Imagine this scenario; a major Toronto-based sports team accomplishes its goal of finally winning a championship. The fanbase is ecstatic and going off on a party bender celebrating the win. To get to this high point, they’ve endured multiple years of issues and failure, but in the end it was all worth it. This is what happened Thursday night into Friday morning when the Toronto Raptors won their first ever National Basketball Association title, defeating the Golden State Warriors in dramatic fashion.
While basketball in Canada is continuing to grow, even more so after the Raptors’ win, when you think of Canada, hockey is still at the forefront, specifically the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise. Kids dream about playing for the Maple Leafs, scoring the game-winning goal in Game 7 to win the Stanley Cup.
I’m absolutely happy for the Raptors and their win, but every Canadian has roots with hockey in some capacity. If the Maple Leafs were to win a championship, every part of the city would be shut down and the celebration would be just as big. After witnessing the Raptors’ win, it’s now or never for the Maple Leafs. It’s now their turn to follow-up what the Raptors have done.
There Needs to Be Pain to Achieve Glory
The Raptors have endured their fair share of pain over 24 years, from Vince Carter leading to multiple losses to LeBron James in the playoffs. Those were tough years. But it’s not as much as the Maple Leafs endured over their 100-plus seasons. There were the Harold Ballard years, the missed high-stick from Wayne Gretzky on Doug Gilmour, the 18-wheeler off a cliff, the 2013 blown lead to the Boston Bruins in the playoffs and two more heart-breaking defeats in 2018 and 2019.
It seemed as though the Leafs were cursed and a shot at a championship was a distant dream. It wasn’t until Brendan Shanahan took over as team president in 2014 that a new attitude and philosophy would take over the team. From that moment on, he was determined to get the Maple Leafs back to their former glory. After years of pain, things started to quickly turn around for the blue and white and will continue to do so.
Key Changes Need to Be Made
From the front office, to the coaching staff, to the on-ice product, Maple Leafs fans knew there was going to be a lot of changes coming. It started with the hiring of Mike Babcock, the man chosen to lead the Maple Leafs to victory. Then came Lou Lamiorello as general manager. Then came the additions of Mark Hunter, Kyle Dubas (both as assistant GMs). From 2015 to now, you can notice the shift in building a championship-caliber team.
It started the year before drafting William Nylander eighth overall in 2014. Then came Mitch Marner, Travis Dermott, Auston Matthews, acquiring Kasperi Kapanen for Phil Kessel and trading for and signing Frederik Andersen. It took a while but the pieces were falling into place. Dubas went into “win-now mode” by signing hometown boy and superstar John Tavares. The presence of Tavares was felt this year. Though even after a career best in goals and points, but even that wasn’t enough for a team labelled as Stanley Cup contenders.
Dubas, now general manager, has a chance to replicate the Raptors’ success in a way that is true to his vision. After another early playoff exit, changes could still be made for the team. While the Leafs are hanging onto Babcock (for now), there was a change in assistants, letting go Jim Hiller and DJ Smith, and hiring Paul McFarland.
There are similarities here. Raptors president Masai Ujiri (what position is he with the Raptors?) let Dwayne Casey go for Nick Nurse. He made a swing for the fences move by acquiring Kawhi Leonard, giving up fan favourite DeMar DeRozan in the process. Changes need to be made with the Maple Leafs, and Dubas can continue the trend that’s already in place. The Raptors provide that template; Dubas used their model before and he could use it again, after their success. Some risks need to be taken in order to be a better team.
When the Leafs signed Tavares, it signaled that this is the window for a championship. After another disappointing early exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Maple Leafs take solace in the fact that this isn’t the end. It’s just the beginning for them.
While it would have been nice for them to take another step forward in their quest for a Cup, it shouldn’t deter them from that. It should motivate them even more. The players and coaches should be motivated, and more importantly, Dubas should be motivated to continue to build a team capable of winning a championship. He already did a fantastic job building a Toronto Marlies team that won the Calder Cup in 2018. Now is his time to replicate that success.
“There are things we need to improve upon. There are things we need to do to adapt and evolve and continue to get better. As an organization, we believe we can do that together.” – Kyle Dubas, May 6t , 2019, TSN
Dubas has some tough decisions to make, but the stage is set for him to continue building a contender and a winning team. With the Raptors winning the NBA championship, the Maple Leafs are the only sports team in Toronto to not win a title in the last 30 years. Their 52 years without winning the Stanley Cup is now the longest in NHL history. It’s up to Dubas, the coaches and players to change that.
In 2017, it was Toronto FC. In 2018, it was the Marlies. In 2019, it was the Raptors. What does 2020 hold? We don’t know. But we’re hoping that the Maple Leafs can continue the trend of major sports teams winning a championship. They’ve had regular season success, but had their seasons ended shortly in the first round of the playoffs. They shouldn’t be discouraged with all the post-season hardship. Like the Raptors, they have a chance to redeem themselves and give the city something else to cheer about. This is their time to win.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.