I begin this by saying I’m sorry. What follows has and may still cause twitching, freakouts, nervous breakdowns, or uncontrollable sobbing, but the road to true recovery starts with accepting what happened. The collapse of epic proportions, the Toronto Maple Leafs losing to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, happened.
“To lose a game you led by three goals with 11 minutes to play would be crushing if it happened in February; to do it in Game 7 of a playoff series is nothing short of soul-destroying.” – Chris Johnston, Sportsnet, May 13, 2013.
To be honest, this is the first time I’ve really spoken about it since it happened. The year was 2013. The Toronto Maple Leafs roster had the likes of Jay McClement, Joe Colborne, and Colton Orr on it. The lead was 4-1 with 11 minutes to go in the third. Leafs fan; meet rock bottom. Rock bottom; Leafs fans.
I’m convinced that game contributed to my hair loss. Sure, Leafs fans wish it never happened. They wish the franchise they’ve given all their love to for so little in return didn’t embarrass them the way it did on that dreadful night on the 13th of May.
But what if it didn’t actually happen?
That Game 7 loss was not only necessary, but may actually be one of the best things to ever happen to this historic franchise in search of its first Cup in half of a century.
Where Would the Leafs Be?
Well, let’s look at what they might still have.
Phil Kessel. Dion Phaneuf. Randy Carlyle. Dave Nonis. David Clarkson. No Cup.
Kessel has two cups since leaving Toronto, so I’m sure he’s not crazy about the idea of that Game 7 not happening either, but at the time, he loved playing in Toronto. He’d have gladly taken his $8 million per year to lead the mediocre roster in points and never get any closer to hoisting Lord Stanley.
Had the Leafs beat the Bruins that night, advanced, and gone on to play the New York Rangers, even won that series, management might have looked at the team and said “Maybe we’re not that far off.” Instead of focusing on refilling the cupboard with solid prospects, they’d stay the course and start adding veteran pieces in exchange for draft picks in an effort to make another run the next season.
There’d be no reason to fire Carlyle or Nonis. Clarkson would still be around for his grit and tenacity; something needed for a deep playoff run back in the old days.
Still not convinced? Maybe we should look at what the Leafs wouldn’t have.
I start here because Brendan Shanahan’s hiring on Apr. 11, 2014 was the first step in Toronto’s official rebuild. Even if Shanahan was still brought in that year, with a potentially deep playoff run the year before, who knows how much control he’d really have with the management and roster shaping. No proper rebuild; no framework for the current team’s goal of being a perennial contender; no “Shana-plan.”
Perhaps he wouldn’t have felt the need to shift the franchise’s focus to analytics. Kyle Dubas may not have been brought in; Mark Hunter either.
The 2015 season where Shanahan sat in the rafters and painfully watched the team collapse after the All-Star break and win only eight games on the road all year, may not have been so bad. Maybe they figure out a way to get back into the playoffs and bow out after a round or two.
Any long-time Leafs fan knows how stubborn the owners of the team were when it came to being successful. They were happy with the sellouts. They had plenty of money. The one thing that hit them where it hurt, the 13-year long sellout streak ending, may not have. Who needs Mike Babcock, anyways?
No Mitch Marner at the 2015 draft.
Let’s be serious. Deep down inside, Brendan Shanahan was smiling ear to ear. Seeing what that team had become was the only thing embarrassing enough to get the OK from the powers that be to accept the pain that was coming for a proper rebuild. None of those hypotheticals above would have actually happened, because Shanahan wouldn’t do it any other way than the plan he’s set in place now. He would have declined.
He knew what needed to be done. He cleaned house in April of 2015. Babcock was hired in May of that year. Hyman comes via trade from the Florida Panthers on June 19, 2015. Mitch Marner is drafted a week later; Travis Dermott the next day. Mark Hunter was at the helm.
A week later, Kessel is shipped off to Pittsburgh. Kasperi Kapanen comes to Toronto in return. Lou Lamoriello comes in and sends Dion Phaneuf, the previous Leafs captain, to Ottawa; perhaps the final move to signify that moving forward, mediocrity and band-aids were no longer accepted by the Maple Leafs.
One year later, Leafs fans meet Auston Matthews. Matthews; Leafs fans. Rock bottom doesn’t seem so bad after all, does it?
Where Are the Leafs Today?
Fast forward to today and the Leafs are pounding some pasta and staying loose in anticipation of the first game of their second consecutive trip to the postseason. Most players on the current roster were just getting through puberty in 2013. They don’t owe anybody for what that team did. They are responsible for their play now and to them, if there is anyone who can take down the resilient Bruins, it’s this team. They believe in themselves, and perhaps that’s all they need.
Even the ones who remain from that 2013 squad know this time it’s different. James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov, and of course, Jake Gardiner all look at it as a shot at redemption; five years in the making. The Leafs get their shot to quiet Brad Marchand. They get their chance to solve Tuukka Rask. They finally get their chance to send the B’s packing.
Some people believe that everything happens for a reason.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) April 12, 2018
Game 1 is tonight.
Ready. Set. ‘Go Leafs Go.’