Updated: Dec 31, 2018
There are very few professional sports teams that have seen struggle like the Toronto Maple Leafs. Trust me, coming from a family that has nothing but Leafs fans... I know. Most Leafs fans, especially the younger crowd, have never even been around for a team that is good enough to win consistently. This season, more than any other, that inexperience has shown for both Toronto fans and media alike.
There have been some serious highs this year for Leafs Nation, and they have been a joy to watch for everyone. There are multiple award contenders up and down the roster, something most Leafs fans haven't seen in their lifetime. But what was the biggest story every single day for the first three months of the season? #NylanderWatch. Without fail somebody would start the day with "breaking news" about how Kyle Dubas is talking to this team about a trade, or interest from some other team in William Nylander, or what kind of deal can the Leafs make to bring in a star defenceman?
Sure, the Nylander situation was intriguing, and it was nerve wracking wondering if we'd see the elite sniper in a Leafs jersey this season, but to try and trade him every single day? It gets a little bit ridiculous listening to anyone and everyone put on their GM hat to tell me that "Brett Pesce makes this team a Stanley Cup contender."
We survived the trade rumors, Nylander signed, and we can get back to the games right? Apparently not. The second that Nylander netted himself a six year, $6.97 million AAV contract, it was met with nothing but criticism; this time it wasn't even just from the fans. Sportsnet's newest "analyst" Brian Burke was one of the first to say that the Toronto Maple Leafs screwed up this deal.
What a rich statement from a former Leafs GM who was around in a time where they could do nothing but lose. No, the Leafs didn't get 22 year old William Nylander for the severely underpriced six million dollar deal that they wanted... But when does any team actually get a star player for the number they want? Is 6.9 million high for a 60 point player? Sure, but this isn't your typical 60 point player. For any Leafs fan still reading this, would you have been willing to give Mitch Marner 6.9 million per year before this season? And wouldn't that deal look incredible now?
Before you scoff at me and tell me they aren't the same player, just take a look at the numbers. Over the past two seasons, Nylander managed to score 122 points in 161 games. Marner, meanwhile, was able to score 133 points in 155 games... an 11 point difference in only six fewer games. Marner is set to make over nine million per year, giving him a two million dollar advantage over Willy. Basically Burke, along with Don Cherry (who has even more to say about the contract), seems to think that those five and a half points per season are worth two million dollars a year.
Call me crazy, but if Nylander can improve even the slightest over the course of those six years, I'd be more than happy to give him a $6.9 million dollar ticket.
Contract talks aside, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been not so quietly sitting as high as first in the standings, compiling a 20-8 record without Nylander. People have been so caught up in worrying about who isn't here to appreciate the incredible start from the people who have actually been here putting up franchise best numbers.
When people are paying attention, they seem to complain about the smallest things; the first of which, is the fact that Garret Sparks is the back up of this team. Don't get me wrong, I loved the Curtis McElhinney story as much as the next hockey fan. For a 34 year old goaltender to put up the numbers that he did last year is just short of a minor miracle. The problem with a miracle like that, is it can only last so long.
Now at 35 years old, how much longer does anyone expect McElhinney to put up those kind of numbers? Goalies don't have all that long of a shelf life, and McElhinney may be coming up on the end of his. Sparks, on the other hand, came into this season 10 years younger than his competitor., giving him a major advantage as far as age goes. Yes, the argument can be made that he has never been a back up goalie, and that he probably needs playing time in order to continue putting up the numbers that he did in the AHL... But what's the alternative?
Put yourself in Kyle Dubas' shoes for a second. You have two goalies, one a 25 year old fresh off winning goaltender of the year and a Calder Cup in the AHL. The other, a 35 year old potential flash in the pan who's career save percentage in the NHL is only a touch over .900. One of them has to go down, as is almost certainly going to be picked up by someone. The decision for the future really isn't that hard.
Maybe Sparks isn't a Vezina candidate in his small sample size so far, but he has been a more than serviceable back up to a potential Vezina candidate. With a .913 save percentage and a 2.84 goals against average, you cant really ask for much more out of your second stringer. If you think this is bad just remember, in my lifetime alone, the Leafs have put Vesa Toskala, Andrew Raycroft, Justin Pogge, an expired J.S Giguere, Jonas Gustavsson, and Johnathan Bernier all in the net... so it could be a whole lot worse (At least Sparks didn't get scored on from the red line).
Finally, nobody can manage to live in the moment that has the Leafs sitting in second place in the entire NHL. I get it, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are both free agents at the end of the year, and the pay day is gonna be huge. Is this really a problem though? Last time I checked, having this many superstars has never been a bad thing in any professional sport. There's plenty of room in the cap (which is increasing by the way) to sign both of them while taking next to nothing away from the current roster.
"But what happens when they both get offer sheeted" cries half of Leafs nation. I'd like to get one thing straight... NO ONE GETS OFFER SHEETED IN THE NHL! William Nylander was an RFA for how long? And nobody managed to put together an offer sheet for him. Bottom line is that, in order to pull either one of them away from the Leafs you're going to have to grossly overpay for them. When you give them that ridiculous paycheck, you also have to give up your next four first round draft picks. You're mortgaging one hell of a future to gamble on one superstar.
Are the Leafs going to be really tight against the cap for the next 10 years? Absolutely, you can't find a scenario where they aren't. The thing with winning teams in the NHL, is that they all have to do some wild things in order to keep them under the cap. Chicago, Pittsburgh, LA... all cap strapped, seven combined cups in the past decade.
Toronto won't be going after any big name free agents in the near future, and they're going to lose borderline second line guys like Kasperi Kapanen, but that's okay. For as much pain and anguish I've had in my short venture so far as a Leafs fan, I would gladly trade five years of Kasperi Kapanen to contend for the cup for the next seven years.
If you find yourself thinking I'm talking about you, then take a step back for a second. We've never seen a Leafs team like this, and maybe we won't again for a long time. For now just relax, sit back, crack open a beer and watch some of the most talented superstars in the NHL run wild all over the Eastern Conference.