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COLUMN: Leafs fans, languish not. Next year is our year!

Two-time-champion, Tampa Bay, winner now of 10 straight playoff series, 'is just a tad talented, no,' asks columnist, who thinks better days are ahead

How wonderful to be a Montreal Canadiens fan. So spectacular was our 2021 Stanley Cup run, the NHL awarded Les Glorieux a bye for 2022.

Conversely, despondency and despair reign on in Leaf Land, “Five straight first-round losses ... haven’t advanced since 2004, etc., etc.”

That’s not mockery – those woeful wailings are way overdone.

It’s time to exorcise those demons, for preposterous is the premise that this rendition of the Leafs – players and management – and, all those since ’67, for that matter, are somehow complicit and culpable in the perverse perception that this team’s history is harrowing, when, in fact, it is anything but.

How is it that some semblance of responsibility for the Ballard buffoonery of the 1980s is heaped upon the current roster, most of whom learned to skate in the 1990s?

Every spring, it’s Eeyore City, so monumentally morose and blind to the blunt reality that the Leafs actually compete against an NHL-calibre, playoff opponent, with its own expectations and angst. Two-time-champion, Tampa Bay, winner now of 10 straight playoff series, is just a tad talented, no?

Moreover, that “Just like the Leafs” mantra, ingrained mightily as a metaphor to failure, rewinds those 55 years to Armstrong and Pulford, Mahovlich and Keon, with that ’67 Cup, far too quickly.

It ignores many a memorable moment along the way … Sittler, Salming and Lanny upsetting the pre-dynastic Islanders in ’78; Pat Burns, Gilmour and Wendel in ’93, then again in ‘94; and, stalwart Pat Quinn’s perennial, final-four favoured crew from 1999 to 2004.

And, that Montreal matter last May? … do note that the first-overall Lightning were swept in the opening round by the bland Blue Jackets in 2019, before winning the Cup in 2020 and 2021. Many an eventual champion (Islanders, 1980; Avalanche, 1996; Red Wings, 1997; Oilers, 2022? ) stumbled along the way.

Shit happens elsewhere, too.

Then suddenly, it doesn’t.

Toronto’s blueline QB, Morgan Rielly, was perfectly blunt last spring, “We just have to be better.”

And, they were.

No doubt, the Leafs' game four effort was regrettable, yet with it, how intriguingly palpable was the onset of nervousness in Hockey Night in Canada’s (“HNIC”) Chris Cuthbert’s play-by-play: “That’s two goals on Campbell on just seven shots … Matthews and Marner have managed only one shot between them.”

Between periods, Ron MacLean and the panel were downright distraught, because, Leaf fan or not, WE ALL WANT THEM TO WIN!

And, it’s not because we feel sorry for them.

It’s that the Toronto Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup is the forever folklore, spun to so many Canadian sons – of Clancy, Conacher and Kelly, and Barilko, Bower, and Baun – by too many fathers whose days are sadly now waning. That ‘67 Cup was the Leafs fourth in six seasons, and eighth in 20.

A rudimentary review of game six readily reveals that the Leafs did not fail to finish off Tampa. Quite rather, they showed heart coming back from a 2-0 deficit, rallying to a 3-2 lead. Unfortunately, a two-man disadvantage from two fairly-called penalties, on a Toronto team not playing soft, cost them midway through the third period. In overtime, outshooting Tampa 9-5, was hardly a folding up of their tents.

Of note, had a teammate sought retribution for the assault on Toronto captain, John Tavares by Tampa’s Mikhail Sergachev, the team’s game four lapse would have lifted by both a leap and a bound. On occasion, a fine fracas is fortuitous. It’s no coincidence that when Montreal’s Larry Robinson punched the lights out of Broad Street bully, Dave Shultz, in the mid-70s, it signaled the end of the Flyers reign of terror, and, catapulted the Canadiens to four consecutive Cups.

More fitting here, I’ve a vivid recollection of a livid Leaf captain, Darryl Sittler, chasing down Philly’s Bobby Clarke after a spear to his throat, then enthusiastically combatting Flyer enforcer, “Moose" Dupont, intervening on Clarke’s behalf, in a boisterous bout. Were Tavares to have so erupted as Sittler did, in those mid-70s playoffs, Toronto would still be playing.

How fine from the folklore does Conn Smythe’s “If you can’t beat ‘em in the alley, you can’t beat ‘em on the ice,” echo still.

Nonetheless, this Toronto team boasts as talented a core as exists in professional sports, one that’s learning and maturing, but, more critically, not yet peaking.

The trouble is, there are too many dollars on too few players. Scant is the salary cap room to upgrade the 115-point roster, let alone to maintain it. However, and, it’s an hefty ‘however,’ the contracts in question — $11 million annually to Tavares, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — were negotiated pre-pandemic. From 2013 to 2019, the cap rose at a five-percent-plus, average annual rate, a factor no doubt fundamental to sound deliberations as per dollars and duration ahead of those deals done.

Had COVID not flattened the cap completely for the past three seasons, it might’ve been north of $95 million, not $82.5 for 2023. Fortunately, there’s sufficient talent in the $11 million men to get this thing done.

That Maple Leaf President, Brendan Shanahan’s teams have not won a playoff round during his eight-year tenure, may be a misdemeanour, but not a felony. In fairness, he inherited a last-overall-calibre crew competing in a 30-team league then, now 32.

This frenetic fervour for an opening round’s four wins, is frothing-at-the-mouth fanatical. It takes 16 wins to become the Stanley Cup champion; the other 31 tie for last, regardless of any rounds won. Ignore the four, this team’s sights are on the 16.

Of concern is coach Keefe’s “borderline violent” assessment of the series at its outset, hinting at his being out of touch. Dressing Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford ahead of Jason Spezza confirmed it. Troubling, too, was the mismanagement of Auston Matthews’s ice-time, and, did Toronto’s sad shot-blocking create question as per the Leafs not being all-in for the coach?

Progress beyond the present pain, is put best by Spezza: “We’re a different group ... stubborn not accepting to lose ...It’s definitely in the room.”

Sounds like a sage voice that players might bear down and make sacrifices for.

Maybe too, Morgan Rielly would make a good captain; he’s just had himself a good playoff fight. Mark Giordano just followed his lead, and Spezza’s too, signing a ‘team-friendly,’ near-league-minimum, cap-pressure-easing deal.

Might now the $11-million-men reconfigure theirs?

Either way, enough of the nefarious negativity, it says here, they win it next year.

One can hear some kid of today, telling his kid of tomorrow: “They played the Hip’s Fifty Mission Cap before each game, with blue and white, #5 jerseys everywhere. Bunting scored the OT winner, playing on a broken ankle, and “Soupy” Campbell stood on his head in net, winning the Conn Smythe without even a fight.

Man, … you shoulda seen it!