Two seasons ago when Mike Babcock left the Detroit Red Wings to become the highest paid coach in NHL history for the worst team in the league, I have to admit I did not see a light at the end of that tunnel. The Toronto Maple Leafs being terrible has been a constant since, well, about 1960. The fact that prior to this year they only made playoffs once since the 03/04 lockout season (thanks Bettman), the incredibly questionable management moves (Sending the Fringe-Elite Tuukka Rask to Boston for Andrew Raycroft, who I’m pretty sure works in a skate shop right now, Trading the draft picks that would become Stars stud Tyler Seguin and Flames top 2 d-man Dougie Hamilton to Boston for Phil Kessel) made it pretty hard to think of the Leafs as anything more than the leagues favorite punchline. Hey, at least they weren’t as bad as the Edmonton Oilers, right? Well.
One season in the books for the legendary Coach Babcock, and the Leafs found themselves right down at the bottom of the barrel, with the first overall pick. I would say the fanbase confidence in Babcock was wavering, but for confidence to waver you to have confidence in the first place. Watch any Steve Dangle fan reaction from prior to this year to see what I mean. That pick became Austen Matthews, who opened his NHL career with four goals, and the rest is history.
What the Leafs almost achieved this year is more important for the league than it is for themselves. It showed you could win with kids. Mitch Marner and William Nylander joined Matthews for incredible early career campaigns, and propelled the Leafs into the playoffs, where they were bounced in the first round by who everyone thought was a favorite after a costly overtime mistake. Can’t dog it on the icing any more boys.
So what’s all this even mean, anyway? The Leafs aren’t a joke any more. At least, they’re not a pity laugh and hand wave. They’re a joke you laugh with. From the fan culture centring around guys like Dangle and the incomparable Dart Guy (Ontario native Jason Maslakow, beard dyed blue an unlit cigarette hanging out his mouth in the Verizon centre) to the massive viewing parties all over Toronto, the Leafs went from being embarrassed former greats to the team in the league with the second brightest future.
I know my hardcore readerbase of that one guy from Ontario who asked me if I liked Letterkinny (I do, by the way, but i can’t find a way to watch season 2 in the states yet. Hook me up? firstname.lastname@example.org) might be offended by this assertion, but I think the Leafs don’t have the brightest future in hockey right now. That would be the Edmonton Oilers.
The Oilers went to, and lost, a Stanley Cup in 2006. Since then, they’ve been a perennial first pick favorite, actually managing to acquire three of them consecutively. Taylor Hall, who went first in 2010, was shipped to New Jersey this offseason in a then-controversial move for Adam Larsson. No one even remembers who Taylor Hall is any more. In 2011 came Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who is now the only player in the 2017 playoffs to register 35 shots on goal without scoring once. Draw your own inclusion. 2012 came with perhaps the biggest 1st overall Oilers bust of them all, Nail Yakupov, who I honestly couldn’t tell you where he ended up without using google. (St Louis Blues).
There’s a lot of parallels to be drawn between Toronto and Edmonton, and one of them is that they’re both finally clawing out of the “worst in the league” zone towards relevancy. Toronto lost to the Washington Capitals in six games, and Edmonton’s 7 – 1 win last night will bring them to Anaheim for a game 7. Winner plays Nashville. I think it’s pretty fair to say that the Oilers and the Leafs will both be giants in a few years, especially as long as Montreal allows Bergevin to live and breathe.
Speaking of Montreal, let’s talk about the losers. The Montreal Canadiens finally fired Therrien this year, and that’s about the only positive I can take away from this season. A hot start, a dire middle section of the year, and a lukewarm finish ended with a first round exit to the Rangers. PK Subban was shipped to Nashville after a long history of tension with the management (read: Racism) and is now anchoring the highest scoring defence in the playoffs. Good for him.
Montreal playoff grade? C-
The second most embarrassing first round exit has got to be Columbus. An entire season of “this is our year” and arrogant, unwarranted platitudes from the worst coach in hockey, John Torterella, backfired spectacularly as Columbus was bounced in 5 by Pittsburgh. Not only did they lose, but they also went down as gutless cowards. Post whistle hitting, dirty play, and a general poor attitude made me hate this team even more than I already do.
Columbus playoff grade? D
The Chicago Blackhawks.
Chicago playoff grade? 0/100. The Lowest F possible. Fuck them.
That’ll be it for this edition of Coaches Corner – serious sportswriting edition. See you Thursday with the round 2 roundup.
(Seriously, how can I watch season 2 of Letterkinny in the US?)