When the Toronto Maple Leafs hit the ice for the 2020-21 season, the club is missing a goat. I’m not talking about the GOAT, which stands for Greatest of All Time. I mean the guy who will get blamed when the team has a bad game or worse: a bad season.
The 2019-20 season failures were blamed on a regular guilty position, defence. This practice has been the routine as far back as the Dion Phaneuf era. The former captain was held responsible for everything in Toronto during his tenure. From the on-ice miscues to the hot dogs being cold, it was Phaneuf’s fault.
The “C” on Phaneuf’s jersey and the big paycheque made him an easy target, but it’s not always those factors that raise the hatred among the fan base. When the Leafs traded him to the Ottawa Senators as part of a full rebuild of the franchise, the critics and the fanbase were in unfamiliar territory. There was no one to blame.
Defensemen Have Been the Goat
The reprieve was refreshing yet short-lived. Jake Gardiner took the position of public whipping boy. Gardiner went minus-five during Game 7 against the Boston Bruins in the 2018 playoffs. He was called “Jake the Mistake” and booed at home and on the road by fans wearing the blue and white.
When Gardiner’s contract ran out, a couple of new defensemen rolled into Toronto. The expectations were high for Tyson Barrie. Not only did he have impressive numbers with the Colorado Avalanche, but the Leafs also traded Nazem Kadri to get him. Barrie underperformed, as did newly acquired Cody Ceci. The entire defensive unit was suspect most games (and rarely healthy), but Barrie took the brunt of the blame. Both of those guys are now gone.
Who is to Blame Now?
As per usual, anticipation is high this season. Anything less than a second-round showing, perhaps even a third-round performance, will be a failure. Many will continue to blame the general manager, but Kyle Dubas has addressed many issues this offseason. The next target will fall on Sheldon Keefe, but the head coach is still relatively new and has a long rope. If there were fans in the stands, who would they boo if their team doesn’t perform?
It’s hard to hate a guy who wears a Lego Batman on his mask and always seems calm in the net. But entering the last year of this five-year contract and after an offseason that included speculation he would be traded; Andersen is a candidate to be the goat. For the past four years, the team’s defensive play was blamed, but recently, commentators have taken a harder line on the likable Dane. While you can’t pin a lot of losses on Andersen, you can’t award him playoff wins either.
For many in Toronto, Canada Day is also known as John Tavares Day. July 1st, 2018, the local boy signed with his hometown team, and Leafs’ Nation started planning the Stanley Cup parade. As Tavares enters his third season and second as the team captain, the need to be much better has reached a boiling point.
The heat started in the offseason when the Maple Leafs signed Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds and re-signed Jason Spezza, for their experience and leadership. These moves opened up the questions about leadership in Toronto. While it’s unlikely any of those guys will wear a letter, the guy wearing the “C” has to perform on and off the ice, or he could be the goat.
Maybe it’s just habit at this point, but a defenseman is usually to blame in Toronto. Dubas said T.J. Brodie was always the target to acquire in the offseason, as the Leafs did not pursue prized d-man, Alex Pietrangelo. (from ‘Dubas admits Leafs never close with Pietrangelo; Brodie the ‘big splash’,’ Toronto Sun, 10/10/2020) It may be unfair to suggest he is an early goat candidate, but the expectations are high for the new blueliner to pick up the slack. The other top four defencemen — Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly and Justin Holl — could be early front runners for criticism.
Don’t get your Leafs logo in a twist reading this article. This story should be viewed as a positive, as there isn’t an obvious goat heading into the season. Any one of these players could just as quickly become the favourable kind of GOAT. All it will take is a Stanley Cup.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.