Let’s all Point at the Toronto Maple Leafs and Laugh

I don’t write about sports much on this blog, but as a Montreal Canadiens fan it’s my duty to dunk on the Leafs. The Habs weren’t supposed to win this series. Hell, some people, like Craig Button, said the Habs weren’t supposed to win a single game. But Button also put Martin St. Louis on waivers when he was GM of Calgary, so what the fuck does he know. (He’s taken his humble pie well, so I can’t hate on the guy too much.)

For the Leafs, there’s lots of hard questions ahead. And I hope they make all the wrong decisions. But what I’m mostly looking forward to is retiring the narrative that Kyle Dubas is some kinda modern hockey wunderkind. There are Dubas stans out there who will go to the grave denying this top-heavy team is fundamentally flawed. The dude inherited a 105-point team and has failed to make it out of the first round in three straight seasons, two of which were against teams with a negative goal differential.

“But, Brad, that’s not fair! Tavares got hurt in game one!”

That’s true. I won’t deny that was a huge factor. Maybe the Leafs would have won decidedly with him in the lineup? Who knows. What I do know is that injuries happen and teams need depth as well as star power. The Lightning won the cup last year with Stamkos missing pretty much the entire playoffs, and yet the Leafs can’t even beat an “inferior” opponent in the first round. That’s an indictment on their depth.

“But, Brad, it’s not Dubas’ fault that Matthews and Marner didn’t show up!”

Well, yes, it is actually. He signed them to those massive contracts, so their lack of performance goes back to him-particularly with regards to Marner, who’s getting the brunt of the scorn. A lot of people point to the Nylander deal as proof Dubas couldn’t negotiate, but I think we can all agree Nylander’s contract is probably the best on the team right now. It’s really Marner’s deal that’s a stinker. Yes, he’s performed well in the regular season since the deal, but at the time of signing, he wasn’t worth it. His closest equivalent was Mikko Rantanen who is making nearly %20 less. Not only did Dubas invest too much in a top-heavy roster, he also pissed down both legs with those contracts. The young guys are getting top dollar on short-term deals. I could understand if this was a long-term commitment, like Chicago, Pitsburg and Washington did with their stars, but Matthews and Nylander are both up in three years. Just bad payroll management.

“But, Brad, Dubas addressed all the concerns from last year! He got leadership and grit!”

I can only imagine the shit Bergevin would be eating if he made the kinds of signings Dubas did. Thornton, Simmonds, Bogosian and Foligno were all pretty much invisible. Then we had to hear all about how Toronto “re-built” Galchenyuk only for him cough up a game breaking giveaway in overtime. (Habs, Coyotes, Pens, Wild and Sens fans all saw that coming.) The justification for Toronto’s top-heavy roster was that Dubas would work some analytics magic to bring in some low-cost hidden gems. Well, that’s been a categorical failure. He’s traded away the first round pick the last three years for help, and it hasn’t worked. (I will concede that Muzzin is a beast, but he’s not exactly low cost.)

Some people are saying that Dubas foolishly listened to all the “dumbass” pundits who demanded veterans and grit. Well, if they’re so dumb then what does that make Dubas for listening to them? Also, I found it pretty hilarious that the Leafs looked at themselves and said “We’re a talented team that can’t get over the hump? Surely Joe Thornton can lead the way!” The poster boy for underwhelming playoff performances. If Corey Perry was on the Leafs and played like he had, the media would be following over themselves to congratulate Dubas on his scouting.

Before it was Babcock’s fault. He didn’t use the personnel correctly. That’s fair. Chief Keefe was Dubas’ boy, and he had the galaxy brain needed to truly appreciate Dubas’ vision. But he made no adjustments this series. When it was clear Marner and Matthews was struggling while Willy was playing great, he still stuck to his guns, nailing M&M together. Dubas can’t hide behind Babs anymore. He’s also shipped out all the “bad” deals Lou made. This is his team, there’s no more excuses.

Will Dubas get canned for this? Probably not. And it seems to me there’s not a huge contingent of Leafs fans who want him gone. They’re more inclined to blame the players. Dubas also seems to inspire a very dedicated and online cult. Why? Both his supporters and detractors want to anoint him as the poster boy for analytics, and as a result his success or failure has turned into a battle for the soul of hockey. But that’s nonsense. That battle was won long ago. Most pro sports franchises use advanced analytics to some capacity. Moreover, I don’t even think Dubas is an analytics guy. This article does a great job breaking this down, but I’ll just say here that he’s never published any kind of analytics-focused papers, has no training in coding, etc. and experienced a very traditional path to his job.

I’m not trying to make an argument for or against analytics here; I’m just saying that we can cool it with the tribalism over Dubas. His success or failure will not have any bearing on how teams deploy advanced metrics.

Personally, I think Dubas got off on the wrong foot with the Tavares deal. In a vacuum, it’s a great deal. Tavares is an elite player and worth every penny. Some people will say that when someone like that comes available, you sign him, no reservations. I get that. I’m sure there are plenty of scenarios where this deal leads to deep playoff runs. But the problem was that, Dubas was unwilling to make the hard choices after the deal. He basically built this team like a video game. He just kept going after the highest value guys with no regard to fit or chemistry. The Barrie trade is an excellent example. The Leafs desperately needed right-handed defence. So they got a defensively-deficient offensive guy. They already had heaps of offensive talent. Kadri for Barrie makes sense in terms of value, but it was absolutely the wrong deal for the Leafs. And now it’s clear that he doesn’t know how to add players that address the issues they need. If it’s true that he went after Foligno instead of Hall then how can you possibly defend that?

Again, I hear the Dubas stans saying he needs more time, that the team is going in the right direction, etc. But, c’mon, guys, these last two seasons have been especially disastrous. Before the Caps finally won, they were at least getting to the second round and often running into Crosby and the Pens.

Now if you think this all sounds extra salty and that I’m being petty, then you’re correct. This team and its fanbase have been so smug these last few years without having won a thing. Bruins fans can be insufferable, but they’ve at least had success. Listening to Keefe and Simmonds insist they were better team all series and that they don’t care who the Habs put on the ice was just so arrogant. Then I see all the memes of Matthews laughing in the scrums with Leafs fans like “lololol he isn’t fazed!” Dude only scored one goal in seven games; I’d say he was fazed. And let’s not even get into the slander Carey Price endured all season only to remind everyone who’s the best goalie in the league. Leafs fans say they deserve better but they really don’t. Before the series, James Mirtle got dragged on Twitter for considering ways the Habs could challenge the Leafs on his show. These fans only want a circle jerk and refuse to acknowledge the team’s red flags.

Instead of the Lightning who came out with a mission after being embarrassed by the Blue Jackets, the Leafs just acted like the Cup was a foregone conclusion–just completely dismissive of their own embarrassment to the Blue Jackets. So, when they faced some adversity, they didn’t know how to handle it. And that’s what drives me, that sense of entitlement.

Already, I can see the media and fans spinning this as a Leafs collapse instead of Habs comeback. Obviously, it’s not an either/or, but there isn’t much credit being given to the Habs outside of Price. What about the adjustments Ducharme made? He took a lot of flak early for scratching the youths, but he corrected his mistakes. About the great defensive play of Danault against Matthews? The timely plays of Suzuki, Jesperi KK and Caufiled who pounced on whatever lucky bounces came their way? The long minutes Chiarot logged?

I get it. The Leafs haven’t had success in a long time, and this year they really seemed poised to make a run. I can’t begrudge a fanbase for getting excited. And Habs fans are in no position to be holier than thou. (Apparently we bullied Drouin off the team.) But goddamn do Leafs fans make it easy to cheer against them. The “plan the parade” jokes really just write themselves. And it’s not really your fault, either. The Toronto-centric sports media just chugs back that Kool-Aid in the fall and it’s like a buncha youngsters wilding out on sugar. Watching those Sporstnet broadcasts was brutal. Game seven was like a funeral in there. I guess now they’ll have to study up on the names of players on other teams.

Cheers,

-b

~ by braddunne on June 1, 2021.

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