For the first time in years, this Maple Leafs team has no expectations of success.
There is no “this could be the year” hope, no suggestions of contending for the Cup—not even the expectation of making the playoffs.
This has certainly been one of the busiest offseasons in recent years for the Leafs. Along with a new GM and Coach, Toronto drafted a top prospect, added a few new players, and bought out or let go of others.
But there is one big difference this year—all moves have been done in the name of “building for the future” rather than for the present. It is because of this that nobody is looking at the moves and saying we will be better next year.
There are many reasons for these lowered expectations. Firstly, Leaf fans have been told that the team is officially rebuilding (although it’s more of a semi-rebuild) and will likely go backwards before they move forward. By doing this, Cliff Fletcher has lowered our expectations by telling us that the Leafs won’t contend this year.
Secondly, seasons of high hopes have led to unfulfilled expectations year after year, leading fans to be less optimistic. There is no longer a sense of “all we need to do is make the playoffs, then anything can happen”.
Going into this season, there is absolutely no expectation of immediate success. For once, the Leafs will begin a season with no pressure. We expect them to be bad. We have been told that they will likely be worse than last year, putting them near the bottom of the league.
With so little expectations, how can they possibly disappoint?
Last offseason, the Leafs seemed to address their biggest needs—consistently strong goaltending and a scoring first-line winger—by adding Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake.
They had just barely missed the playoffs with Raycroft in net. Surely these additions would push them into the East’s Top Eight. After all, nobody in the Northeast seemed to have improved as much as the Leafs—Buffalo lost Drury and Briere, and Montreal lost Souray. (Obviously no one realized Montreal would significantly improve through player development.)
When Paul Maurice said the Leafs would make the playoffs and contend in the East, I agreed. Needless to say, he and I were completely wrong and the Leafs never came close to meeting those high expectations.
I still believe they underachieved—but either way, they once again let down the fans.
This season, without high expectations and pressure, maybe the players will finally feel comfortable playing in the world’s craziest hockey market. Maybe the team we expect nothing of will overachieve and do well. Maybe I’m completely wrong again.
But I see it like this—even if they start the season off pretty well, they won’t face the normal amount of pressure, because we will still expect them to fall off and finish at the bottom. This might give them even more motivation to succeed—to prove everyone wrong.
I’m not saying they will win the Cup, but I don’t think it’s impossible for them to have a shot at the playoffs. Unfortunately, this would be more of a curse than a blessing.
Being somewhat successful is counter-productive to rebuilding. This is why Fletcher may have to act fast and figure out how much rebuilding this team needs to be a legitimate contender.
If the Leafs perform as I have suggested in the first couple months of the season, management will have to decide whether to blow the team up by trading away assets like Toskala, Antropov and Blake for draft picks in order to prevent another mediocre but not bad enough seventh- to twelfth-place finish.
Or, the Leafs could decide to speed up the rebuilding process, and go back to the old methods of patching the holes for short-term gain. Realistically, I’m not quite sure what to expect.
Writer’s Note: This article is based on a lengthy comment I wrote earlier on a Bryan Thiel article. After rambling off on a tangent from his article, I decided to just write a whole article.
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