The Toronto Maple Leafs Biggest Problem Is One of Perception

The Toronto Maple Leafs  are going in the right direction by any standard.

To Wit: The Toronto Maple Leafs are a team built around a 22 year old player who appears to be on track to be the best players in franchise history, and a 30 year old Hall of Famer who is among the NHL’s best players. They are the deepest team in hockey at the most important position (centre).

They have depth at every position (Say what you want about him, but Tyson Barrie on your 3rd pairing is impressive.  Being able to sit Nick Robertson or Rasmus Sandin is the very definition of depth).

They have brought in a new coach who has won over 70% of the games that his best defenseman dressed in.

The core group of players – Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Nylander, Rielly, Muzzin, Andersen is among the best group of high-end players that any team has.  No one even argues this.  Its one thing we pretty much all agree on.

Though you may not like their salary cap plan, your objections to it are overcome by two things:

  1. The relatively cheap cost of Andersen, Muzzin, and Rielly offsets the expense of the other four.  It comes to about $7.6 million per member of the core, I would say they get excellent value for that $7.6 million.

2.  The fact that they have an $11 million dollar third line, filled with good players on team-friendly contracts that would be very easy to trade without retaining salary.

Also, those three players are replaceable on the current roster (Pierre Engvall, Alex Barabanov, Nick Robertson).

Finally, the Leafs have three great prospects on their way to the NHL, two of them potentially stars.  They are Nick Robertson, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren.   That level of prospect talent is rarely seen on competing teams.

So to sum up: The Leafs are a team with depth, elite talent, elite prospects, cap flexibility and a coach who has demonstrated an ability to get the most out of this team.

A Matter of Perception

If you take all that together, its hard to understand why there isn’t a more positive vibe around this team.  That three goal comeback should have had the city fall in love with them.  Sure, they ultimately lost, but they gave us a thrill, and the promise to be better in the future (see above).

It’s  important to remember that teams do not improve in a linear fashion anywhere but the movies.  The Leafs took the Bruins to game seven twice, and lost.  If they had of happened to get an easier matchup in one of those years, odds are they would have made the second round by now, and if they had, people would be a lot more relaxed about their recent loss.

The fact that they gave a legacy team, with one Cup and a loss in the Finals, who has been among the best teams in hockey for ten years, such a run for their money should have been celebrated.  Instead people are hung up on the technicality of the actual W.

The Leafs problem is one of perception. Mainly that any loss is attributed to a predetermined list of gripes about the team and how it is built, while the facts and stats (same thing) are ignored when not convenient for this narrative.

Why doesn’t anyone talk about how Matthews is miles ahead of where MacKinnon was in his fourth year?  Or that the Avalanche were a disaster in MacKinnons fourth year.

The Penguins and Haws are the only two teams who have ever had such early success, and they each were gifted three Hall of Fame players in a time when the Salary Cap was new, and teams didn’t know what they were doing.

By any standard, the Toronto Maple Leafs are still operating in a best case scenario.

The fact is, the human brain equates the hitting and grinding  part of hockey with effort. It’s not true of course, but it is perceived that way.  If you built a team that eschews those things, especially when those things are a beloved part of the fabric of the game, you better win, or else.

That is the only way to explain what is happening.  The absolute roasting at the hands of their fans and the media has not been deserved.

The Leafs lost to the Blue Jackets while posting a save percentage of .936 and shooting just 1.9% at 5v5.

I get its hard to sell luck as the reason a team lost, but for what it’s worth, the best defensive team of all time could not realistically hope to hold the worst offensive team of all time to under 2% shooting for a length of 5 games.

If you put aside the fact that the Leafs are not building a team in the way its always been done, and in the way that you think it should be done, what is your real concern about the team?

Too much talent?  Too much cap flexibility?  Too many high-end prospects coming up in the system? I mean, I am at a serious loss to explain how such a rosy situation can be seen so  pessimistically by so many people.

Is it just the 1967 thing?

Losing sucks. I get it.  But it wouldn’t be so fun to do it if it was easy.  The Leafs current team has no more to do with the past failures of the franchise than you or I do.  There is nothing you can do to grind your way to a higher shooting percentage.  The fact that Columbus used two goalies over five games to save over 98% of the 5v5 shots is an astonishing statistical anomaly which has no bearing on the Leafs, the GM, the Coach or the structure of the roster.

It only seems like it does because of past experiences.  The Toronto Maple Leafs are a team on the rise. It would be nice to still be watching them play, but sometimes you deserve to win and don’t.

Stick to the plan, its working.