As the Leafs head into the home stretch to close out the inaugural season of the Mike Babcock era, Leafs fans are buoyed with optimism.Unlike other recent campaigns which ended as dreadfully or worse, this one has a remarkably different timbre to it. Imagine if you will a season’s-ending letter from the president which didn’t apologize to the faithful. Imagine exit-meeting day pressers from upper management tellingly devoid of the usual rancour and clenched-fist promises to right the ship.
Durkin’s Hump-Day Hits: News and Opinion, Leafs Edition
That’s where MLSE is at, or at least damn close-to. No more talk of eighteen-wheelers, game-seven meltdowns or lack of character. Did anyone see a Leaf jersey hit the ice even once this season? I didn’t…
Here’s what I see them doing right:
- Ownership has finally come to its senses, and permitted some of the best and brightest minds in the game to become the brand’s prevailing influence. In Al Strachan’s book: “Why the Leafs Suck And How They Can be Fixed” (Collins; First Edition edition (September 29, 2009), we gain painfully candid insight into the decades of bureaucratic bumbling and ineptitude that led to the dark, long days of mediocrity in Toronto. While some may discount Strachan’s credibility as a journalist, his accounts of the team’s history of boardroom-level incompetence are not so easily dismissed.
- The notion that marquee talent is needed to attract viewers has been quashed, full-stop. One upon a time, when MLSE was on the open market and the Teachers Pension Plan needed “curb appeal” in order to maximize its asking price, this was in fact the case, and in my estimation, the prime motivation for accelerating the process. Scotty Bowman, after two “strong meetings” (his words) with co-owner Larry Tannenbaum, was scratched off the presidential candidate short-list just prior to the 2008 training camp for one reason: his blueprint (which was remarkably similar to the current mandate) called for restraintEnter Brian Burke, full of bluster and bravado, along with marching orders to make the team competitive (read: valuable) as quickly as possible. Burke’s was an obvious component of Richard Peddie’s exit strategy, which was to prop up the value of the brand. This notion that he had carte blanche to tear it all down and rebuild in accordance with whatever timeline he preferred is media-generated hyperbole. If it were otherwise, Scotty Bowman would have been appointed president in August of 2008.
- The Alpha-dog has arrived. And his name is Mike. Babcock is the highest-paid coach currently on the biggest deal in the history of the NHL, and Shanahan absolutely nailed it here. It’s been all-too easy for players to whine, refuse assignments and quit on each other – and the fans – in Toronto. Since the days of Ron Wilson, the inmates have been dangling the keys to the asylum in the faces of MLSE and its fans. Those days are gone. Play-time is over, and as a player, you either follow the structure, or you get replaced by someone who will, irrespective of your “cache” or contract, and that is exactly as it should be.
- They are (finally) taking the long road. It’s a hell of a balancing act, trying to keep bums on seats and merch sales moving when the results, if not the actual product are less than flattering, but they have managed to do just that. Fans are not dismayed, and they generally believe the team is on track to become competitive. The obvious improvements in both structure and compete level have given rise to a sense of satisfaction that the results will take care of themselves in due time, because those are the seeds they are collectively sewing. It will take time to realize those positive results, but the natural outcome of good habits and persistence in the sports realm is sustainable success.
The mantra now has become to simply draft and develop, while keeping an eye out for potentially available game-breakers and support players who may be interested in what Babcock’s Leafs are actively building. To that end, management has done a great job of identifying free agents thus far, including Zach Hyman (drafted by Florida), Nikita Soshnikov (A KHL acquisition), and also Russian defender Nikita Zaitsev, currently of CSKA Moscow. Zaitsev and co. have emerged as the KHL’s Western Conference champions after sweeping the series with Ilya Kovalchuk and SKA (Saint Petersburg. CSKA Moscow will compete for the Gagarin Cup against either Salavat or Metallurg of the Eastern Conference.
The Leafs also recently acquired Finnish goalie prospect Kasimir Kasiskuo. The 6’3’’ keeper had a sparkling .923 save percentage in 39 games during his sophomore season with University of Minnesota-Duluth of the NCAA, along with five shutouts, and will help to bolster a comparatively weak Toronto goalie pool.
While there are no assurances at this point, Toronto is also rumoured to be at the top of the list of potential teams that Nashville draftee Jimmy Vesey may be interested in. Upon completion of his Harvard career in which he amassed 80 goals and 64 assists in 128 games played, Vesey’s representatives recently informed the Predators organization of their client’s decision to explore unrestricted free agency, for which he is eligible as of August 15th.
The Hobey Baker candidate’s father is a scout with the Leafs, and his younger brother Nolan was drafted by Toronto in 2014. While not quite a lock, there seems to be plenty of opportunity for the offensively-gifted winger to make his presence felt as early as next October in Toronto. Signing with Toronto will likely lead to Nashville filing a tampering complaint in an effort to salvage a draft pick for their loss, and should they win that decision, it should prove a pittance in comparison to the Leafs’ acquisition of a polished 22-year old goal scorer with NHL size at six foot-three inches and 200 pounds.
These kinds of acquisitions are exactly what the Leafs need to create the kind of internal competition that ensures the best of the bunch will also become the very best versions of themselves. Whether Vesey chooses to cast his lot in Toronto, or perhaps with a current contender, it was a calculated move to walk away from the Predators organization, but clearly, something more than just money motivates this young man as illustrated by his recent piece in the Players tribune, found here: http://www.theplayerstribune.com/jimmy-vesey-harvard-hockey/
Things are finally looking up in Toronto, and the overall tone of the president’s forthcoming end-of-season address will most certainly reflect that sentiment.