As a lifelong Toronto Maple Leaf fan, I’m just as frustrated as the next person. Watching a team, one with endless potential and a core poised and ready to make a run at the Stanley Cup for years to come, fall flat once again, not even getting a whiff of the second round. As a fan, it’s difficult to watch.
With that being said, being a fan and a journalist simultaneously provides an interesting dynamic; one that brings a certain amount of realism, optimism and overall acceptance when I find myself writing about the events from the previous night.
As Leaf fans everywhere rushed to their phones on the fateful night of August the 9th, undoubtedly blaming anyone they could following another early postseason exit, I began to realize that the Toronto market is even more unforgiving than I once thought. And that is the true inspiration behind this letter, one that hopefully brings a much needed amount of realism to the conversation.
While yes, by all means, it’s more than acceptable to be frustrated, what isn’t acceptable, however, is to use that frustration as justification for outrageous claims and messages of hatred towards a team who has hardly given up.
Youth And Inexperience
I feel like a lot of people often forget that Toronto’s core is one of the youngest in the league. A lot of people don’t realize that the Leafs weren’t expected to make the playoffs back in 2016, yet they still found a way. Now? Expectations are sky high all of a sudden for a team that’s still finding its identity and learning what playoff hockey means.
Longtime Leafs reporter Paul Hendrick might’ve put it best:
Expectations do grow with ability, but a lot of Leaf fans out there are forgetting that there will still be growing pains. This year was a classic example of that.
Both Auston Matthews and William Nylander found themselves producing at much higher levels this postseason (which is more than promising considering their totals from last year), yet many were quick to point out the flaws in Toronto’s system.
What happened to optimism? What happened to patience? What happened to Mike Babcock’s infamous speech when he first arrived in Toronto?
At the end of the day, the number of people who vent agrily on Twitter will vastly outnumber those who share insightful opinions, ones backed by logic and reasoning. However, despite the massive difference in people who opt for hypocrisy over logic, those who rant on social media simply out of frustration should not be taken seriously.
This team has many years left together. And while the onus is on them to learn and change for the better, expecting immediate success is simply irrational.
A First-Year Coach, A Second-Year GM
Yet another key aspect that many people forget. It wasn’t too long ago that Kyle Dubas took over for an aging Lou Lamoriello and provided a fresh look on a Maple Leafs squad still searching for relevancy.
Demanding success from a young team is like demanding a puppy to learn how to sit. The puppy may miraculously sit the first couple of times, but setting that as the bar for expectation is simply unachievable.
It’s the same situation here. Dubas is in his third year as general manager and already has exceeded expectations in a number of categories. While he has made some mistakes that do stand out, he’s managed to keep all of his key players under contract for a number of years and has drastically sped up the rebuilding process for a team that could have easily been years away from a playoff berth.
It’s also been less than a year since Sheldon Keefe was named the 31rst coach in Toronto Maple Leafs history. Coaching for the first time in the NHL this past November certainly shouldn’t demand immediate playoff success either. Keefe, like many others, are still learning the ropes and to hold him accountable for Toronto’s postseason failure isn’t wise.
What happens instead? It’s quite simple really. Instead of calling for Dubas and Keefe to be fired (yes, believe it or not, people have actually called for another “fresh start”), give the two a chance. Dubas has just barely begun implementing his management style while Keefe has had even less time to adjust to coaching at an NHL level. Wait and see what the two can do over the next few seasons; patience is a virtue.
No Breaks Given
By no means am I defending how the Toronto Maple Leafs have played in the postseason as of late. Having a defensive core as problematic as this one, on top of some questionable in-game decisions, are bound to cause some challenges in the playoffs.
Whether it was the Nazem Kadri suspension in back-to-back years or the highly questionable play of Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie this year, the Maple Leafs have seen their second round hopes greatly diminish, as each season seems to provide its own individual string of disappointing decisions.
Which brings me to my overall point; the responsibility is on everyone. Players need to play better, management needs to adjust the roster and fans need to be patient. This team is still adjusting.
While yes, playoff disappointment year after year does nothing good to a fanbase that’s been waiting almost two decades for a second round appearance, substituting frustration for logic will never balance out. If you call yourself a real fan of this team, then you’d know the difference between a baseless claim and one that has merit.