—whose seven-year, $36.75-million contract makes Jesus cry—will perform better this season owing to the “positive reinforcement” provided by the birth of his first son. Yay, my penis works! (Scores 30 goals.)
Another apparent positive sign for the coming season? The Leafs have finally embraced advanced analytics. Although that turned out to be a bit of a bummer when they ran the numbers and discovered that 1967 was 47 years ago.