One thing I always liked about the Toronto Maple Leafs was that they sucked.
When I was eight years old, I didn’t identify with the Toronto Maple Leafs for any other reason than my Dad liked them. I don’t ever remember deciding to be a Leafs fan, I just thought my dad was cool and I liked everything that he liked.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve always enjoyed the Leafs in the way I would enjoy a gross old stray dog – they’re lovable precisely because of how bad they are. (Historically, it should go without saying).
Now, I fully admit that it makes absolutely no logical sense to consider the Leafs underdogs when they are an Original Six team, are co-owned by the two largest communication companies in the country, and have (figuratively) more resources than all the other teams combined. It’s completely illogical bordering on dumb. But I never really thought about it that way, I just could have chosen my favorite team to be one of the ones with Gretzky or Lemieux, but I didn’t. I chose the dumb one that always screws themselves over anytime they ever have anything good going on.
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If you grew up reading the Toronto Sun because of their excellent sports section and because there was no such thing as the internet, chances are you remember that the Sun used to syndicate a comic called the Born Loser, which was honestly pretty lame and definitely no Garfield , but is worth bringing up because of the uncanny way in which the main guy, the Born Loser if you will, is exactly like the Leafs – a straight, white male in the 1980s/90 incessantly complaining about life’s minor inconveniences must seem, to any other demographic, exactly like the Leafs do to other NHL fans.
And even the way in which I love the Leafs for being a lovable underdog when they are in no way at all an underdog is similar. Of course deep down I know that the reason the Leafs have been bad for 40 years is because the place sells out even if the team doesn’t show up, that the reason they’ve failed to be any good is because they don’t have to be. My only excuse is that the word fan comes from the word fanatic.
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The richest team, the biggest fan base, the city that provides the NHL with more players than any other city. The biggest city in the country that claims hockey as it’s identity. If this was a movie, you wouldn’t consider the writing realistic – literally no one could be this bad. But like the Born Loser, the Leafs just can’t get it done, despite having every advantage.
Running Daryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald out of town. Trading the draft picks that turned out to be Scott Niedermeyer and Robert Luongo. Bryan Berard. The Gretzky Incident. Going O-for with three first rounders in 1989. A fight between the GM and head scout over Luke Richardson and Joe Sakic that did not result in the Leafs drafting Joe Sakic. David Clarkson. Tukka Rask. Tomas Steen. Sundin in a Canucks uniform. Phil expletive deleted Kessel.
And that is only maybe ten percent of the outrageous, disgraceful nonsense that has gone on with this franchise in the last forty years. It’s also why you love them. Or hate to love them.
So what’s the Leafs biggest weakness? It is that they can’t even get out of their own way. The reason I try to write nothing but positive things about the current state of the team is because for once they aren’t listening to the fans, and they aren’t chasing big name acquisitions for the sake of it. They are being really smart about how to build a winner and if given enough runway they are definitely going to pull it off.
The Leafs biggest weakness has always been ownerships unwillingness to let something, anything, play out long enough to judge it properly. From their use of analytics and game theory, to their willingness to defy public opinion and intense media criticism because their data tells them to, I like what Shanahan and Dubas are doing. No short term fixes, no massive readjustments when they didn’t get the results they wanted to get instantly.
I respect that. It’s just about the first thing about this franchise I’ve ever been able to respect.
This summer everyone wanted to them to blow it up. Four straight first round losses (or the Covid equivalent, to head off any pedants reading this, hahaha) and that’s that. See ya later Marner. Welcome to the fold three average players you didn’t need to trade Marner to get.
If this was literally any other regime in team history you know that is exactly what would have happened. The Leafs threw their core audience a bone in Wayne Simmonds, Joe Thornton and Zach Bogosian, but those guys are bit players. What were their major moves? Bringing in a puck moving, non-hitting, lefty to play the right side on the top pairing, and signing two KHL players who also do not hit.
The Leafs biggest weakness right now is the pressure they are under. There is a moderate to low chance that the Leafs get unlucky and lose in the first round yet again. They could once again deserve to win and find a leafy old way to lose. And that will be in for Kyle Dubas and company.
Back to same way of doing everything like everyone else and hoping to roll a six. Therefore, it is possible that Dubas and Shanahan could make a bad move for a short term gain in order to make sure they get themselves some more time to implement their vision.
So I think the pressure to win when there should be none is the Toronto Maple Leafs biggest weakness.