Adversity is unavoidable. We all experience it, be it through a tough course in college, an over-demanding boss at work, or through more extreme cases in our personal lives. Adversity is a big part of life, and very few are able to go through life without facing some of it. As we grow and experience adversity, we learn to overcome it. Though difficult at first, we begin to draw on past experiences, evaluate current approaches, and adjust accordingly, all with the goal of overcoming what currently stands in our way.
The same, of course, is true in sports.
As we creep closer towards the end of the season, the story of the 2019/2020 campaign for the Toronto Maple Leafs has not been one that often preludes a happy ending. Between the last six weeks of Mike Babcock’s tenure and the current streak of sub-par play mixed with unfortunate injuries and just abysmal goaltending, the Leafs – who were widely considered to at the very least stay comfortably within the Atlantic Division top three – find themselves in a situation where every game suddenly matters way more than it probably should as they jockey with the Florida Panthers for the third and final spot in the division, with the Wild Card battle almost certainly coming down to two of the Metropolitan teams who can’t fight their way into a division spot. In spite of this, the Leafs often look lethargic. There rarely seems to be a sense of urgency, and every time a goalie lets one get by them (which has been a lot lately), the team looks utterly deflated. It has led to a great deal of hot takery and in-fighting among Leafs Twitter and Leafs media alike, often circling back to the common criticism of the construction of Kyle Dubas’ Maple Leafs just being a mentally weak team, unable to deal with adversity.
Which got me thinking, why should they be?
The 2016/17 season was found money. The Leafs had just finished dead last, and were coming into the season with excitement high, but expectations low. A shiny new goalie, the second year under sure-thing Hall of Fame coach Mike Babcock, and most importantly, an influx of talent, headlined by the reward for absolutely bottoming out the season before in Auston Matthews. There was a lot to be looking forward to, but a playoff birth seemed unlikely after finishing at the bottom of the league just a year earlier. But lightning struck. The team stayed healthy, Frederik Andersen was everything he was advertised to be, and thanks to Curtis McElhinney’s toe, the Leafs crashed the postseason party, giving the President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals a tightly contested series before eventually being dropped in six. But this was fine. The Leafs weren’t supposed to be there, and yet they were. On the back of their steady goalie and young offensive stars, they were on the come-up. Things were accelerated a bit, but they were going as planned.
The following two seasons followed a nearly identical path. The Leafs were good, and took a step forward, now finding themselves in the division picture, but the Atlantic is ruled by two juggernauts, and the Leafs unfortunately have not become a third to challenge for the throne. By mid-late January both years, it seemed that third seed and a series against Boston was predestined, and there was really nothing the Leafs could do to avoid it. Again they stayed healthy, again they got solid goaltending, but both times, it came down to a game seven in Boston. They were in it for a bit in 2018, not so much in 2019, and both times ended up watching the Bruins celebrate in TD Gardens before shaking their hands and heading home for the summer, again bounced in the first round. A rough end, but not enough time to dwell. We as fans put a lot of emphasis on game sevens and the immensity of them, but at their essence, they are just one game, and one game in the NHL can swing either way on any given night. You had a chance, it didn’t go your way.
Which leads us here. To today. As mentioned above, this Leafs season has not been the enjoyable romp we were promised. The team has been hit with a slew of injuries and while the goaltending has once again been consistent, it’s been consistently godawful. Prior to this season, there was a larger margin for error. Break down defensively? Andersen will bail them out. One line not going? Send out the next overpowered group and they’ll pick up the slack. Depth scoring? You got it. Drop a game late? Doesn’t matter, you were never catching Boston, and Florida/Buffalo/Montreal were never catching you. This year has been a complete 180. Any slightly dangerous chance is going in. Matthews having a quiet night? John Tavares is dealing with the recovery of a broken hand while his primary winger is on the IR. The depth scoring has been non-existent. While Boston and Tampa have completely pulled away once again, there’s a hungry Florida team nipping on the heels of the Maple Leafs. A team that spent the last three years with nothing standing in their way have suddenly seen the pendulum swing the complete opposite way. After three solid seasons with no adversity, all the adversity in the world has been dropped at their feet, and they must learn quickly how to overcome it.
And this surely is not easy for such a young team. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner likely have not had too many nights where their skills alone weren’t enough to turn game in their favor. William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen are sons of former NHLers, and have been surrounded by hockey their entire lives. Hell, even Zach Hyman, the poster child of hard nose, blue collar hockey, was raised by a man so rich that he bought entire leagues for his son to play in and hone his craft. For the first time in his Leaf’s tenure, Frederik Andersen hasn’t been a consistent .918. These are strange waters for this team, and while it’s easy to point fingers and scream about how they just can’t overcome adversity, this team also hasn’t had much adversity to overcome. This is where they prove to not only to the fans, coaching staff, and management group that they have what it takes to overcome this, but prove to themselves that they are the resilient group they claim to be.
I write this not as a means to hand wave away the issues, but to put some perspective. This team is as skilled as any in the league, but find themselves in a precarious position for the first time in the post tank era. After some carefree years before, nothing is promised this time around.
Following a miserable game Tuesday night, the Leafs rebounded nicely and played arguably their most dominant game in the last few seasons on Thursday against the same Pittsburgh Penguins who embarrassed them two nights prior. Auston Matthews silenced Sidney Crosby. Kasperi Kapanen was more engaged than he’s been in a long time. The defense was stifling. Frederik Andersen got the shutout. It was the perfect response game.
There’s still a long road ahead to prove that this team has what it takes. This is new territory for the Leafs, but before we decide that the sky has fallen and that this team simply can not handle adversity and must be reevaluated, gutted, and rebuilt, they are owed a chance to prove they can battle back.