By Pierre LeBrun Feb 22, 2021
One of my favourite interviews in my time at The Athletic was back in September 2017 when catching up with Brian MacLellan.
I will never forget the raw honesty in that interview, as the Washington Capitals GM talked about his team still reeling from losing to Pittsburgh again in the second round the previous spring, how their all-in approach had shifted, they were a younger team now and it wasn’t clear if they were still top Cup contenders.
“I mean, we didn’t get it done,” MacLellan said in that interview. “We had two years, we lost to Pittsburgh twice, they were obviously the best team in the league. We could make the case we were the second-best, but it is what it is. We needed to make changes. We needed young guys in. We need to build it up again to where we’re competing for the Cup.”
The kicker in my piece was how we ended it in our chat. That finally, after a decade of being picked to win the Cup by so many, the Caps were under the radar for the most part entering the 2017-18 season.
“We’re probably being undervalued now,” said MacLellan. “It might be a good thing for us.”
No need to remind you what happened nine months later.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence they finally won it all in a season in which they were actually unburdened to some degree, their expectations reeled in to some degree following the 2017 playoffs.
It’s a tough thing to start a season knowing you will be judged only after the playoffs. No matter how many regular-season games they won, records they set, or individual awards Alex Ovechkin claimed, the 2017-18 Capitals wouldn’t get the chance to change the narrative until the playoffs.
The St. Louis Blues lived with that reality for many years before finally winning it all in 2019. The San Jose Sharks also lived with it for more than a decade, and despite four trips to the Western Conference final (2010, 2011, 2016, 2019) plus a Stanley Cup final berth (2016), all those great Sharks teams couldn’t achieve the ultimate.
They too dealt with the reality of starting a season in October knowing they couldn’t answer their critics until the playoffs began.
There’s a burden that comes with that.
This finally brings me to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were picked before the season to win the North Division by almost everyone, including myself, so it’s not surprising to see them in first place a third of the way into their schedule. They might actually pull away from their Canadian cousins here in short order and coast to a division title.
If that happens, I wonder if it will alleviate any pressure on the Leafs following their play-in series loss to Columbus in the bubble last summer. Or, if like those Caps, Blues and Sharks teams of the past, the Leafs are now in that category of team where regardless of any regular-season success, the jury will remain out on them until they finally get over their postseason hump.
A reminder that John Ferguson Jr. was GM and the late Pat Quinn was behind the bench the last time the Leafs won a playoff series, in April 2004. That’s 17 years and a few management cycles ago.
Surely, this is finally the year they at least win a round?
“They’ve taken a bit of a different tack this year in terms of roster construction, right?’’ said a rival executive from a U.S. team who requested anonymity. “All their young players are a year older. They haven’t tasted victory in the playoffs, but they’ve been there now consistently for a few years.
“You have to believe that that is showing up in their play right now.’’
The roster construction part he’s referring to, of course, is the additions of veterans such as Joe Thornton, Zach Bogosian, and Wayne Simmonds, plus the decision to bring back Jason Spezza.
I think those decisions will prove wise for Leafs GM Kyle Dubas. But perhaps not just for having them around come playoff time when the team feels that burden again to finally break through, but even today in the midst of this regular season which will likely see them go wire to wire as North Division champs.
Case in point, last Monday night’s debacle against the Ottawa Senators when the Leafs lost 6-5 in overtime after being up 5-1. The ensuing 24 hours were predictably a gong show in terms of fan and media reaction.
But the fallout was Toronto going on to win the next two against the Senators before dropping the Habs in Montreal on Saturday night.
There would be no 18-wheeler going off the cliff after that embarrassing loss to the Senators. Turn the page and keep going. And that’s where I think those veteran voices in the dressing room proved important, but also the maturation of core stars such as Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner who continue to carry the team. Those two didn’t flinch one bit in the middle of that white noise early last week.
And so the indications are positive, even if there’s concern over that John Tavares-William Nylander duo.
But overall, this team has grown. This finally resembles a Leafs team that has the chance not only to win a playoff series for the first time in the NHL’s salary cap era, but perhaps more than that.
The waiting is the hardest part, the late Tom Petty penned.
It doesn’t mean Leaf fans can’t enjoy Matthews’ goal-scoring heroics or the Leafs winning their first regular-season division title since 1999-2000. Those are fun things.
But the ultimate answer for this franchise won’t come until May, and with that comes the needed maturity and self-discipline to stay within the process and carry the right habits into the postseason.
I think this group is finally showing evidence it might be ready for that.