Why I’m leaving Leafs Nation
I am writing this letter to inform you I am officially leaving “Leafs Nation”. I have been a Toronto Maple Leafs fan for nearly 25 years, since the acquisition of Grant Fuhr convinced me to shed my allegiance with my grandfather’s team (the Montreal Canadiens). Although there have been some rewarding moments as a Leafs’ fan, these moments have been far outnumbered (and outweighed) by my experiences of heartache, disappointment, confusion and frustration.
Your franchise has consistently shown either a disinterest or an inability towards establishing a strong on-ice product. Part of this issue is a function of basic supply and demand, as well as competition. No matter how badly the franchise performed, the team would always sell out every home gate and continue to turn over massive amounts of merchandise and memorabilia. This was proven during the 1980s, a decade in which the Maple Leafs won just 266 out of 800 games between 1980-81 and 1989-90 (and yet suffered no measurable drop-off in attendance). Furthermore, despite multiple attempts to facilitate NHL expansion in South-Western Ontario, the closest competition is two hours away in Buffalo, NY; there is no local competition for Maple Leafs’ fans’ NHL dollars. This is in stark contrast to the Greater New York area, where three teams operate within 30-40 miles of one another (each of whom have won at least once Stanley Cup in the past 25 years).
The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs had a clear leadership structure and organizational philosophy was the early 1990s. Cliff Fletcher was entrusted as the guardian of the on-ice product, with Pat Burns as his field marshal. Astute trading and a veteran team that bought into Burns’ team- and defense-first philosophy allowed the team to capture lightning in a bottle, making it within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals in 1993. However, in the 20 years since, the team has failed to build any sustainable momentum. The Leafs have continued to try to simply add veteran players in several failed attempts to “get over the hump”, whether that hump was becoming a true Stanley Cup contender or simply squeezing into a playoff spot to get a few lucrative playoff gates. There has never been a focus on establishing a dynamic core of players in (or on the verge of) their prime playing years at the same time, supplemented by veteran/character/role players. The closest the franchise has come to this pivot point was the acquisition of Mats Sundin, a brilliant move despite the cries of outrage from a fanbase at the loss of Wendel Clark. But Sundin was never surrounded with a quality supporting cast, and his talents were largely squandered.
For a franchise with limitless resources, there has been virtually no investment in the infrastructure that develops and reinforces the team’s talent pipeline. As a result, the team has a track record that demonstrates its inability to identify and develop high-calibre talent. Since 1992, the Maple Leafs have had 17 first-round draft choices. Just five have played in at least 400 NHL games: Kenny Jonsson, Nik Antropov, Brad Boyes, Alex Steen and Luke Schenn. Of those five, just two (Antropov and Schenn) have spent the bulk of their playing careers with the Maple Leafs. And that ignores the six seasons where the team didn’t even have a first round pick (including three where Toronto didn’t make a selection until the third round).
It would be one thing if, despite the lack of sustained team success, that there was at least the entertainment of having top-flight NHL talent to rally around. Mats Sundin was arguably the most talented Maple Leaf player of this generation, and is the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. But he did this DESPITE the talent around him, not because of it. The list of Sundin’s sub-par wingers could fill a book: Jonas Hoglund, Mikael Renberg, Sergei Berezin, etc. He never once had another player of his calibre on the team at the same time. Alexander Mogilny came the closest, but was unfortunately at the tail end of his career when he arrived in Toronto; his productivity and playing time were both limited as a result. Even sad-sack franchises like the Atlanta Thrashers, New York Islanders and Florida Panthers have at some point had elite-level talent that their fan bases could cheer: Kovalchuk/Heatley, Tavares, Bure/Luongo.
While the team seems aware of its limited success at the Entry Draft, the solution in the past has largely been to paper over any gaps with veteran free agents, rather than reinvesting in scouting and development. While this has worked occasionally (see Curtis Joseph, Steve Thomas), there have been far more misses than hits. Especially in the Salary Cap era, these ill-conceived deals have hamstrung the Leafs’ ability to acquire and retain core talent. The signings of Unrestricted Free Agents David Clarkson, Mike Komisarek, Jeff Finger and Jason Blake were all ineffective and all ate up valuable cap space that prevented the team from improving. Furthermore, expensive extensions to players who no longer fit at the start of the Salary Cap era (such as Ed Belfour and Darcy Tucker) immediately put the team in a poor position to capitalize on the new fiscal realities of the new NHL. I believe Darcy Tucker’s buyout is STILL on the team’s books, and he hasn’t played for Toronto since 2008 (or in the NHL since 2010). By comparison, the Boston Bruins only had nine players under contract when the 2004-05 lockout ended, and they have won nine playoff series in the past eight seasons (including a Stanley Cup victory in 2010).
Since the 2004-05 lockout, the Toronto Maple Leafs have had two major failings. The first has been its goaltending. The Maple Leafs had an embarrassment of riches in net for many years: Grant Fuhr, Felix Potvin, Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour. But when Belfour’s time as an elite goaltender wound down, there was no successions planning. Andrew Raycroft was acquired from Boston in a terrible trade that cost the team Tuuka Rask. The trade looks even worse in light of later revelations that the Bruins originally wanted Justin Pogge, and were on the verge of releasing Raycroft. Raycroft’s failings then led to a panicked pick-up of Vesa Toskala from San Jose, costing the team a first round pick that could have been 30-goal scorer Logan Couture. Toronto doubled down and signed Toskala to a contract extension before he even played a single game for Toronto. He spent just two-and-a-half seasons in Toronto, with his lasting legacy being a 200-foot goal allowed against the Islanders in 2008. The end result of Toronto’s failings in the evaluation of goaltending talent is that 18 different goaltenders have worn the Maple Leaf jersey since the 2004-05 lockout (vs. 12 for the Bruins).
Toronto’s other major failing has been a misguided faith in players to be more than what they are. Some players are signed to lengthy contracts to keep them in Toronto despite their not being a long-term fit. Others are given clauses to limit or outright prohibit Toronto’s ability to move them despite a lack of a pedigree indicating these players deserve such clauses (see Bryan McCabe, Pavel Kubina and Darcy Tucker). Toronto has suffered from over-enthusiasm about its players, both in terms of its management and its fanbase. Players are signed to contract extensions before their talents (and fit) have been properly evaluated (e.g. Toskala, John-Michael Liles). Others are held onto long after their trade value has peaked, or re-acquired to satiate fan demands to see past-their-prime favourites return for another tour of duty (e.g. Wendel Clark, Curtis Joseph). While sentimentality has a time and a place, that time and place is on a winning franchise that can afford to bend its rules when the situation allows.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are not the Detroit Red Wings, the class of the NHL over the past 20 years. They are not the Chicago Blackhawks or Boston Bruins, former Original Six rivals who have built cores of sublime talent and are able to adjust to the confines of the salary cap efficiently and effectively. They are not the Pittsburgh Penguins or Tampa Bay Lightning, with world-class talent to entertain the fan base even when Stanley Cup success isn’t forthcoming. The Toronto Maple Leafs are a franchise that has not won a Stanley Cup since there were just six NHL teams. The Leafs are a team that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004, and has only made it to the Stanley Cup Semi-Finals five times since 1967 (never making it to the Finals).
I want to make a comparison to help better explain my sentiment here. Let’s assume the Maple Leafs manufactured cars. These cars have a style that makes them timeless, but they get poor mileage and are unreliable, often breaking down on long trips. They certainly don’t run as long or as well as our neighbours’ cars (i.e. Montreal, Detroit). And yet I keep buying and driving these cars because it’s what I’ve always used; because my family used these cars; and because everyone I know drive these cars, even though no one really ENJOYS driving these cars. And the manufacturer has no interest in improving these cars, because they always sell well, especially when it comes to merchandising. So why in the world should I buy this car again?
Your franchise has failed in every measure as a hockey team except for the one that has mattered most to every Maple Leafs’ owner, from Ballard to Stavro to MLSE: profits. The on-ice product is irrelevant, and cash is king; this mindset has been proven time and again, never more than when ownership declined to sign Wayne Gretzky in the late 1990s because they didn’t want to add his salary and ticket sales were already at capacity. But the most maddening aspect of all is that everyone in this franchise from the top down on through to the fanbase is willing to accept mediocrity with a shrug and “well, we’ll try again next year”. The team has collapsed in epic and ugly fashion three years in a row, and yet its players are celebrated as celebrities and heroes.
I am done with this perpetual cycle of disappointment and failure. I am done investing my emotions, my time and my money in a team that fails to reward this investment in any measurable fashion. And I will not subject my four-year-old son to a lifetime of defending himself as a Leafs fan, when the team does NOTHING to provide him with on-ice success or an individual player’s glory to grab hold of. I am officially terminating my membership in Leafs’ Nation. Don’t worry, I won’t cheer for the Canadiens… that wouldn’t be fair to either of us. But I will begin searching for another team to cheer for. I’ll look you up the next time you make the playoffs to see how you are doing, but otherwise I will no longer be a supporter of your team until you are able to give me a reason to be.