Far removed from a summer of some discontent, the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans are enjoying a summer of love.
The Toronto Maple Leafs Summer of Love
The Muskoka Five
It’s hard to believe that only eight summers ago, the core of the team were snidely labeled the “Muskoka Five”.
Leafs fans will remember the group of veteran players who allegedly refused to be traded away from the club at the 2008 NHL trade deadline. Those players (Mats Sundin, Tomas Kaberle, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, and Pavel Kubina) were roundly derided for seeming to clutch greedily to their respective no-move clauses.
A mere three seasons into what would be a decade of uncompetitive teams (2013 never happened), Leafs fans were thirsty for new blood. They wanted to cash in the high-priced, worn-out chips for blue ones, and start a rebuild. They couldn’t comprehend why those players wouldn’t want to be moved to a Cup contender.
The players were labeled “the Muskoka Five” in sardonic reference to the perception that it was comfort, not competitiveness, that motivated the players. It was a perceived symptom of the much-lamented “blue and white disease”.
Such attachment to a team on the part of players is understandable. Players put down roots, as we all do, and a no-move clause offers protection for those roots. Part of the legacy of the Muskoka Five is to have virtually eradicated the phrase “no-trade clause” from the lexicon of the Leafs’ public communications.
From the vantage point of a fanbase suffering through a decade with only one gut-wrenching playoff series to show for it, having five competent NHL veterans wanting to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs is as appealing as it is foreign.
Should the “Shanaplan” rebuild continue its encouraging course, it’s conceivable that fans would enjoy seeing the Muskoka Five episode reprised, albeit under dramatically different circumstances.
Auston Matthews: Hometown Boy?
Fast-forward to the summer of 2016, where the sun has been shining relatively brightly on the city’s hockey team. Ever since those lottery balls tumbled in favour of the Maple Leafs, a warm front of optimism has spirited away any remaining sour feelings about Salutegate and associated jersey tosses, let alone a trade deadline long since passed.
Leafs fans are finally seeing the beginnings of a promising new core. First-overall draft pick Auston Matthews puts a face on the future of the club.
Matthews’ love of hockey was inspired by his first trip to an Arizona Coyotes game, and he grew up a fan of the team. It’s hardly a stretch to suggest that he’d have been over the moon to be wearing a howling coyote on his chest for the 2016-17 season.
Not long removed from being left at the altar by oh-so-close-to-being-free-agent Steven Stamkos, the Leafs will surely be working to ensure that Matthews never similarly flirts with playing for his hometown club.
Should Auston Matthews skate into the final year of the seven years the Leafs have him under RFA control without an extension signed with the Leafs, we’ll have a Stamkos redux on our hands.
Toronto Maple Leafs Blue Chips
Ensuring that the Toronto Maple Leafs’ prospects coalesce into a strong core will be job number one for everyone on the club’s management team. Leafs fans similarly want to see that core develop together. Ultimately, they want to see Auston Matthews et al. become as emotionally entrenched as the Muskoka Five were. Developing a sense of team and loyalty, to say nothing of establishing a winning record, will go a long way to ensuring that players like Matthews stay put over the long term.
Loyalty stems from trust, and confidence is the seed. The Leafs must plant seeds of confidence in the mind of their biggest names. As with Stamkos in Tampa, team success will be a big part of instilling confidence.
The Leafs’ New Five
So which five Maple Leafs would fans like to have sat down in a comfy Muskoka chair for the next ten years? As most players upon which are pinned the hopes and dreams of Leafs Nation are yet to play a game in blue and white, picking the next Muskoka Five is tricky.
This isn’t a list of the Leafs’ most talented players in descending order. Rather, it forecasts where the seeds of any sort of Leafs success must be sewn. Unsurprisingly, it focuses heavily down the middle of the ice, where there’s been as much tumult in recent years as there is now promise.
1. Auston Matthews
Every team wants to secure the hearts and minds of its young stars, to strengthen their negotiating position come contract time. Smaller franchises, particularly those traditionally non-hockey markets must be especially adept at integrating players into the fold over the course of entry-level contracts.
Auston Matthews represents something of a role-reversal for the Maple Leafs. It is no secret that Auston Matthews grew up a Phoenix Coyotes fan. One can quite imagine that he would have been over the moon to have been drafted there, perhaps over any other NHL club.
From the moment those lottery balls tumbled in the Leafs’ favour, management must have certainly begun to lay plans for a heart-and-mind campaign for Auston Matthews’ first few years. The expiration of his entry-level contract is immediately a ticking-time bomb; one which could send him flying to Arizona to join his hometown club.
Morgan Rielly was perhaps the only player on the Toronto Maple Leafs 2015-16 roster who might have been on Lou Lamoriello’s “untouchable” list as far as trades go. The Leafs’ defence remains the club’s weakest link through the “Shanaplan” rebuild, with Rielly and Jake Gardiner the two young bright spots on the roster last season.
Until only very recently, Rielly was regarded by many fans as the top candidate to one day wear the C on his jersey.
The original Muskoka Five featured three defencemen, though the average Leafs fan might be hard-pressed to recall Pavel Kubina’s inclusion. Just as the Kaberle-McCabe tandem proved formidable in several playoff series, Rielly must form part of a similarly solid blue-line unit if the Leafs are to return to relevance.
Like many of the players upon whom Leafs fans are pinning their hopes for 2016-17 and beyond, Frederik Andersen is yet to play a game for the Leafs. Lou Lamoriello essentially swapped Jonathan Bernier (along with two draft picks) for the Ducks’ goalie, anointing him as the latest would-be, could-be saviour in the Leafs’ net.
As Andersen’s play in Toronto goes, so will go the fortunes of the team in front of him. Leafs fans have for decades (excluding the most recent) been spoiled by goaltending that masks defensive deficiencies; if Andersen can provide that, he’ll have a Muskoka chair with his name on it in the hearts of Leafs fans.
4. Mitch Marner
Having won just about every award the Ontario Hockey League has to offer, expectations run high for Mitch Marner. If he is able to bring that winning pedigree to the Leafs, it’s not inconceivable to imagine him standing bronzed in Maple Leaf Square. And we’re not talking about a Muskoka sun tan.
The Leafs’ prospect list is deep at the right wing position. While one can read into the Leafs’ depth chart about as much as a bowl of alphabet soup, it seems probable that Marner is the calibre of player who is able to rise to the top.
The Leafs’ management team can be credited with making a fifth choice delightfully difficult. For the sake of brevity, here are three contenders:
A year ago, William Nylander might easily have topped this list. The Leafs’ highly-touted 8th-overall pick in the 2014 draft has had two sensational seasons in the AHL, and has demonstrated his natural puck-handling ability when called up to the big club. While Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have for the moment stolen the spotlight in Leaf land, the coming season is arguably more crucial to the career path of Nylander than either of those players.
Nikita Zaitsev is a sexy choice, to be sure. Named one of the top-two defencemen at the 2016 IIHF World Hockey Championships, Zaitsev comes to the Leafs with seven KHL seasons under his belt. The undrafted Russian is two-and-a-half years older than Morgan Rielly, and will need to make his comparative experience an asset as he adjusts to the NHL game.
Kasperi Kapanen, acquired in the Phil Kessel trade, would currently be something of a dark horse to occupy the fifth slot. One would like to see his physical game catch up to his hockey IQ. Certainly there’s room to grow; if there’s one constant about Finnish hockey players it’s that they’re not to be discounted. It would be positively painful to see that nameplate once again adorning the garish orange jersey of his father’s Philadelphia Flyers.
Summer of Love
Coach Babcock’s caution in 2015 that “there will be pain” along the rebuild road was borne out in the subsequent hockey season. While the up-and-coming talent would seem to promise eminently more watchable hockey, it’s undeniable that the Shanaplan is still a work in progress. The summer of 2008, though, is a distant memory; faultless execution of a down-to-the-studs rebuild of the Toronto Maple Leafs has granted fans the opportunity to look optimistically forward.