How Delusion Festers

TORONTO (July 6) — For as long as anyone can remember; but, specifically, in the age of Internet and social media, the Toronto Maple Leafs have possessed as rabid and unconditionally–loyal a fan–base as any in professional sport. How do we know? Simple… only one team holds the longest Stanley Cup drought: 51 years and counting. Wishful thinking has therefore been pandemic amid followers of the Blue and White.

Few fan–bases in North American pro sport have so–regularly latched onto false hope. Of course, it is hardly the fault of Leaf supporters that they’ve been repeatedly duped for half a century. All these patriotic, sincere folks wish for is a competitive hockey club with stable ownership and management (“stable”, in this case, meaning astute). As such, when legitimate hope materializes, nearly all pretense of rationale is surrendered.

This has occurred, unabated, in the six–day span since the Maple Leafs signed free agent center John Tavares. It was a move, by the way, that I thoroughly endorsed and advocated in this corner. For only the second time in franchise history, the club went all out to procure the biggest prize on the open market (the first being 20 years ago, and quite by accident, when goalie Curtis Joseph came over from Edmonton). To what extent Tavares’s seven–year contract hand–cuffs the Maple Leafs — and, make no mistake, the final two or three years of the $11 million cap–hit will be onerous — is not an issue for today. If the local lad helps the club end its title famine, it will rank among the surest investments in the era of unrestricted free agency.

At the moment, however, and as ardently as Leaf fanatics wish to claim otherwise, Tavares, alone, does not put the club over the top. In fact, the Leafs may be no more–improved today than at the end of last season. Such a contention, offered in a blog earlier this week, spawned predictable outrage… and a classic example of the delusion that tends to incapacitate Leaf diehards. “Howard,” began a quizzical e–mailer, “a 105–point team adds John Tavares and you’re saying it hasn’t improved over last season. Are you okay?” To which I promptly replied: “Do you honestly think, my friend, that the Maple Leafs would have accomplished what they did last season without James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak (a combined 50 goals and 97 points)? As such, is John Tavares really joining a 105–point team?” Not surprisingly, I’m still awaiting a second response.

Now, this isn’t to even imply that the Leafs should have kept JVR and Bozak; then refrained from pursuing Tavares. I didn’t start watching hockey last winter. It was crystal–clear that the team, as constituted in April, couldn’t win a playoff round, let alone challenge for the Stanley Cup. As much as I respect both veterans, they had to move on (JVR went back to Philadelphia; Bozak to St. Louis). No one, however, can possibly allege that van Riemsdyk and Bozak were not significantly tied to the record–breaking club. In fact, without them — and given the number of games Auston Matthews lost to injury — the Leafs may have rung up 90 or 95 points and missed the playoffs altogether (97 being the Eastern Conference terminator). So, please, let’s try to desist from suggesting, inanely, that Johnny T. has been added to a 105–point team. It just isn’t true.

This frivolous rationale will shift into overdrive, possibly like never before, once Erik Karlsson is dealt by Ottawa; particularly if he winds up with Conference–rival Tampa Bay, alongside Victor Hedman. Forget that such a duo would be the most–remarkable blue–line tandem in the NHL’s expansion era (after 1967); rivaled only by Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger of the 2007 Stanley Cup–champion Anaheim Ducks; perhaps also Niedermayer and Scott Stevens of the three–time–champion New Jersey Devils (1995–2000–2003).

Inevitably, Toronto hockey addicts will convince one another that it’s no big deal.

From all appearances, the Leafs are not involved in the Karlsson talks. Some contend that Ottawa would never trade Karlsson within the Atlantic Division, or to its heated provincial rival. Baloney. General manager Kyle Dubas was quoted, earlier this week, saying he will lock up his Big 3 draft picks — Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner — as “it wouldn’t be fair to Tavares for us to lose a key piece”. Now, I have some hope for Dubas as a GM, mainly because he comes from Brendan Shanahan, who’s been a revelation for the Blue and White. I was totally on–side with Shanahan’s decision to replace the aging Lou Lamoriello with his hand–picked protege. If, however, young Kyle thinks be can build a Stanley Cup team in the absence of a No. 1 defenseman, good luck to him. He’ll need every ounce of it. I’m not suggesting the task is impossible. Just overwhelmingly improbable. And, in the context of his remark this week, incredibly “unfair” to Tavares, whose best years in a Toronto jersey will be wasted with a run–of–the–mill blue line. Were Kyle intent on becoming part of the Karlsson discussion, he’d make it known that Nylander is available. Unless Senators’ GM Pierre Dorion has gotten a jump on legalized marijuana, Dubas would have his colleague’s attention.

As for the salary–cap gymnastics, any club acquiring Karlsson will have to be creative. The Leafs included.

While retaining the Big 3 will easily placate Leaf fans, it must be noted that innumerable gifted forwards have come through town in the past four–plus decades — all of them undermined by the lack of a linchpin on defense. Given that Dubas seems content to add more “bodies” to the back end, the draft phenoms — and Tavares — will simply be the next in line. Not long ago, three mainstays were potentially available; all scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next summer. Los Angeles and Arizona were smart enough to re–sign Drew Doughty and Oliver Ekman–Larsson through their prime NHL years; Ottawa has regrettably imploded at crunch time for Karlsson, who wants nothing more to do with the club that drafted him 15th overall in 2008 (the Leafs, by the way, traded up to grab Luke Schenn fifth. Ouch!). With Dubas adamant about retaining his current nucleus, the prospect of landing a Norris Trophy type is no–longer conceivable.

As for the “105–point team” that Tavares joined last weekend, it must unearth a winger capable of scoring 30 goals (JVR’s approximate total). Nothing more than hope indicates that Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson (combined 64 NHL games) will be that person. Similarly on defense, with fingers crossed for Travis Dermott, Tim Liljegren and — perhaps down the road — Rasmus Sandin (combined 37 NHL games).

The Leafs unquestionably have superb quality and depth at center ice. Which is important. And, a very good regular–season goalie. But, still — and for more than 40 years — a gaping cavern on the blue line.


16 comments on “How Delusion Festers

  1. Looks like Howard watched all 7 games of the Leafs vs. Bruins this year. Without a star puck moving defenseman Toronto spent the bulk of the games in their own end as Toronto’s defense was largely inept at getting the puck out and up the ice for the forwards to earn their keep. IMO the Leafs were talented enough up front last year to contend for the cup but they were sorely lacking in a “Get the Puck out of here” Dman. Karlsson is available but (IMO) it doesn’t seem like Toronto wants him all that much. My understanding is that young Dubas has devised an algorithm/methodology to select players he thinks he can get more out of that what their stats lead you to believe. The Leafs have either calculated that Karlsson can’t help them or they can get someone better cheaper (Shea Webber???) At any rate I hope Dubas+Shanny pull the rabbit out of the hat. And Howard excellent points on moving on from Lou. It must of been a really hard decision for Shanahan to make .

  2. While some of the points made make some sense, there is a negative undercurrent in the article. The talent this team has acquired/developed in three short years is nothing short of amazing.

    With the maturation of some of the youth over the next two to three years and strategic development of youth this team can accomplish greatness.

    For those with a short memory it was just two short years ago that the Pittsburgh Penguins with a makeshift defence, good goalkeeping, strength down the middle and some scoring on the wings captured the big mug.

  3. I believe the Leafs are upgraded because Tavares seems to be much more versatile when compared to Bozak. Bozak’s line had to be sheltered. Tavares I feel will be more of an all around center like Matthews. Tavares also can kill penalties so the center on the penalty kill does not need to be your 4th line center – it can be your “first” line center. With respect to JVR, he will be hard to replace but I do think that the power play points he had (20 of his 54) won’t be an issue.
    So, with Tavares’ flexibility and hopefully good health from Matthews/Kadri, I think we will see our best players on the ice for more minutes (perhaps we don’t even need a 4th line center as we can have the other 3 rotate).
    With respect to the defense, I do think we need to add but maybe what we need is just a younger version of Hainsey to play with Rielly. Someone solid who is young enough to play heavy minutes all year. That should be cheaper than trying to acquire a stud D-man. We also must have a bounce back season from Zaitsev.

    I am excited to see the next version of our Leafs!

    1. Some good points. But, again, I don’t see the Leafs winning the Stanley Cup without a true stud on the back end. As I mentioned in the blog, it isn’t impossible. But, it happens so very rarely.

  4. You make a good point but tell me who on the Vegas/Washington team meets the criteria of a stud defensemen on the level of Doughty, Karlsson and Hedman? You can never predict that a team will definitely win the Stanley Cup as things can go off the rails in a hurry but sometimes all it takes is for a good team to gel together at the right time and a hot goalie! We at least now have the makings for that type of scenario, that plus perhaps another good second tier RD should be enough to keep us hopeful.

      1. C’mon Howard. I’m not sure if having the most points classifies Carlson as a stud defensemen especially given a +/- of 0 and that in all his previous years,save one, he was below 40 points! By that measure the leafs are the only team with 2 defensemen in the top 15 defensemen league wide. By your answer above that should count for something.

  5. JVR age 29 and Bozak 32 may be on the downside so their 97 points last year might only be 80 this season? Then you have Tavares age 27 maybe even better playing with Marner and a Johanssen playing like he did in the AHL playoffs. That could easily be 100 points.

    You could be right and time will tell. Who knows? Maybe Lilgren who was projected to be a #1 pick overall before his lost season with mono should have been a #1 and the Leafs are the Cup favourite for real!

  6. Kyle is not done. A trade is coming where we give up a goalie, Lievo, maybe one of our defenceive prospects and possibly a pick for a top defender.
    The existing defense is a year older and more experienced.
    Some of the incoming defense will surprise you.
    Speed on the wings ( all four lines) will make a difference coming back. See Las Vegas.
    Also, take a look at JVR and Bozak plus minus. You don’t need 97 points for if you are not giving up 97 points against.

  7. The defensive duo of Larry Robinson and Serge Savard wasn’t horrible. There’s a few rings between them. Not the focus of your story but best D pair since 1967 is an interesting debate.

    1. Agree, Paul, but in an era completely devoid of parity. It was the Habs… then everyone else. And, guys like Bobby Orr, Brad Park and Denis Potvin were around. Hedman and Karlsson may be the best two defensemen on the planet right now.

  8. The Cup-winning Penguins had Paul Coffey, Larry Murphy and Ulf Samuelsson suiting up on the same defense corps in 1991. Formidable, to say the least.

    That said, you are spot on about the Leafs being far from done in terms of building a championship team. Exciting? Yes. True contender? Not yet.

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