Being a Toronto Maple Leafs fan today is pretty darn swell.
The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and Auston Matthews just took a faceoff against John Tavares to kick training camp off because, in case you haven’t heard, those two are teammates now.
This truly is the most wonderful time of the year.
Training camp is a particularly enticing treat for fans, as it effectively symbolizes the thrill of what’s to come. If the regular season is a rollercoaster, then where the Leafs currently find themselves at is its best part; the slow crawl to the top. There’s no screaming, no vomiting, no pleading with a higher power to exit the ride alive. At least, not yet.
All this team can do now, all they’re required to do now, is prepare for the drop ahead. And by the look of things, that drop won’t be all that steep.
I mean, when you put it like that…
Let’s, just for a second, live in a world where the Leafs made precisely zero personnel moves over the summer and open camp with the intention of icing the exact same roster that took on Boston back in April. Are their odds of finishing atop their division better now than they were a year ago?
Honestly, I’d wager yes.
The glaring lack of a power balance in the Atlantic Division, at this point, is enough to make the United State’s wealth gap look downright proportional. It’s equal parts comical and ridiculous, a completely self-inflicted outcome which, quite frankly, hastens to warrant league intervention.
At one end of the spectrum, you have the contenders. The entirety of the Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, and even Florida Panthers, will begin the 2018-19 season harbouring a “playoffs or bust” attitude, with a few almost certainly expected to surpass that.
At the other end, however, you find the bottom-feeders.
The Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, and, especially, Ottawa Senators are all favourites, in varying capacities, to once again tumble into the NHL’s basement.
Buffalo, of course, is the lone wildcard in this case. And yet, even after drafting uber-rookie Rasmus Dahlin and straight up stealing Jeff Skinner from Carolina since the prior season’s end, their success ultimately rests at the feet of their crop of rookies.
This might be a growth year.
Look, being a bottom feeder isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Organizations who plunk themselves into the draft lottery generally do so as a step in the direction of legitimacy. The NHL is a cyclical league, and, barring special circumstances, one must be bad before they can become good. It’s a stepping stone. The gut punch of a bottom-5 finish often comes softened by a plan geared towards sustained success. Just look at the Leafs.
Well, do any of those latter three teams look like they operate with a plan?
In the span of 4 months, Ottawa, Detroit, and Montreal all lost their captains despite having no immediate options on board to replace them.
Henrik Zetterberg‘s departure from the Red Wings, to be fair, is a different story, as back problems forced the veteran into medically-advised retirement. Even so, management had been aware of this outcome since, at the earliest, the draft, and nevertheless made no real effort to lessen the inevitable void.
With Zetterberg, the Red Wings already faced a staggering road back to the playoffs. Without him, their chances are nonexistent.
Ottawa and Montreal are different beasts altogether.
Both teams, arguably Toronto’s biggest rivals, are now run by the two most incompetent, ineffective, and downright out of touch management groups in all of hockey, much to the benefit of those slated to play them 4 times a year.
Rather than adding meaningful improvements to their respective rosters, Pierre Dorion and Marc Bergevin both succeeded in backing themselves into corners so tight, their only escape was to run the franchise face right out of town.
At least the Canadiens managed to get a suitable return for Max Pacioretty.
Sure, they willfully downgraded in swapping Alex Galchenyuk out for Max Domi, failed to even get an interview with newly-signed Toronto Maple Leaf, John Tavares, and now embark upon year one of 30-year-old Carey Price‘s 10-year, $80 million contract.
Still, they nonetheless accomplished the absolute bare minimum of asset management and received fair value for their perennial 30-goal scorer of a captain, even if they didn’t actually need to trade him in the first place.
There’s no silver lining to where the Senators stand now. A remarkable accomplishment, considering the cards they had been dealt.
Back in 2008, Ottawa blatantly lucked into drafting Erik Karlsson at 16th overall, who not only emerged as their captain, but as the best defencemen in the entire NHL and perhaps of his generation. And despite being the organization with the lengthiest track record of driving away its star players, the Sens somehow retained Karlsson’s services long-term at a paltry annual cap hit of $6.5 million, easily the league’s biggest bargain in the years to come.
So, what did Dorion & Co. end up doing with their inexpensive superstar who plays the sport’s most coveted position and repeatedly emphasized intent to remain in Ottawa for the entirety of his career?
They lied to him, strapped him with an albatross contract in trade talks to no avail, and eventually booted him out on the first day of camp for an unfathomably minuscule return.
Per the official schedule, the Leafs are expected to face those three teams a combined 12 times in 2018-19, otherwise known as 15% of the 82-game season.
Remember how, minutes ago, we ventured into a world where the Leafs stood pat since April? Well, that’s not the world we live in.
In this reality, the Leafs spent their summer adding one of the league’s bonafide elite centres to a roster that, fewer than 12 months ago, finished 6th overall in the NHL and nearly knocked the heavily favoured Bruins out in round one. And now, they’ll be spending almost a fifth of their season up against competition in the form of borderline-replacement level talent.
Like I said, this truly is the most wonderful time of the year.
Thanks for reading!