At what point did house money become the Toronto Maple Leafs’ life savings?
That’s what happens when you reach 99 percent playoff odds. Pre-season expectations vaporize. No matter how much pain Mike Babcock promised Leaf Nation, no matter how much the fans forgave every loss and mini slump and learning experience, something changed when the Leafs went 11-3-1 over a 15-game stretch entering Tuesday night’s home game against the first-overall Washington Capitals. The Leafs went and made their fan base care again. Those buggers.
It was clear before the 2016-17 started the star-crossed franchise was in for a metamorphosis. The Leafs won Auston Matthews in the 2016 draft lottery and made him their fourth top-10 pick in a five-year stretch, along with Morgan Rielly in 2012, William Nylander in 2014 and Mitch Marner in 2015. They signed goaltender Frederik Andersen. They lured blueliner Nikita Zaitsev over from Russia. Mix in the hiring of coach Mike Babcock a year earlier, the arrival of GM Lou Lamoriello and the all-around team culture change, and everyone knew it was time to look at this franchise differently.
Still, the butterfly was supposed to stay cocooned a bit longer. This season was supposed to be about incremental improvement, about watching the kids make mistakes and dazzle with their potential. The team wasn’t expected to realize that potential yet.
But the collection of young talent was just too good. The Leafs are the second team ever and the first in 36 years with three 60-point rookies. Andersen’s hot runs gradually outnumbered his cold spells. Center Nazem Kadri excelled as a shutdown center and goal scorer, making the six-year, $27-million contract he inked look more brilliant by the day. Everything came together far sooner than expected.
Those old expectations started to transform into something new: immediate hope. And it wasn’t foolish. The Leafs have the No. 2 power play in the league. They have the No. 9 penalty kill. They’re the NHL’s top team at generating shot attempts. They’re eighth overall in 5-on-5, score, zone and venue adjusted Corsi. They rate as legitimate according to many important metrics. That’s not to say they’re a powerhouse, of course. They remain defensively sloppy. They do the headless chicken thing with a late-game lead. They need another true top-four defenseman. But this is still a team that can make noise in the playoffs with the right matchup. Does anyone out there pick the Ottawa Senators to beat the Leafs in a seven-game series? No one outside Ottawa should. What about Boston? Toronto just swept the season series for the first time since 1924-25, so it would give at least give the experienced Bruins a run.
And that’s why, after home defeats against the Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning, Leaf Nation is gathering on social media in droves for some serious hand wringing. Images of the 2012-13 team blowing a 4-1 lead in Game 7 to the Bruins return. The Leaf chocker memes quickly get unearthed. All the old scabs for the sad-sack team get picked open. If you told any fans in September the team would finish with 93 points, they wouldn’t have been able to contain their grins. That would’ve been a seriously optimistic projection. We at THN picked Toronto to finish last in the Atlantic, after all. The problem is this team has shown enough that a missed post-season suddenly would feel like a missed opportunity – not necessarily to make a deep run, but at the very least for the kids to gain valuable experience. If Toronto can hold off the Lightning and New York Islanders, each three points back with two games to play, Matthews will join Nathan MacKinnon as the only No. 1 overall picks in the past 19 seasons to go directly to the NHL and make the playoffs.
It thus feels like Toronto really does have something to lose, and it’s shown on the ice. The Tuesday loss to Washington was forgivable enough, as it came against a suffocating defensive effort from hockey’s best team and was the second leg of a back-to-back. But Thursday the Leafs looked like something they haven’t all season: a desperate hockey club. The loose kids were absent. They put a bit too much adrenaline into every one-timer attempt. They tried cross-ice passes through two or three Lightning skaters. They tossed Hail Mary stretch passes up ice hoping to create breakaways. They looked like a team just wanting to close its eyes and win the easy way.
And now there’s a real possibility the Leafs blow this thing. It’s still not at all probable, with chances of just 9 percent, but it’s possible. Their last two opponents, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets, are locked into their playoff matchup, including home ice, and thus have reason to rest some players, but the powerhouse Penguins and Jackets minus a player or two each are still likely better than what Tampa and the Islanders have to face in their final pairs of games. The Bolts get the Canadiens and Sabres. The Isles get the Devils and Senators.
So what will it mean if everything does go wrong? We’ll likely see a lot of doom and gloom and talk of curses in the immediate aftermath. There’s no denying it would be a remarkable collapse and wasted opportunity for a team that, according to the peripheral stats, would be reasonably dangerous if it could climb into the Atlantic Division 2-3 matchup and compete in that bracket. But any fans feeling despair if that happens have to stop and ponder the very reason their hearts are crushed, the very reason the expectations skyrocketed. This team is way ahead of schedule, playoffs or not. Caps coach Barry Trotz went hyperbolic when asked what the Leaf kids reminded him of this week: the 1980s Edmonton Oilers, he said. Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly couldn’t hide his jealously that the Leafs franchise, having started a rebuild at the same time, is further along than Buffalo.
A playoff miss would certainly sting but would not change the fact serious progress has been made and that countless team rookie records have been smashed. Depending on what they do in the off-season, the Leafs would still enter 2017-18 as a favorite not just to make the playoffs, but to compete for an Atlantic Division title. That’s how promising the franchise’s trajectory is.
Now it’s time to watch the games. Maybe the Leafs win a game, and maybe the Isles and Bolts fail to run the table. Maybe all is forgotten and Toronto makes the Big Dance. But even if it doesn’t, 2016-17 won’t be a failure, no matter how much it might seem that way Sunday night.