The photo from the first appearance of John Tavares as a Toronto Maple Leaf could be captioned “Mission Accomplished.” Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas shares a smile with his newest player before introducing him to the press. Dubas, who’s a boyish 32 and wears thick black-rimmed glasses, looks a little like Loren Dean as John Aaron in Apollo 13. He’s being billed as a similarly impressive life-saving nerd. Two months into his tenure, on July 1, Dubas signed Tavares, who turned 28 in September, to put the Leafs over the top.
The NHL, as is so often the case, was a few years late to the innovations of baseball and basketball, but we’re seeing the fruits of hockey’s first modern empirics-driven tank-and-rally, and in the sport’s de facto capital, no less: Toronto. The Maple Leafs have now taken their young, talented core, built around no. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews, to consecutive playoff berths, including a team-record 105 points last year, and added superstar center Tavares this summer in free agency. The future looks extremely promising.
But the Maple Leafs, who haven’t won a playoff series since 2004 (two lockouts ago), are close to exhausting their ability to sell hope. In 2018-19, “promising” won’t cut it—this team better be good.
Because hockey is so weird, it’s tough to communicate the concept of “Toronto Maple Leafs” to a non-hockey audience. The Leafs are the only NHL team in Canada’s biggest city, but they haven’t won a title since 1967, when there were only six teams in the league and they were coached by a guy named Punch. And while the Leafs have intermittently flirted with competence during the past half century, they made the playoffs just once between the 2004-05 lockout and Matthews’s rookie year in 2016-17. Those dark ages were characterized by an embarrassing on-ice product and a management group that was proudly and aggressively behind the times. They were a laughingstock made all the more risible by Toronto’s enormous influence on hockey and Canadian culture at large. The Leafs are like the pre-2016 Chicago Cubs, if New York, Los Angeles, and the NFL didn’t exist.
The Leafs of the 2010s had some good players—captain Dion Phaneuf, Ringer favorite Phil Kessel, injury-prone sniper Joffrey Lupul—but not enough to keep up with the Penguins and Lightning. Phaneuf, Kessel, and Lupul all seemed like nice guys, but Toronto’s management team, led by GMs Brian Burke and Dave Nonis, and head coach Randy Carlyle, subscribed to the old-school hockey mentality of talent being secondary to Wanting It More, as if flaws in team construction could be overcome by what the famously erudite Burke called “truculence.” This is, of course, not how it works, and nothing Phaneuf and Kessel in particular could do was good enough.
During those dark ages, Toronto’s one playoff appearance came in 2012-13, and even that turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing. In their first-round matchup against the hated and heavily favored Bruins, the Leafs fought back from 3-1 down in the series to force a Game 7 in Boston and led 4-1 in that decisive game with 12 minutes remaining in regulation. After they cut the lead to 4-2, the Bruins netted twice in the final 82 seconds to tie the game, then won the series six minutes into overtime.
Rock bottom came either at Game 7 in Boston or about eight months later, in a one-minute clip on HBO’s 24/7 Red Wing–Maple Leafs: Road to the Winter Classic. As HBO cameras followed the team around in advance of their New Year’s Day outdoor game with the Red Wings at Michigan Stadium, Carlyle somehow got a piece of bread stuck in a toaster.
It’s one of the most pathetic things I’ve ever seen on television: An old man, tasked with elevating a mediocre team to victory through sheer force of will, flummoxed by a basic kitchen appliance. And as Carlyle holds forth on newfangled toasters and newfangled almond butter, he looks around the dining room, imploring bystanders to laugh with him. Not a soul so much as looks up. There’s no better microcosm for the Maple Leafs in the first decade after the 2004-05 lockout than Carlyle trying to hide his own loneliness as his bread is stuck in the toaster.
At the end of that season the Leafs hired Hall of Fame winger Brendan Shanahan to run the team’s hockey operations department. Midway through the 2015 season, the team fired Carlyle, and at season’s end, the Leafs cashiered Nonis as well. In came head coach Mike Babcock, who won the Stanley Cup in 2008 with the Red Wings and two Olympic gold medals with Team Canada, and GM Lou Lamoriello, who won three titles with the New Jersey Devils, along with Dubas, who became the team’s assistant general manager, analytics czar, and the heir presumptive to Lamoriello, who was 72 years old when the Leafs hired him.
The Leafs improved rapidly once they were run by people who knew what they were doing. Shanahan had top-10 picks in each of his first three seasons and used them wisely: 2014 first-rounder William Nylander and 2015 first-rounder Mitch Marner have both scored 60 or more points in each of the past two seasons. But the real prize was the no. 1 overall pick in 2016, which the Leafs used on Matthews, a 6-foot-3-inch, 220-pound goal-scoring center from Arizona. Matthews potted 40 goals as a rookie, including an NHL-high 32 from even strength, before adding 34 more in just 62 games last year.
Heading into 2018-19, Nylander is 22 years old, and Marner and Matthews are just 21. Some of the players who were miscast under Nonis and Carlyle are thriving in different roles today. Nazem Kadri, a 27-year-old center, posted the first two 30-goal seasons of his career the past two seasons and has settled in as a two-way pest and one of the league’s best third-line centers. Defenseman Morgan Reilly, 24, was the no. 5 overall pick in 2012, and posted a career-high 52 points in 2017-18, including 46 assists, 10th among NHL defensemen.
The Leafs have supplemented this homegrown core by signing a few veteran role players last offseason—former San Jose Sharks captain Patrick Marleau is now a depth winger at age 39, while 37-year-old defenseman Ron Hainsey, who won a Cup with the Penguins in 2017, offered a stay-at-home partner for the marauding Reilly. Goalie James Reimer (or Poor James Reimer, as I’ll always remember him, because of his sympathetic face and propensity for getting peppered with rubber) is gone, replaced by former Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen. The 29-year-old Dane posted identical .918 save percentages in each of his first two seasons in Toronto, and last season led the NHL in saves and finished fourth in Vezina Trophy voting.
On the front-office side, Dubas, now 32, has indeed replaced Lamoriello as GM, and the contrast could not be more stark. Even though Lamoriello built an extremely successful Devils team in the 1990s and early 2000s, tonally he’s much more similar to Burke and Carlyle than Dubas. Upon arriving in Toronto, Lamoriello barred his players from wearing high uniform numbers or growing facial hair, and he signed fourth-line goon Matt Martin to a four-year, $10 million contract. Within weeks of taking over, Dubas ended the restrictions on facial hair and uniform numbers, traded Martin, and let grinder Leo Komarov walk as a free agent. (Lamoriello took over the Islanders after leaving Toronto, and acquired both Martin and Komarov.)
In addition to being an empiricist, Dubas is happy to not only buck tradition, but also explain why he’s bucking tradition at length. While “that’s the way it’s always been” was good enough for his predecessors, Dubas goes out of his way to try new approaches to building his team and evaluating players, and to seek out new voices to assist him. Dubas has spent the past few seasons experimenting with Toronto’s AHL team, the Marlies, and has looked outside the traditional old boys’ club as he’s built a staff. Dubas hired recently retired Hayley Wickenheiser, perhaps the greatest women’s hockey player ever, as his assistant director of player development. He also instituted what amounted to a blind audition for an amateur scouting position, inviting applicants to file reports, which Dubas then graded without knowing who’d written them. One of the winners was former Minnesota State player Noelle Needham, who Dubas hired as an area scout.
But none of those moves generated as many headlines as signing Tavares. The no. 1 overall pick in 2009, Tavares has been a nearly-point-per-game scorer through nine seasons with the New York Islanders, and will pair up with Matthews to form one of the league’s top one-two center combinations. And optically, signing Tavares is important because he’s an Ontario native who came home to chase a ring. The Leafs have pursued homegrown free agents like Tavares in the past—Rick Nash and Steven Stamkos are two prominent examples—but had always struck out. No longer.
It’s a new era for the NHL’s most prominent rebuilding team, a club that’s now hired its forward-thinking GM, drafted its young superstar first overall, signed its big free agent, acquired its starting goaltender, and built up some depth around that core. The rebuild is over, but a new and perhaps more difficult series of challenges faces Toronto.
The bottom of the NHL standings is littered with teams that tried and failed to convert a tanking project into a competitive team, from the underfunded Arizona Coyotes to the mismanaged Edmonton Oilers to the unlucky Buffalo Sabres. The Leafs have at least gone from terrible to good, but going from good to championship-caliber is going to take more than just developing Matthews, Marner, and Nylander, and signing Tavares. It’s about maintaining what the Leafs have already built.
Dubas’s first great challenge in that regard has already arrived, as Nylander’s rookie contract ran out this summer and the 22-year-old Swede has not signed a new deal with Toronto. The Leafs have to not only sign Nylander, but also sign him to a deal that keeps him happy, motivated, and productive. If they don’t, they need to find a way to replace his 60-point production. And more than that, Marner and Matthews are similarly going to be restricted free agents after this season, and the way Dubas and Shanahan treat Nylander this year will send a message to Toronto’s two most important young players as they negotiate their own second contracts.
Matthews in particular will determine the course of the franchise. After the Leafs were knocked out of the playoffs last year—another seven-game loss to Boston—we saw the first signs of trouble in paradise for the new-look Leafs. Matthews, after scoring just two points in seven games, reportedly fell out with Babcock. Matthews denied any rift with his coach at the time, but shortly thereafter, Babcock visited Matthews in person at the latter’s home in Arizona to sort out their differences.
Babcock’s trip appears to have been worth it. In August, Matthews told Jonas Siegel of The Athletic that he was on good terms with Babcock heading into the season. A lot is riding on that relationship—Babcock isn’t a bellowing hardass like John Tortorella, but he’s a tough coach who demands discipline from his players. A developing score-first superstar like Matthews is likely to strain against an authority figure like Babcock. If their relationship goes south for good and Shanahan and Dubas have to pick one or the other, coaches are easier to replace than first-line centers. But poaching Babcock, regarded as one of the best coaches in the world, from Detroit was nearly as big a statement for Shanahan’s management group as drafting Matthews. The Leafs signaled their commitment to Babcock by signing him to an eight-year, $50 million contract; that’s more than four times more per year what Barry Trotz made when he won the Cup with Washington last year. Babcock can’t be jettisoned easily. Therefore, keeping Matthews happy and productive within Babcock’s system must be the team’s top priority.
It’s also important that as Matthews grows and the team grows around him, team and star don’t come into conflict. For example, when the Leafs traded Phaneuf to Ottawa in February 2016, they didn’t name a new captain—in fact, they still haven’t, preferring to hand alternate captaincies to Tavares, Marleau, and Reilly. It’s standard practice in the NHL for young superstars like Matthews to apprentice under an established veteran before being handed the C after a year or two. Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid were both named captain before they turned 20, as was Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog. At 21, and with no established captain blocking him, it’s not unreasonable for Matthews to expect to take on that mantle, and he told Siegel in that same interview that he believes he’s ready. But Tavares is now the coequal face of the franchise with Matthews, and has five years of experience as captain of the Islanders himself. Elevating one of Tavares or Matthews over the other would mean appointing one of them as the leader of the team, but it’s unclear whose team this is at the moment. Tavares is a Good Ontario Boy, and an established veteran superstar, but he’s a newcomer. Matthews came into the league with the Leafs, but elements of the local media have been quick to turn on American players with a vengeance, particularly if they make waves or go missing in the playoffs.
At the moment, Nylander’s contract dispute notwithstanding, everything seems to be running smoothly. But the worst thing a team emerging from a rebuild can do—from management to coaches to players to fans—is assume that’ll remain the case. And even then, the Leafs still have a ways to go before they can declare their rebuilding project a success. A first-round playoff exit will cease to be a moral victory and become a disappointment.
It’d seem like becoming an established playoff team and signing Tavares would indicate that the hard part is over and the fun is just beginning in Toronto. That’s not a guarantee—in fact, it could turn out to be the opposite.