It has actually been a fun few months since the season ended for us Leafs fans - or at least since we knew we were getting the first overall pick. I, like many of my fellow citizens of Leaf Nation, lived with the fear that Toronto would drop to fourth place in a three-player draft despite having the greatest chance of getting the top pick, and that a team like Buffalo, or even worse, Edmonton, would get the pick. But the Leafs got the pick and the excitement has been building until this past weekend, when Toronto finally got the blue-chip prospect they have not had in two decades.
At the same time, however, I have fielded an unreasonable amount of harassment about my team's success, even though it came as a result of the ultimate failure of finishing last in the regular season. So many people take so much joy in watching the Leafs fail, and there is so much unreasonable schadenfreude from other fans at our suffering. I know the justification for their mockery: the Leafs act like they're the centre of the universe; they outspend other teams; they keep hiring bad coaches and general managers; etc, etc. But the reality is that there is no good reason to be a Leafs fan, judging by their history.
Why I chose the Leafs
In the past thirty years, there have been very few windows in which fans could legitimately have been excited by their team - or at least by the product on the ice. 1993-94; 1998-2002; and 2013. That's it - until now. I happened to have the misfortune of being ten years old in one of those windows, which is that time when children are very impressionable. I had (apparently) been an Oilers fan as a young kid, but I had not maintained that fandom; I needed to make my fandom my own. I could have picked any team at that point - Detroit was emerging; Pittsburgh was still dominant; Calgary had a good team; San Jose was an expansion team that had played some good playoff hockey; Anaheim was a brand new expansion team - but I settled on the Leafs.
The Leafs had almost made the Finals in 1993, aside from being thwarted by the NHL's instructions to make sure that Wayne Gretzky's L.A. Kings won their series; had the Leafs made the Finals, I probably would not have had my initial dalliance of being a fan of the Montreal Canadiens in the wake of their Cup win, the last by a Canadian team (and, interestingly, the last by a team with no Europeans on its roster). By the time the next year's playoffs rolled around, I had turned on the Habs - likely in part to having my championship hat stolen, but also because I just came to my senses and realized that I just could not be a fan of the Canadiens.
After starting the season with ten consecutive wins, the Leafs made it to the Conference Finals again in 1994, only to lose to the Vancouver Canucks, who then lost to the New York Rangers in the Cup Finals. But despite their loss, my fandom was sealed, and unbeknownst to my preteen self, I was setting myself up for decades of frustration.
At the draft that year, the Leafs made a trade that ranks as both one of their best and their worst when they traded Wendel Clark, who was coming off of a 46-goal season, to the Quebec Nordiques along with other players for Mats Sundin, who would be the core of the Leafs' hopes for the next decade. It was a great trade because Sundin was a once-in-a-lifetime player, but it was terrible because Clark was the heart and soul of the team.
The team lost in the first round to Chicago and St. Louis in the next two years, and it was abundantly clear that the window had closed. I was experiencing my first (though not my last) downward swing of the team, who then traded away any remaining stars other than Sundin and bottomed out over the next two seasons. It was disappointing, to be sure, but I had not been a fan long enough to really be able to understand the true depth of what was happening - that would come later.
The tide turns - temporarily
But in the summer of 1998, things started to turn around. The team switched from the Western to the Eastern Conference, so their main opponents were about to change significantly. They were preparing to bid adieu to Maple Leaf Gardens and to start at a new arena. Sundin was taking the mantle he had been given and he was starting to flourish. And perhaps most exciting, the team signed one of the best goalies in the NHL: Curtis Joseph.
I cannot understate how amazing it was to get a goalie like Cujo between the pipes. He had been a great goalie in his early years in St. Louis before becoming transcendent in Edmonton in a couple of legendary victories over the Dallas Stars. He was a bonafide stopper and arguably the third-best goalie in the league behind Dominik Hasek and Martin Brodeur, and he was now a Maple Leaf.
With Cujo and Sundin leading the way into the East, the team flourished despite a ragtag bunch of misfits on the team. There were enough character players to propel the Leafs to a playoff spot and to the Conference Finals, at which point they ran into an arguably never-better Hasek and lost to Buffalo. They would never get closer to the Cup Finals than they did that year.
Over the next few years, the Leafs were consistently one of the better teams in the league. The rest of the roster rounded out to support the team's two legitimate superstars, and many secondary players emerged as dominant role players and even as All-Stars. Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe on defense; Darcy Tucker as a plucky antagonist; Gary Roberts and Alexander Mogilny as capable secondary scoring options; Tie Domi as the grown-up version of the baby with one eyebrow from The Simpsons. The team was as stacked as it had been since that 1994 team, and hopes were high in Leaf Nation.
In the five years after that initial playoff breakthrough in 1999, the team made the playoffs easily, but they could never put all of the pieces together for that one run. They faced and beat the Ottawa Senators four times in those five years, several of which still easily rank among my favourite all-time Leaf moments, but they could never get past the next team, whether that was the New Jersey Devils (to whom they lost twice in Jersey's path to the Finals) or to the inexplicable Carolina Hurricanes in the 2002 Conference Finals.
The Leafs were exhausted in that 2002 playoff run, having gone to seven games in both of the first two opening rounds. Sundin had been injured in their first series against the New York Islanders, but it was still disheartening to lose to Carolina, three of which - including the clincher in Game 6 in Toronto - were won by the 'Canes in overtime. Sure, they would have lost to the Red Wings in the Finals anyway, but Leafs fans knew that the window was likely never better than it was that year - and it probably never would be.
Cujo, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, signed with the Red Wings in his attempt to win a Cup - he never did, and he will likely always remain the goalie with the most wins to not win the Stanley Cup - and the Leafs, although still entertaining and successful in the regular season, were obviously no longer contenders.
They brought in Ed Belfour in goal, who had a surprisingly dominant tenure in his late 30s in the third act of his career. But despite some playoff heroics from the Eagle, the team could not make it past the Philadelphia Flyers in 2003 or 2004. Though Belfour's three shutouts and the Leafs' Game 7 victory in the first round against Ottawa remain some of my favourite memories, it was clear that the window for a championship was closed, particularly as the NHL prepared for a lockout of which the Leafs' management seemed unaware despite the fact that everyone in hockey knew it was coming.
The post-lockout doldrum decade
Unlike almost every other sensible team in the NHL, who had prepared for the impending work stoppage by managing the contracts of their players to expire before the lockout would have started, the Leafs had inexplicably signed players to contracts that ran over the course of the lockout and beyond, including the near-quadregenarian goaltender Belfour.
After the 2004-2005 lockout, the Leafs returned the core of their pre-lockout team to the ice, and, predictably, they missed the playoffs by two points. That loss marked the end of that team, including coach Pat Quinn, and a decade-long run of ineptitude that I would venture ranks up there in the all-time annals of sports futility; of course, it's not even the worst ten-year stretch of the Leafs franchise, which definitely belongs to the post-Sittler pre-Gilmour Ballard years of the 1980s.
I chronicled the post-lockout year-by-year ineptitude of the Leafs shortly before they clinched their only playoff berth in the past decade since the lockout, and it is a motley tale of mismanagement. Future stars (Rask) traded away for quick fix-it solutions that we knew would not work at the time (Raycroft). Incandescent players (Kessel) acquired at the expense of future draft picks that turned out to be even bigger stars (Seguin). (Can we just outlaw any trades between the Leafs and the Boston Bruins by this point?) Inexplicable no-trade clauses awarded to players who clearly did not deserve them. Big trades made for players that we hoped would work out (Phaneuf) but who we secretly feared would flame out just like all the rest.
A brief respite of hope before...
But then, despite one of the worst front-office runs in all of sports, the Leafs inexplicably iced a compelling team in the lockout shortened 2013 season. They had a few younger players who suddenly came into their own, including a likeable young goalie in James Reimer. They had little of the baggage of the Sundin years or the other post-lockout years. And, perhaps most fortuitously of all, they only had to play just over half a season because of the lockout, which meant that they would not have the opportunity for their traditional late-season collapse.
We had a completely unexpected and unreasonable playoff berth in 2013, and I, like many Leaf fans, was slow to actually believe that things had changed. I was expecting the Leafs to be blown out by the Boston Bruins, and they were badly outplayed through the first four games, after which they faced a 3-1 series deficit. But then something happened - the Leafs came together behind goalie Reimer and inexplicably won Games 5 and 6 to force Game 7.
I was giddy, even though I knew I shouldn't have been. I was excited, but I also knew to temper my expectations if the Leafs ended up being blown out, which was a distinct possibility. But nothing could have prepared me for what happened in That Game. With a 4-1 lead with under ten minutes to go in the third period, I started to allow myself to think that this team might actually win the series - and then, it started to happen. One Bruins goal, then another, then another, and overtime - and then it was only a matter of time until it was over.
As suddenly as this surprising playoff run had come to life, it was over, and so were any hopes for that edition of the Leafs. Hope lasted through the first ten games of the next season, at which point reality set in again, and the sadsack Leafs returned to their loserly ways, again missing the playoffs despite a great season from Phil Kessel. Adding insult to injury was the fact that two players the Leafs should have had - Tyler Seguin and Tuukka Rask - were in the top four in scoring and goaltending, respectively.
The Leafs continued their downward trend the following season, including firing coach Randy Carlyle midseason. In just two years, they had again squandered any good will that short playoff run had encouraged their fans to give to them, and they were as irrelevant as they had ever been. But then something amazing happened - team President Brendan Shanahan started to make some changes behind the scenes to help the team develop.
A new hope
Shanahan realized in his first year that the team needed to be rebuilt from the ground up, so he started with the easiest place to make changes: in the scouting and drafting system, where the team would not be limited by the salary cap. He started bringing an analytics team on board, and he worked on improving every department of the team that had been broken for the previous decade before he made arguably his most important move: on May 20, 2015, the club announced that they had hired Mike Babcock as the team's head coach.
Babcock is almost universally acknowledged as the premier coach in the league, and for the first time in over a decade, the team had not only a top coach, but also an effective front office, and there was hope that things might change - and change they did. Starting on the first day of free agency, the team started to change its image as it dealt its best player, Phil Kessel; the team later dealt captain Dion Phaneuf mid-season.
The moves from the previous year or two have already started to pay off, and the Leafs suddenly find themselves flush with top prospects and with one of the better farm systems in the league even before this draft. The Leafs were so confident in their upcoming assets that they (over)spent a couple of picks for Fredrik Andersen, who is a significant improvement in goal and arguably a No. 1 NHL goalie, shortly before the draft.
Then, of course, came the draft itself, in which the Leafs not only picked up Matthews, but several other solid prospects, including my current hometown team's hero, reigning WHL scoring leader Adam Brooks. And, suddenly, despite finishing last in the NHL last year, the Leafs are now one of the more attractive destinations for players again, with a core of young players who could be dominating the league in a few years.
The excitement I feel about this team is arguably greater than what I have felt toward any other Leafs team in twenty years - this is legitimate excitement about the future of the team, especially in the context of the somewhat weak Eastern Conference. It is not difficult to forecast a future in which the Leafs are one of the top teams for several years and in which there is an actual possibility of being an annual Cup contender.
There is even an outside possibility that the team could sign one of the NHL's elite scorers, Steven Stamkos, as soon as this Friday, and even the fact that such a move is a possibility - whether it happens or not - is a positive sign of movement for a franchise that has had a long history of ineptitude. I'm trusting the Shanaplan, and it seems to be working.
It is enough of a positive sign for me to start committing to watching the team again. I am spending more time and energy on investing in knowing the team's young players, and I will again start watching Leaf games throughout the season. I know it could all come crashing down again, but I think this window of opportunity will outlast all three previous windows, and that there is a very real possibility that the team could be celebrating some serious victories in the next few years - maybe even a Stanley Cup parade.